Sarah's (our design director) Journey in India
Hi, I’m Sarah Eastep. I’m the Design Director at Matr Boomie, and recently I took a trip to India to visit our team there and some of the artisans that we work with, as well as to source new products and get inspiration. This was my first time visiting India. It is a beautiful, vibrant country, and you don’t have to be a designer to appreciate the beauty everywhere there–from the hand-painted designs and lettering on the trucks and tuk-tuks, to the grand architecture of the deservedly famous monuments. There are many handicrafts for which India is known, and each region seems to have its own specialty, passed down through generations. I visited in March, but as I write this summary I’m already nostalgic for India–the people, art, history, handcrafts, and of course the food. I felt extremely blessed to visit, and I’m sharing a little bit about my trip here.
Day 1 - Delhi: Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, Humayun’s Tomb, Qutub Minar
My first day in Delhi was a solo sightseeing day. I had a driver who picked me up from the hotel and took me everywhere I wanted to go.
The first stop was Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, a Sikh house of worship. It is made of white marble, topped with gold domed roofs, and inlaid everywhere with semi-precious stones. Because it is a holy place, visitors must cover their heads, and I had a scarf tucked into my bag for this purpose. I started at the foreign visitor’s center, where I met a female guide who took me on a tour. This place is absolutely stunning, both in its physical beauty and in the obvious reverence of the people worshiping there. But arguably the most special thing about it is the kitchen, which serves thousands of people every day of the year, free of charge. No one is turned away without food. My guide told me that they never stopped feeding people, even during the height of pandemic, because serving and feeding others is so important in Sikh culture. It was humbling and inspiring.
Next, we went to Humayun’s Tomb. It is kind of like a mini Taj Mahal (in fact, it’s said to be the reference for the Taj). This is where I learned something that I would find useful later when I visited the actual Taj. There is a special moment when you pass through the gate, which is small, enclosed, and dark, where you first see the large, castle-like tomb in the bright light of day, through an arched doorway. The contrast is sudden and beautiful–it is almost unreal. The designers of this place clearly took care to make a breathtaking moment right from the start.
Another thing I learned at the tomb is that Westerners are a novelty to Indians. I’ve never been asked by a stranger for a selfie together before; on this trip, I was asked too many times to count. “Miss, selfie?” was a phrase I heard constantly. Everyone who approached me was very friendly and I obliged in most cases; my only regret is not asking for my own selfie with them in return. I’ll never know how many random family vacation photos include a shot of me, awkwardly smiling in the sunshine.
Day 2 and 3 - Delhi: Trade Show
On the morning of my second day, Rashmi met me at the hotel. Rashmi is the sister of Manish, the CEO and founder of Matr Boomie. She is the head of the team in India. I have worked with Rashmi for four years now, but only over email. This was my first time meeting her in person. She is warm, friendly, smart, and funny. You can tell she genuinely cares about each of the artisans she works with, and about helping them create opportunities for themselves and their families. We went to the trade show together to see trends in the market, new products and techniques, and to potentially meet new artisan groups to work with. It’s a big show, so we spread it out over two days.
We had timed this trip around the show, but it was only one part of the purpose of the trip. In the days to follow, we would visit artisans and the India team, and I would do some sightseeing in this beautiful country.
Day 4 - Delhi: Jewelry artisans and the handmade craft market
I was really excited to visit the jewelry artisans. Before coming to Matr Boomie, my background was in jewelry design, and jewelry is still/will always be a passion for me. The jewelry artisans’ workshop is in a very busy area of Delhi. Our driver dropped us off on the main street, and then the master artisan met us and led us to the studio on foot. We walked through small, very busy alleys, packed with people and zipping cars, mopeds, and tuk tuks (the green and yellow three-wheeled rickshaws that are everywhere in India). We climbed a narrow set of stairs to the workshop, where I met the team. I got the chance to look through old samples, components, and materials–a jewelry designer’s dream. We shared tea and homemade sevaya kheer, a dessert made with vermicelli, milk, pistachios, raisins, and cardamom. It’s cooling and just the right amount of sweet.
