At the time of his wedding in 1983, Meerut native Ram “Danny” Mehra was gifted two carpets by his mother-in-law. They were run-of-the-mill Persian carpets with Caucasian designs, the type one could easily find in a store, yet they sparked off a lifelong obsession in him. By his own reckoning, Mehra is now one of roughly 200 people around the world who collect tribal carpets.

Mehra’s wife Renuka calls his collection his mid-life crisis, but the Bengaluru resident is now taking it around India in an exhibition that he calls Carpet Stories. His maiden show was in Bengaluru in 2012 and he has had a show at the India International Centre in Delhi in 2016. The show in Kolkata ends on January 7.

But what makes an exhibition of carpets special? “When we think of carpets, we tend to think of Kashmiri or Persian carpets,” said Mehra. “These are formal carpets, [which are] mass manufactured for commercial purposes. But my collection consists entirely of tribal carpets. These are made by women from nomadic tribes, for home use.”

Imperfect beauty

Tribal carpets tend to be more whimsical, abstract and are often a form of personal expression. While they started out purely as functional pieces – to protect the people inside the tent from the damp cold ground, for example – these carpets evolved eventually into works of art. They were woven to mark births, deaths or major events, and these stories are often told through pictures and iconography. Over time, they came to be used as curtains, horse and donkey saddle covers and even bags to carry food and salt. There is even a traditional sleeping bag in the exhibition, with one half of what looks like a carpet going under the person and the other going over.

The primary material used to make these carpets was wool, which nomadic communities had easy access to, because they raised sheep, and cotton and silk were rarely used. While some carpets were preserved as family heirlooms, some were sold to raise money for the weaver’s family. Mehra’s carpets have been sourced from the countries along the Silk Route and he divides them roughly into five regions – Iran or Persia, Anatolia in Turkey, the Caucasus, consisting of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Dagestan, Central Asia, consisting of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, and the Kurdish enclaves in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Armenia and Turkey.

A long history

The earliest recorded references to nomadic tribes living in Central Asia and the Eurasian Steppe, come from the 8th century in the writings of Greek historian Herodotus. The Greeks called these Nomadic people Scythians. The Persians gave them the name Saka (from where India gets her Saka era). The oldest surviving pile-woven carpet, the Pazyryk carpet, was discovered inside a Scythian tomb in 1949 and is thought to have been made around the 5th century BCE.

The precursor to the Silk Road, the Steppe Route, passed through areas inhabited by the Scythians, who would enforce tariffs on traders passing through their lands. What is now known as the Silk Road owes its existence largely to Chinese diplomat Zhang Qian, whose explorations opened up China to Central Asia and Europe. As trade along the road increased, it helped to sustain the nomadic tribes, since few traders would traverse the entire length of the route and goods would change hands multiple times before reaching their final destination. While the nomads were primarily herding communities, they functioned also as guides along the most dangerous parts of the route and provided support in the form of local knowledge.

The name “Silk Road” was given to this route in 1877 by German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, since silk was the most important commodity being traded through the route. But from the 19th century, the nomadic way of life started going into decline. The process was accelerated by government policies such as Stalin’s forced collectivisation, war and famine.

An important archive

With the end of nomadic way of life, tribal carpet weaving also came to an end. Collectors, says Mehra, are therefore curators and custodians of a part of the world’s history, preserving markers from a way of life that is now gone. The one trait that all the carpets in Mehra’s collection share is their imperfect nature. Part of this comes from the small, portable looms that tribal women were using. While they made it easy to keep moving, the downside was that the carpets and rugs they produced were rarely ever straight. Then there are the sudden changes.

Mehra points to one carpet which has a pattern which abruptly changes a third of the way through – “[The weaver] probably realised she wouldn’t be able to sustain it. So she just changed it. It wasn’t a big deal, since it was only going to be used at home.” Imperfections and inconsistencies are also caused by the nature of the materials being used, including the organic dyes, which are rarely ever exactly the same from batch to batch. But it is this “perfect imperfection” that attracts Mehra, since it sets his collection apart from commercial carpets.

There are rescue stories too, such as that of the severely damaged Tibetan carpet, which Mehra found in a monastery and then mounted on a piece of linen to prevent it from falling apart. Or the carpet that gave off a very strong animal smell which just wouldn’t go away. “Then someone suggested washing it with vinegar and that worked like magic, which is a good thing because vinegar also fixes the colour,” he said. With Carpet Stories, Mehra also breaks a rule of most exhibitions and allows visitors to touch the exhibits – “Carpets love being touched. The oils from our hands help preserve the colour.”

All photographs by Deepanjan Ghosh.