Rivers have played a vital role in creating; sustaining and promoting ethnic cultures in the small towns and villages they flow along.

As part of the UK India Year of Culture, UK and India-based artists have been working together to produce ten large silk flags, during a residential workshop in Murshidabad, as part of the Silk River project, which celebrates the unique relationship between communities along the Thames in the UK and the Hooghly in West Bengal.

Tagore has created beautiful lyrics for songs that dwell on different aspects of the river. One among them goes, Ogo Nodi Apon Begey Pagol Para that translates roughly as, “Oh Dear River, that flows on its own volition, wildly….” Or, that immortal song belted out by the late Hemanta Mukhopadhyay for the film Siddharthathat went, O Nodirey, Ekti Kotha Shudhai Shudhu Tomarey (Oh My Dear River, I just want to ask you one question….).

There is no end to the songs and poems, stories and lyrics that have been created around the river as a physical reality of our environment and as a metaphor for the endless flow of life and love. But most importantly, it is as an agency for the sustenance of traditional arts and crafts in cities and small towns.

As part of a year-long programme marking the 70th anniversary of Indian independence and the cultural relationship with the UK, Kinetika has created Silk River, an ambitious project, which explores the unique relationship between London and Kolkata through artistic exchange between communities along the Thames Estuary and Hooghly River.

Ali Pretty, Kinetika’s artistic director, is collaborating with associate artistic director Ruchira Das (Think Arts, India) and an international team of artists, writers and photographers to capture and interpret the experience of journeying along the two mighty rivers. Working together, they will gather, share and retell stories of such riparian communities by representing them onto 20 hand-painted Murshidabad silk scrolls.

“Silk River involves organisations in UK and West Bengal who work in heritage, culture, craft, tourism and education. We are delighted that this exciting project is part of the UK India Year of Culture, which seeks to showcase innovative and creative work from both countries, building deeper connections between communities,” says Debanjan Chakrabarti, director, British Council East and North-east India.

Pretty will be attending the launch at Buckingham Palace and is delighted that Silk River is part of this prestigious celebratory year, “It was my first visit to India in 1984 that inspired me to work in the arts, using them as a tool for social change and community development. Silk River will build on my experience over the last 30 years by bringing together communities from the UK and India for a meaningful exchange of stories and ideas.”

Across 2017, top UK business and arts institutions will partner with their Indian counterparts to strengthen cultural and economic ties between the two nations, and showcase British and Indian creativity on the global stage.

The Murshidabad district of West Bengal is well-known for producing quality silk. The history of silk weaving in this region goes back to the early 18th century during the Mughal rule in India, when the Nawab of Bengal, Murshidkuli Khan, shifted his capital from Dhaka (in present day Bangladesh) to a town on the east of the Bhagirathi river, and named it Murshidabad after himself.

The Nawab brought with him from Dhaka, the famous art of baluchari weaving, which consisted of weaving elaborate themes depicting the lives of the nawabs on silk sarees.

The art was patronised by the Mughals, and continued to flourish during the earlier part of the British rule in India. Then a flooding of the Bhagirathi river in the 19th century caused the baluchari weaving trade to shift from Murshidabad to Bishnupur (in the Bankura district of West Bengal).

Today, Murshidabad continues to be home to some of the important silk weaving clusters in the state producing fine silk sarees, shirts and plain silk fabric. Government initiatives are afoot to support handloom weavers and help make them more competitive relative to other silk producing regions in India.

The silk sarees from Murshidabad are fine, light-weight and easy to drape. They are adorned with a variety of printed designs, both modern and traditional, and are good for formal as well as casual wear. Batik-painted designs are also popular on these sarees.

A special type of silk saree from Murshidabad is the garad saree — fine, white or off-white sarees with a plain body and simple coloured borders. A film, directed by Steve Shaw, which documents the work of a team of UK artists working with a team of Indian artists to produce 10 large silk flags during a residential workshop in Murshidabad, was screened at Nandan III recently. The Kolkata flags were on display at the event.

The film detailed the minutest features of the project with workers and trainees talking of the wonderful experience they had during the workshops. Pretty says, “Silk River transposes Kinetika’s walking, talking and making model to an international context for the first time – a tool for reimagining the relationship between India and the UK and changing our perception of our place in the world. I am excited to collaborate with a team of talented artists and producers from both countries to create new artworks on Bengali silk and connecting thousands of people through what promises to be an extraordinary journey.”

Among other organisations that have come forward join this ambitious venture with long-term aims and aspirations are — Think Arts, Rural Crafts and Cultural Hubs West Bengal; Co-ordinated by Banglanatak on behalf of the Government of West Bengal, Unesco, Crafts Council of India (West Bengal), Murshidabad Heritage Development Society and the British Council. Silk River will culminate in two performative walks — along the Thames from 15 to 24 September and along the Hooghly from 6-17 December.

Those interested can participate in a unique 12-day International Residency that has been created especially for the Silk River project. One is free to join a group of contemporary artists, historians, writers and musicians from UK and India, where one can engage in the following interactions and events:

Engage with local artisans and communities along the way

Participate in curated events comprising of talks, workshops and film screenings

Exchange skills with each other

Have the opportunity to create an artistic response, either individually or collectively.

Traversing a journey from Azimganj, Murshidabad to Botanic G