After we left the jewelry artisans, Rashmi and I went for lunch at a place nearby that specializes in dosas. I have had dosas before, but honestly, I’ve never felt like I’ve known if I was eating them correctly, and clearly I wasn’t. We had a good laugh at my technique, as I attempted to eat it with a knife and fork. Rashmi told me “it will take you forever to eat it like that,” and showed me how to do it correctly (with my hands).
In the afternoon, we visited the handmade crafts market in India. Again, Rashmi’s connection with the community was clear as many of the vendors knew her and were happy to visit with her. We looked at textiles, jewelry, and ceramics, and we each bought a few things for ourselves. In India, street vendors serve chai in raw terracotta cups.The unfinished terracotta adds something to the flavor of the tea–Rashmi said it was like petrichor, that smell right before a rainstorm, and I feel like that’s the best description. The cups are meant to be used once; since they’re not sealed, they can’t be washed and re-used, but I kept mine and I still have it.
Day 5 - Agra: Taj Mahal
Of course, I couldn’t be this close to the Taj Mahal and not visit it. Rashmi had a meeting the next day, so we split up and I headed to Agra. I planned to visit the Taj in the early evening, so I checked into the hotel and relaxed for a little while, and then the driver picked me up and drove me there. Walking up to the gate, I was approached by many people offering to be my guide, but one was especially persistent, so I asked his rate and to see his license (tour guides at monuments in India must have a license from the government), and I agreed to use his services. This turned out to be a great decision. He was extremely knowledgeable about the monument and its history, but he was also an excellent photographer. As I mentioned before, after seeing the entry to Humayan’s Tomb, I was expecting an even grander version of this entrance at the Taj, and I wasn’t disappointed. I made a video of this moment because I wanted to share it with everyone back home. I wanted my parents to see it. It doesn’t feel like enough to say how beautiful it was. I will just show you.
As I mentioned, my tour guide was an excellent photographer. I got really lucky.
Day 6 - Jaipur: Stepwell, Monkey Temple, Sisodia Rani Bagh
There are several points of interest on the drive to Jaipur. Up first was the stepwell, Chand Baori. It’s hidden along a main road in a village outside Jaipur. It’s strange to say that something so large is hidden, but there’s really almost no evidence of it from the street. You pass through a gated entry and walk along a path through a garden, give your ticket to a guard, and then you’re transported through time. The stepwell is a massive structure, created as a source of water from the ground below. People could descend the stairs as far as needed, depending on the water level.
Next to the stepwell is the Harshat Mata Temple, dedicated to a goddess of the same name, who is said to be the goddess of happiness and joy. The temple is still active and one of the devotees of Harshat Mata was there. I gave a small offering and he gave me some sugar crystals to eat, and tied around my wrist a moli dhaga, the red and yellow cord bracelet used in Hindu religious ceremonies. It’s still on my wrist and will remain there until it falls off on its own.
Next was Galtaji Temple, more commonly known as the “monkey temple,” for obvious reasons. I should start by saying that, like presumably every American who visits India, I was surprised and delighted at seeing monkeys in the wild. Everyone tells you about them before you visit, and none of it prepares you for seeing them in real life. If you are riding in a car for any length of time, all you have to do is look out the window once, and you will see one.
The smaller monkeys are cute, but the larger ones are…larger than you expect them to be. They’re all smart, and they know that humans might have things they want, so the tourist attractions have signs up telling you to watch your belongings around them and avoid eye contact. The monkey temple is astounding, but I didn’t stay very long.
When I returned to the car, I think the driver could tell that I was a little intimidated by the wildlife, so next he took me to Sisodia Rani, a palace and walled garden nearby. It was calming and quiet, a much-appreciated change of pace.
