Gujarat, India
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The Artists of Kutch

After the spectacular Rann of Kutch, the agenda was to station ourselves in Bhuj over a couple of days, explore the town as well as the artistic villages of Kutch. Our first stop was Nirona, made famous by PM Modi after he gifted a Rogan art painting created in this village, to then President Barrack Obama during his US visit in 2014.

As we got down from the car, a swarm of school children, seemingly underwhelmed with new faces, walked past, waving and smiling. We decided to follow the crowd that had descended from a bus full of tourists, crossing a few narrow alleys and brightly painted doors framed with bougainvillea, and we ended up reaching the Khatri household, master craftsmen of the Rogan art.

The art form is intriguing to observe, and the Khatri’s willingly give a live demo. We quickly seat ourselves on the plastic chairs and charpoy in the courtyard. Out comes a piece of fabric, and a round tray with many bowls holding the different colours of the paint, which is a thick mixture of castor oil and natural die. The artist decides to seat himself on the floor and starts to work the gum-like paint with a needle, stretching the paint thin and drawing patterns on fabric, without the needle actually touching the fabric. He makes a flower, then a few more, and he continues drawing beautiful patterns. He then folds the cloth neatly along the centre and presses on the fabric. We wait for the reveal which he does without much fanfare, and as he starts to unfold the cloth, a mirror image of his painting appears on the other side. It looks beautiful, the colours, the detail, the creativity. I was spellbound and forgot to record a video but if you are interested check out this link to see the art taking shape.

The Khatri’s speak about how the art stood the risk of dying down some years back, as the younger generation didn’t find it financially attractive but streamlined efforts by the Gujarat government have given artists like them a global platform to showcase their work, drawing in crowds and money. A narrative that was echoed by other villages and artisans I visited. Many of them have been accredited with the coveted National Award for being master craftsmen in their field, proofs of which hang in the form of pictures in their homes and shops. All sell internationally and get access to a host of exhibitions, both in India and abroad. The exposure seems to have created a certain degree of confidence and pride in the artists, and rightfully so. They know that their pieces are unique, so they won’t hard sell, and you really won’t feel like bargaining. The prices are steep since all the crafts are hand done, but as I see it, it is a little bit of Kutch to take back home.

Our next stop in Nirona was the copper bell house by Husen Luhar. An elderly gentleman, Luhar sat on the floor and beat the copper thin and created various shapes out of it, creating bells and hangings. As I sat watching him, I couldn’t help but notice that he was constantly smiling while working, and as he beat every scrap of copper, he would hold it up to show it to everyone, a sense of pride in his eyes. I ended up buying a copper wind chime from his workshop, replicas of which I saw many later in Shroff Bazaar in Bhuj, at half the price. I can’t say if it was a replica really or the effect of middlemen, but this is probably the only art form that is fairly easy to recreate. It was disappointing surely, but I found comfort in the fact that the money went to the artisan directly, and that’s worth something.

It’s another day and we decide to explore Ajrakhpur and Bhujodi, both a 20 min drive from Bhuj. Ajrakhpur is aptly named after the Ajrakh art, which is block printing using natural dyes such as indigo, pomegranate, henna, turmeric etc, done by Dr Ismail Mohmed Khatri, who has been acknowledged with a doctorate by De Montfort University, U.K. as well as a Seal of Excellence by UNESCO. Bhujodi is famous for handloom textiles and embroidery, done by the Vankar community. You will find shawls, bedspreads, carpets, blankets, sarees, stoles, all handwoven and hand embroidered. Even if you detest shopping, the work is compelling to look at, and the artists are friendly and inviting, so you will at least come back with a cup of tea and good conversation.

If you don’t have time to visit the villages, I would strongly recommend checking out the Living and Learning Design Centre( LLDC), which is a project of the Shrujan Trust and a conscious effort to keep alive the unique crafts of Kutch. They train craftsmen and craftswomen to better their art, learn from each other and develop products that are marketable. The museum is a crash course into the art forms of 12 Kutcchi communities and is a real treat for your eyes. It’s so much colour and beauty in a room, it will fill you with awe about the talents of Kutch.

The final village that we visited was Bhadli, close to Devpur village, famous for the tie and dye technique of Bandhani. The work was extremely fine and detailed, and unlike I anything had seen before. It was extremely expensive as well and the artisans here didn’t seem too interested in showing their work. They mentioned that they cater to mostly foreign buyers and international exhibitions, and only do selective exhibitions in India. Names of a few of top Indian designers who have been inspired by their work was mentioned casually and I was categorically asked to specify what I wanted to buy and what my budget was. Since I was merely browsing and that obviously was far from comfortable here, I decided to make a quick exit.

A round up of these villages left me feeling creatively energised. It’s hard not to, when you see so much talent. I felt inspired to create something, anything, as soon as I got back home. Maybe I will do up my balcony, or paint something. There is great joy in creating something from your own hands, no matter how small it is right?

Tips for visiting the villages of Kutch

  • The roads in Kutch are really good and all villages are perfectly motorable. Just drive down and walk around. It is very easy to find the homes of the artisans.
  • The artisans are welcoming, and will be happy to show their work, even give a live demo. You can buy the art in all villages directly.
  • These are real home and families. You will meet the other members of the family, the children playing around, and sometimes it wasn’t comfortable to click pictures. When it wasn’t, I didn’t. Where it was, I asked for permission. The reason I mention it is that I found more than a bunch of visitors invasive enough to make some families feel uncomfortable. And that just isn’t right.
  • In Bhuj, I would strongly recommend staying in The Bhuj House, which is a heritage Parsi homestay in the heart of town. It is a home filled with history and culture, and every little nook is representative of the colours and warmth of Kutch. Besides the villages, Bhuj is a unique town in itself, with its walled city, the busy Shroff and Vania bazaars, it’s history and culture.
  • Another beautiful heritage property is Devpur Homestay. From either or both of these homestays, you can use them as a base and explore the various villages of Kutch.
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