Kutch, a district in Gujarat, the Westernmost state of India, is known for its white desert, rich history, rustic beauty and vibrant art. Inhabited by nomads and tribal communities the villages have a treasure trove of delights with a riot of colours, textures and ornamentation. They are a must-visit for culture and art aficionados. Seeped in antiquity these traditional handcrafted products are not just great collectables, but also provide a glimpse of the region’s rich culture and topography. Did you know that some of these handcrafted techniques and designs date back to the Indus Valley civilization? On our week-long visit to Kutch during the Rann Utsav, my daughter and I had set aside two days exclusively to visit the Kutch villages. Join us on a handicraft trail to explore the best of Kutch handicrafts and witness their making as artisans painstakingly demonstrate their art.
After a hearty breakfast, we set off from Bhuj, to explore the handicraft villages and watch the artists up close. Our driver Arjunji well versed with the area drove us comfortably on roads that were in excellent condition. Since the villages were en route the Rann Utsav Tent City, we saw banners and signposts welcoming tourists.
We visited Kala Raksha at Sumrasar village located25 km from Bhuj. It is a social enterprise engaged in hand embroidery preservation. After the catastrophic earthquake of 2001, this NGO had worked with the local artists. It became a saviour providing them with a livelihood in exchange of artwork. More than 40 embroidery styles like Suff, Khareek, Paako, Rabari, Mutava have been researched and preserved in their museum. These styles are not only from Kutch in India but from neighbouring countries like Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and so on.
Women artisans are ingenious with needle and thread. They don’t trace patterns on fabric but count the warp and weft to create intricate designs. They only work for two hours a day. It takes weeks to months to complete each piece requiring immense perseverance and concentration. They have an outlet from where you can pick exclusive products. The traditional embroidery is contemporized to suit modern sensibilities and tastes.
Ever since Narendra Modi gifted a Rogan painting to former U.S President Barack Obama, a quaint village in Kutch has gained international recognition. Nirona village is known for its Rogan art, copper bells and lacquer making. Gafoorbhai Khatri and his family have been instrumental in preserving this 300-year-old Rogan art which resembles embroidery. We watched with rapt attention as a Khatri family member demonstrated this art. Mixing castor oil with natural dyes and using a metal stick instead of a paintbrush to make intricate designs on fabric. Peacocks, floral motifs, Tree of Life frequently feature in Rogan art.
Artisans from the Lohar community demonstrate the making of copper bells without the need for welding and soldering. In less than ten minutes, a rectangular scrap metal sheet, after some beating and banging, was transformed into a bell having a distinct pitch and note. Soon musical notes of ‘Sa Re Ga Ma Pa’ floated in the workshop. Traditionally these bells are tied around the necks of cattle by the herders to keep track of them. They have now been creatively used to make wind chimes, doorbells and other artefacts.
Most of us are familiar with the lac or lacquer, used to make churis or bangles. The Vadha Community of Nirona uses lacquer, obtained from insect resin, to adorn dandiya sticks, spoons, spatulas, rolling pins and toys. The heat generated from the hand turning of a lathe melts the lacquer on wooden products creating psychedelic designs or patterns. No sooner did we finish watching the artist that a group of women displayed their wares to pick and choose. When we asked for the prices, they were silent. The menfolk called the shots from behind clearly showing that the power dynamics were in favour of the males.
Soon little girls and other tribal women squatted on the floor and displayed their wares. Dolls made with rags of leftover embroidered fabric, tribal jewellery and other knick-knacks. We were overwhelmed to see these tribals selling their wares for a couple of rupees compared to the countless hours; they must have spent toiling. Middlemen sell the same things to tourists for thrice the rate. It is no surprise that a lot of artisans now prefer to work in factories with better pay. While NGOs are working hard to give artisans their due lots need to be done to prevent these artforms from extinction. To ensure that rich cultural heritage and legacy are left behind for the future generation.
It is known for its mava, the Tropic of Cancer and bhungas. We tried to find some mava shops to taste the milk product but were out of luck. When I told Arjunji that we wanted to see the Tropic of Cancer, he couldn’t decipher the English meaning. I explained that it’s an imaginary geographic line. The moment I said ‘line’, he said ‘Kark Rekha’. We didn’t see any signages indicating the same, so ensure that your driver informs so that you can click pics.
Bhungas are circular tribal homes with a conical thatched roof and walls embellished with mirrors and dynamic patterns. They are an architectural marvel as they maintain coolness, especially in summers when the day temperatures soar. A potpourri of embroidered garments, bandhani dupattas, patchwork quilts, footwear, bags and other gewgaws were on sale the bhungas here.