Day 7 - Jaipur: Amer Fort, City Palace
Many people had asked me if I planned to ride an elephant on this trip, and each time, I said I didn’t. I have vague memories of an “elephant ride” at a zoo when I was a child–it was not something I felt like I needed to recreate as an adult. But as we neared the Amer Fort, in the distance, I could see the parade of decorated elephants moving up the hill towards the breathtaking palace, and I knew this was something I couldn’t miss.
Amer Fort is a sandstone and marble palace on a hill. It was built in the 1500s as a home for the maharajas and their families. The driver dropped me off near the entrance of the fort, and I was surrounded by people asking me if I wanted to buy a souvenir, or needed a guide. I said yes to the latter. I told him I wanted to ride an elephant, and I was whisked up some stairs to a small elevated platform, level with the back of an elephant waiting below. The seat on the elephant’s back was little more than a board, just about large enough for two adults to sit. It was covered in blankets and had a metal railing about a foot tall around three sides, and then a metal bar that closed the other side once the rider was seated. I think I was expecting some sort of instructions, but suddenly the elephant started to move. Elephants, of course, are tall, and we were moving through elephant “traffic” in both directions. I decided I would feel more comfortable facing forward, so I quickly readjusted and sat cross-legged in the seat. The elephant driver was very kind and was telling me a lot about the elephant, her name and age, etc, but honestly I don’t remember much of what he said because I was having a mental talk with myself about how I needed to relax and enjoy this experience. And after a few minutes, I did. The ride is not long–about 30 minutes, though it seems faster–but during that time I was transfixed. The view from high atop an elephant’s back as we slowly climbed a hill was both terrifying and stunning. It was the perfect day for this, overcast and gray–though I’m sure the many vendors selling umbrellas and hats and various items meant to protect from a harsh sun would disagree with my assessment of the weather.
As we rode along, I looked down at the valley and the breathtaking gardens and lake below, the surrounding mountains thinly veiled in mist, the massive palace we were approaching, and the centuries-old path we were climbing to get there. It was overwhelming. I wanted to cry and laugh at the same time.
I finally relaxed enough to take some photos and videos to remember this experience (as if I could ever forget it). In my selfies, I think the mixture of thrill and terror really comes across; you can see the death grip I have on the side of the carriage as clearly as you can see my smile.
My guide met me at the top after the ride. He was very informative and I learned so much about the palace. I got to look through the intricately latticed windows, where queens, shielded from view, once observed the goings-on in the courtyard below. I saw the maze of rooms where the king avoided family drama by visiting the chambers of each of his 12 queens through separate staircases connected to his own, so that none of them could know when he met with another. The guide also showed me the mirrored hall, second only in size to the one in Versailles.
After the tour, my guide walked me back down the hill. We had a good conversation, talking about his experience as a tour guide, and about my trip to India. Along the way, many vendors approached me to try and sell their wares, handcrafted goods from surrounding villages. At one point, my tour guide said something to one of them in Hindi, and the man left.
“I told him,” he said to me.
“Told him what?”
“I told him you work for a company that sells Indian handicrafts, so don’t bother.”
We both laughed.
After Amer, my driver took me to City Palace. He parked in the lot under the shade trees and pointed out the entrance to me, across the road from where we were. I crossed many busy streets when I lived in NYC, but nothing like this. Jaipuris are very brave and sure of themselves when they cross a street, and I was neither, but I did it anyway.
There is a beautiful restaurant, Baraduri, tucked in the walls of the pink city, and I again took advantage of the cloudy day to enjoy a lunch break in their courtyard. It was a little early so there was no wait, and I had a leisurely lunch of pumpkin soup and treated myself to a crème brulée. Afterwards, I think I explored every inch of the palace, taking selfies framed by the pink walls as I went. I admired the rich textiles, the paintings of the Maharajas throughout history, and the Gangajali, a pair of massive water urns. They were created to transport holy water, and are the largest silver vessels in the world.
