My guide Kuldip had suitably warned me even before we had reached Hodka to watch out for little children who will mesmerise you with their charming ways and lead you into their houses and then pester you to buy their wares. Never mind Kuldip’s warning: the minute we step out of his car under the hot afternoon sun, Kavita, a girl of about six comes up to me and starts chatting me up. Dressed like a village princess in a gorgeous pink long blouse and skirt and beautiful silver jewellery, she flashes a million dollar smile and in no time I was sitting with her mother and siblings, in their traditional mud hut or bhunga looking through their creations.
Part of the Thar desert, Kutch is a vast salt marsh. In the dry season, the land is parched and cracked, and in the monsoons, large tracts are submerged under sea water and then fresh water. The high levels of salt in the ground have resulted in a barren landscape except for parts of banni grasslands that provide valuable fodder for cattle. Over the years, the people who inhabit this area have adapted themselves to survive in this unique and fragile ecosystem. Different nomadic and pastoral communities coexist together bound by their deep love and respect for the land, and a rich tradition of crafts.
In Hodka, Kavita and her siblings help their mother with embroidery and beadwork, a skill that has been passed down generations. While the men are away grazing cattle, the women and children of the village make hair accessories, kanjris or long blouses and quilts.
|Kavita with her siblings|
In the same village, men of the Meghwal community produce leather goods. The availability of leather and the need for harnesses for horses and camels, and footwear, led to the development of leather craft in Kutch. Almost entirely handmade, leather products such as mirrors, mobile cases and shoes, have an impeccable finish.
Every village we visit over a period of two days welcomes us with warmth and almost every house we visit offers us chai in a saucer — a Kutchi trademark. As we sit on a charpoy sipping milky sweet chai, we hear melodious tinkling of cattle bells in the distance. Tied around the neck of cattle, the bells help the herders keep track of their cattle. A thousand years old, this craft is believed to have originated in Sindh, Pakistan. Today the Lohars of Nirona village in Kutch, make ghantadis or bells in thirteen different sizes and each has a distinguishable sound. Made from metal scrap that is painstakingly beaten into shape, the different parts are joined together by hand without any welding. Made of iron, the bells are then coated with copper.
But possibly the most well-known family of Nirona are the Khatris who practice Rogan art. Until a few years ago, families across villages of Nirona, Khavda and Chaubari used to practice this art form, believed to have originated in Persia, but today only the Gafoorbhai Khatri household keeps this art form alive.
|Sumarbhai Khatri demonstrating Rogan Art|
Rogan is a thick residue that is produced by heating castor oil for over 12 hours and then casting it in cold water. This residue, when mixed with natural colours, forms a paint-like substance. As we watch, Sumarbhai Khatri dips a 6-inch wood stick into the paint and draws out a fine thread of paint and begins to effortlessly create designs on the piece of cloth he holds in one hand. Rogan painted cloth is used to make saris, file holders, table cloths, skirts, bags, bed covers and decorative pieces. The finished products are so perfect that often they are mistaken to be printed rather than hand painted. Recently Rogan art was in the spotlight as Prime Minister Narendra Modi presented President Barack Obama with a Rogan painting on his maiden visit to the White House.
|Ajrakh fabric put out to dry|
Wider publicity and growing demand are also helping crafts like Ajrakh printing, an art form that traces its roots to the 16th century in Sindh, Pakistan. Located in one corner of Khavda village, we visit the workshop of the Khatri household. Seven generations of the family have been practicing this craft, which is almost entirely male dominated. Ajrakh or “aaj ke din rakh”, which translates into ‘keep it today’, involves hand printing fabric and then dyeing it using natural colours over a 14-16 step process. Complex geometric and floral patterns are painstakingly printed on both sides of the cloth, requiring high degree of skill and patience. The true test of a good quality Ajrakh cloth apart from its printing finesse is that the colours don’t run when washed. Ajrakh printed lungis, turbans and shoulder cloths are mostly used by Muslim cattle herders across Kutch.
But it was another hand crafted creation that drew to me to Kutch in the first place, and it has nothing to do with fabric. As a design student my sister had lived with the Kumbhars, a family of potters in Khavda over a decade ago. It was through her that I was introduced to the beautiful hand painted pottery that the Kumbhar family create.
As soon as we meet, Saraben the matriarch of the family, instantly embraces me in a warm big hug. A National Award-winning potter, Saraben is involved in all stages of the process, which is otherwise largely male-dominated. Children of all ages surround Saraben and her husband as they work in a small shed outside their house, observing and learning. The Kumbhars produce a variety of objects from both white and black clay. Once dry, the objects are hand painted using wooden brushes with natural colours made from pigments.
|Saraben working her magic|
Over the two days that I spent in the villages of Kutch I saw a variety of crafts, but more than the wonderful creations that I saw, it is the people and their stories that will stay with me forever. Their warmth, simplicity and humility is unlike anything I have experienced before!
I visited the villages with Kuldeep Kolhi who runs a travel company based in Bhuj. A local, Kuldeep knows the place and her people like none other. You can contact him on +91 9327054172 or email him at email@example.com
This piece appeared in the Leisure section of the Sunday Mumbai Mirror as Generous To A Salt, dated 17th April 2016. Read it online here.