Ludiya/Gandhi Nu Gam
Located in the Banni region of Kutch, around 70 km from Bhuj city, is Ludiya or Gandhi Nu Gam. On reaching Ludiya we noticed the Rann Utsav buses and the place was buzzing with tourists. The village ‘otalo’ or square was where the Meghwal women and girls, in colourful traditional attire, were selling their wares. A mélange of woodwork, embroidered garments, tribal jewellery, woollen shawls and other paraphernalia. Watching us urban folks, they started quoting high prices. When I asked the cost of a handprinted bedsheet, a teenage girl replied, “One thousand rupees!” No sooner did she quote the rate that a precocious 7-8-year-old girl standing close by scolded her, “Hey! Don’t tell lies. It’s for 250 rupees.” Smiling at the little girl and walked along, visiting some of the other makeshift stalls.
Khavda village was last on our list for the day as we visited an NGO called Qasab. It is known for its exquisite hand embroidery and patchwork products. Here too the traditional embroidery designs have been given a contemporary twist to cater to elite urban tastes. Unfortunately, the store was empty as most of the merchandise were for display at the Rann Utsav. Since we were to stay at The Tent City later, we made a mental note to visit their stall.
Our day one of exploration had come to an end as we headed back to Bhuj city. The next morning after breakfast we headed to see another set of handicraft villages. Ajrakhpur gets its name from the Ajrakh block printing which came to Kutch from across the border, more than 400 years ago. Its history can be traced to the Indus Valley civilization! Using natural colours derived from indigo, henna, turmeric, etc. the material undergoes 16 different processes to make this gorgeous fabric.
At Ismail Khatri’s workshop, we saw an artisan demonstrate the printing. He was dipping blocks in the natural dye and then stamping it on the fabric with exact precision and placement. The designs bear a resemblance to Islamic architecture forms comprising of arches and lattice/ jhali work. In Ajrakhpur do visit the Living and Learning Design Centre (LLDC) run by Shrujan Trust. It has museums, studios and a hands-on gallery where you can try your hand at these art forms. We visited the Shrujan store, which has an impressive but expensive collection of hand-embroidered sarees, dupattas and other trendy outfits.
Khamir, a not-for-profit organization in Kukma village, provides a platform for promoting and conversing the vibrant crafts of Kutch. Bandhani tie and dye, pottery, block-printing, kala cotton or recycled plastic products. We saw plastic being recycled and woven into a dense material used to make mats, bags and other products. Rabari tribal women in black were cleaning the kala cotton, native to Kutch and spinning it into yarns on a charkha. Do pick the kala cotton merchandise here as one is sure of the genuineness and they are not readily available elsewhere.
The last on our list was Bhujodi village frequented by tourists and locals as the products here are at cheaper rates compared to Bhuj. During the Navratri, people from Ahmedabad, Rajkot and neighbouring cities come to shop for chaniya cholis, kedias and other paraphernalia. Hira Laxmi Park in Bhujodi is the Delhi Haat of Kutch. To showcase a kaleidoscope of varied craft forms of Kutch, a platform is provided to the artisans. Artisans sell their wares from bhungas in this park which has the Vande Mataram memorial. In the evenings a laser and sound show is held. Our second day of visiting the handicraft villages of Kutch came to an end.
Undeniably the magic woven by the artisans of Kutch had mesmerised us. We had set out to see artisans who make ‘art for a living’ but ended up discovering the ‘art of living’ from them. Art can be a meditative experience as one is solely focusing on the task at hand free from distraction. No wonder these artisans seemed calm and composed, patiently working in silence. These artisans had embraced Mindfulness or being in the present moment, something which we city folks find so challenging. A lesson in detachment and of letting go was another realisation. Imagine spending weeks and months creating a piece of art and then having to part with it knowing full well you may never see it again! I looked at my daughter, who will soon be flying overseas for studies and knew I had to learn to let go.
It was incredible how these craftspersons had risen like a phoenix from ashes after the earthquake. They had reclaimed their lives with dignity and respect. Virtues of perseverance and patience were an integral part of their lives. A far cry from the virtual world of instant gratification where everything is available at the click of a button. We returned pleased not only with a bagful of collectables and memories but also of life lessons in the art of living.
Nearest Airport: Bhuj is the nearest airport. The other alternative is Ahmedabad from where you can take the road to Bhuj. From Bhuj, it is best to hire a cab and explore these villages. Gujarat Trails helped us with the travel arrangements.
Where to Stay: The handicraft villages that we visited on Day 1 are close to Dhordo where the Tent City comes up during the Rann Utsav. The other option is to stay in Bhuj and hire a cab which will drive you to these villages.
Travel Trip: If you want to visit all these handicraft villages then set aside two days. Do carry water and packed lunch as you will not find any stalls or dhabas on the way and even if you do the hygiene and sanitation is questionable. Please carry cash as there are no ATMs near the villages and the artisans don’t accept cards. Don’t buy machine-made items and screen printed copies that are available en mass at cheaper rates. Shell out a little extra for genuine items as this way you are helping in preserving these art forms.
This travelogue was first published in Corporate Tycoons magazine, March 2019