Day 8: Jaipur: SETU, Women’s center
On the 8th day, it was time to meet the rest of the India team and tour their offices. I met Prachi and Saloni, who are sort of like the counterparts in India to the Austin design team. I, and the rest of the Austin team, work with them and all of the India team virtually every day, but getting to work with them in person was great. I was able to tour the facility and see how each of our pieces are received, quality checked by hand, and then packed up and shipped to us. We work with many different artisan groups throughout India, and this is the central point where they all arrive before they are shipped to the US. On a normal day, the team in India and our team in Austin ask each other questions over email, but we were able to talk through some issues and resolve some questions on the spot. It made me wish there was some way to transport there every day.
Rashmi then took me to the women’s center, which is an important project that our team there sponsors. Here, the women make handcrafts using upcycled textiles, including sari. They macrame and do some simple stitching. It’s a cool, calming space, with a friendly energy among the women and their children–who they are allowed to bring with them, so that they don’t have to worry about childcare. These women would likely not have work otherwise, and this gives them the means to help support themselves and their families. There is a tutor at the center; she teaches the women computer skills and helps the older children with their homework while their mothers are working. I really got the sense that this project is extremely important to the community, and it was really rewarding to see the contributions that our products are making.
Day 9: Blue pottery, street food, dinner with Rashmi and Devendra
On Day 9, Rashmi, Prachi, Saloni, and I took a day trip to visit the blue pottery artisans. Blue pottery is an ancient craft that is a part of Jaipur’s history. It’s a type of ceramic that is usually decorated with a traditional style, with ornamental elements, flora, and fauna, although the artisans also sometimes create newer, modern designs as well. The artisan’s workshop is very rural, on the outskirts of the city, and we drove over rocky, unpaved roads to get there. It is run by a family–the father is the master artisan, and his sons and daughters-in-law help with the family business. One son in particular was a skilled artist. I watched him quickly and perfectly freehand intricate designs; it was mesmerizing to watch him work.
That day, they were working on production of our Lalita Baby Turtle planter, and I was able to see part of the process of creating it. I watched as the artisan pulled the ceramic clay out of the turtle-shaped mold and hand applied the base of it, wetting his fingers to seal the two pieces together. In the open courtyard, near where the family cow relaxed, we saw the kilns, with pottery pieces stacked up almost ready for glazing, and Prachi and I played with a tiny puppy who was very interested in our tour.
We also got to explore the archives of pieces the artisans had created in the past, shelves filled with traditional shapes and patterns alongside some one-of-a-kind showpieces–I was particularly impressed with a beautiful large serving dish painted with the image of a goddess, and a bowl painted with a corgi, his smiling face adorably rendered in Rajasthani style.
The artisans showed us their progress on some incense holders they are creating for our line, and together we brainstormed construction ideas to help keep the incense sticks stand upright (I have since seen the finished dishes; besides being beautiful, they work perfectly and I’m excited for them to launch in our line).
Then the artisans said that Prachi, Saloni, and I could try our hand at painting. They gave me one of our Lalita Bird Succulent planters, unpainted, and one of their handmade brushes–these are created with discarded animal fur and the quills of found bird feathers, tucked into the empty casing of a ballpoint pen. The paint appears black as you work, but dries to that rich cobalt blue for which Jaipur pottery is known. It was somewhat intimidating to improvise a freehand design, especially in the presence of the master artisans (who were also filming us). But I was really excited for the opportunity and enjoyed the challenge. We all laughed together when one of my fingers smudged the paint on my little bird, and the artisan called out “rejection!” in English. Rashmi told me that the artisans complimented my method of holding the piece and the brush as I worked, which was kind (and generous). They later fired and glazed my little bird and mailed it to me, and now it sits on a shelf in my home.
On the way back into the city, we stopped for lunch. I was excited to try any and all traditional Indian food, and Rashmi thought I should experience chaat, which is a term for street food. My favorite was panipuri, a small, hollow, puffed round ball, made of the thinnest flatbread. You use your fingers to crack open a hole in the top, which creates a little bowl that you then fill with mint-coriander and tamarind water and a mix of potatoes and lentils. I got another shot at a dosa, and Rashmi filmed me eating it the correct way, sans fork and knife.
Next, we visited the artisans who make some of our bells. These are the bells you see in our line–they’re formed by soldering thick wire together in different shapes, and they are some of the most popular items in our line. Some are formed by hand, and some more complicated shapes are made using custom dies and a large metal press. We got to see the artisans working on a large bell order for one of our private label customers.
Back at the office, I got to try a lassi. It’s perfectly chilled, creamy, rich, and sweet, and spiced with cardamom. Like the chai from the street vendors, it’s served in a terracotta cup that adds something to the flavor (as well as keeping it cool), and it comes with a wooden spoon with which to eat the layer of cream that rises to the top. It’s nothing like what we call lassi in the US, and mango isn’t involved.
Later that evening, Rashmi and Devendra invited me to dinner at their home. Their house is beautiful–tall ceilings, rich wood trim around the windows and doors, and a painted mural, commissioned from a friend, that adorns the sitting room in shades of sage green, blush, and gold. We ate dishes that Rashmi called Indian Chinese and Indian Italian, and some spicy okra from their garden. Everything was delicious. It was great visiting with them, laughing and sharing stories. As I mentioned, we work together online every day, but it is a different experience getting to know someone in person, and I’m thankful for it.
After dinner, Rashmi and Devendra took me to a sweet shop near their home. The shop was brightly lit and filled with customers–definitely a sign of good things to come. There were long cases filled with colorful candies and pastries, all of which looked appealing, though none were familiar to me. After some discussion on what I should try, I went with a silver-topped coconut sweet with a texture kind of like a lemon bar, and a rose petal laddu, both of which were as tasty as they were good-looking.
Day 10 - Paper crafts, meeting Jyoti and Viabhav
On my last day in India, I met with Jyoti and her husband, Viabhav. Jyoti is also a sister of Rashmi and Manish, and her team creates beautiful handcrafted paper items and leatherwork. Jyoti picked me up from my hotel in the morning, so I could see the process used to create our tree-free cotton paper and meet the artisans. I was fascinated by this process. Textiles are a huge industry in India, and the paper artisans start with cotton scraps collected from textile factories. The scraps are cut into small pieces, and mixed with water to make a slurry. Then two people scoop the mixture onto a giant screen, filtering out the water and creating one large paper sheet. The sheets are then stacked, separated by layers of cheesecloth, and put into a giant press to wring out all the water. Then, they are separated and hung to dry. I knew that our paper is 100% recycled, but seeing the process of making it was fascinating–it’s not that it doesn’t create waste, it’s that it actually uses products that have been discarded and makes them into something beautiful.
Back at the office, we had tea and homemade kachori, a fried pastry with an onion filling. I’m still thinking about that snack. So good.
Next, Jyoti and Viabhav gave me a tour of the areas where the paper and leather are made into journals, cards, gifts, gift wrap, and other goods. I got to see many of the processes–sewing together our garlands, hand-stitching the bindings of the journals, pressing designs into leather using metal dies, folding paper into gift bags, and more. I got to look through their archives of beautiful hand-printed paper designs.
It was really fun to watch the entire process of one of our journals being made–a tree of life design that will be in the next launch–from screenprinting the cover by hand, to folding it together with the pages, stitching it closed, and trimming the edges, and I was able to take the finished product back with me. In fact, the one you will see in our marketing images is the same one I was given right off the presses.
For dinner, Jyoti and Viabhav took me to Shikar Bagh. It’s breathtaking. It is a restaurant next to the Niwas Palace, a luxury hotel that was once the summer home of a royal family. The restaurant is two levels, with a large second story terrace overlooking landscaped gardens. The furnishings are luxurious, and the whole place is magical at night, with vines and twinkling string lights climbing up to the canvas-covered terrace. We were seated there, since it was starting to rain just a little, in a corner spot that gave us an excellent view of the gardens. We ordered a mix of things to share from their menu, and everything was delicious. After dinner, Viabhav took our photo in the Palladio Bar, the extremely instagrammable location next door to the restaurant. It was a perfect night, and a perfect way to end the trip.