Inside A Rainbow
This was a first – signing up for structured travel to play catch-up with Kutch’s capabilities. It, Breakaway’s Textile Trail, had seemed like an enormously exciting way to acquaint myself with an Indian extremity hitherto unvisited. That it was going to unravel itself through brilliantly hued warps and wefts accorded it that much more of the proverbial colour. As also the knowledge that our intimate group would be accompanied by an expert for edifying effects.
Up until then my familiarity with this space had straddled pennanted souvenirs ubiquitously sold along kerb-side marts, and high street chains retailing market-driven prêt-a-port. The gobsmacking might of the region’s efflorescent craftiness though would hit me a lot later – when squinting down at exceptionally executed miniature embroideries an Ahmadabad-based revivalist reverentially displayed and locked away in a vault for their debut at an international showing.
Earlier that same day I’d stood in awe of the treasured collections housed within the verdure-cloaked, stunningly-carved and restructured haveli that is the Calico Museum of Textiles. Imperious directives from a babushka-wearing historian had us whirl winding past all manner of woven, embroidered, printed, and tied-and-dyed exhibits harking back to the 15th century. The rush had left at least one of us dizzily bereft of experience. Protests, however feeble, were met by authoritative recommendations to visit the real deal. “Kutch is paradise for lovers of textile!” Kamliniben had exclaimed, her sonorous voice contrasting startlingly with her bird-like persona. We couldn’t wait to go.
Bhuj, administrative head of Kutch district, was near-decimated in wake of a frightening
temblor that hit the region in 2001. No effort by civil society and the government was spared to resuscitate the hard-hit communities of craftspeople. This was voiced–was empirically evident even–by most of the artisans extraordinaire we visited, marvelled at, and often ate with over the week-long trip. The journey from Ahmadabad is mostly uneventful along excellent highways that slice through a number of prominent towns.
It includes a brief glimpse of the salt pans near the Surajbari creek at the edge of the Little Rann. From atop a bridge here, the point where we ambitiously tried to capture blindingly white landscape digitally, the Arabian Sea is but ten kilometres away. Here on, the topography turns dramatically monochromatic, too. Swathes upon dun swathes punctuated intermittently by thorny clusters and hardy trees embroidering seasonal water bodies are par for the course. Relief came few and far between, first in the guise of rich green fields, later, the textiles.
“It is important to see craft in its context”, Durga Venkataswamy, the Hyderabad-based textile technologist leading our tour had shared shortly before we alighted at Abdul Jabbar Khatri’s house in Dhamadka village. “Particularly in Kutch where there’s an interesting interplay with environment…also it’s possibly the last few regions where traditional attire is still worn”. The people of the Banni grasslands continue to sport ajrakh (resist-dyed block printing) as daily wear, she had elaborated further.
Jabbar’s family, longstanding producers of classic ajrak for the Maldharis (pastoral cattle traders), had migrated here from Sindh over 300 years ago. Today, he is most sought after for his artistry in double-sided block printing. And we were going to be walked through the many time-intensive steps that result in his award-winning creations. But first, lunch. Served hot off the hearth by our generous host’s family, the flavourful meaty meal was a welcome change from the vegetarian thalis we had equally relished the past couple of days. Yet it’s the gur so white, butter so fresh, bajra-na-rotla so hearty, that endure indelibly as my foremost culinary outing from the trip.
Length upon freshly dyed and printed length stretched out under a searing sun greeted us at Jabbar’s ‘workshop’. A euphemism really for rolling acreage dotted with sundry structures where a workforce of plenty furiously went about the incredibly complex business at hand. A tannin soak later, cotton yardage is left to dry before the design is outlined with a paste of lime and natural gum. A mordant–fermented filtrate of scrap iron and jaggery–is used to fill in the black areas of the design.
Following which the fabric is dipped into indigo vats, often more than once, and dried. After a quick rinse at a simulated cascade of running water, it is dried yet again. Another alum mordant is applied before being pot-boiled with madder root (natural red dye) over roaring fires. By the time perfectly-aligned double-sided ajrak reaches us clueless customers, it has undergone an astonishing 16 stages of intense month-long labour!
In an admittedly unfair comparison the bandhani (tie-and-dye) techniques we witnessed later at SIDR Craft in Bhuj came across as a mere bagatelle. Largely because much of the customary intricacies–pinching of design, tying of waxed thread–happen elsewhere. Reaching brothers Abdullah and Jabbar (not to be confused with the ajrakh specialist) Khatri many weeks later for their inimitable flourishes. One of which is the Japanese itajime, a clamp dye technique requiring tremendous precision in folding to achieve the resulting visual illusion.
The fabric is securely bookended between geometric-shaped fastens. Next placed in a cauldron of bubbling dye to absorb another colour, or as the case may be, in sodium hydrosulphite to discharge an existing shade. They also dabble in Shibori, another Japanese practice, which necessitates the use of running stitch to fashion a design. The thread is pulled tight before being coloured to create a wrinkle effect.
Over the next couple of days we visited collectors of vintage textiles, splendid weavers, and dedicated non-profits. All committed to the preservation and promotion of Kutch embroideries in their own way. The septuagenarian AA Wazir altered both ambition (commerce) and ardour (miniature paintings) mid-stride to build a collection of rare embellished treasures. An earthquake-wreaked loss of thousands of precious pieces, notwithstanding.
At the time of our visit he had invested 50 years and nearly three crores (a figure he reluctantly shared at my impolite query, I hasten to add) in the 3000 articles amongst which we sat quite wonderstruck. A kaleidoscopic cornucopia where a 16th century Italian velvet of Mughal royalty jostled with 18th and 19th century brocades, kanthas, phulkaris, and silk garments. While a (pardon the literal) pussy-footing feline–“She’s adopted us”–cried for his undivided attention.
It was however his psychedelic repertoire of antique quilts, torans, dowry bags, traditional outfits and cattle caparisons, adorned with community-defining stitch-work of the Rabari, Jat, Mutava, Meghval, Ahir, and Sodha tribes, which held us in thrall. More of which we encountered up-close in contemporary settings while mingling with both craft and creators at Shrujan, Qasab, and Kalaraksha. Located at the end of short drives radiating from Bhuj town, these NGOs have long been empowering women from pastoral communities through their matchless metier.
Except Khamir; established after the quake, this outfit focuses instead on wood, pottery, leather and metal craft led by male artisans. Weaving, being another. For which we visited Bhujodi, a weavers’ village best known for Shamji Vankar’s woven cotton and extra weft wool textiles. Operating out of the expansive surrounds of their home, Shamji and his brother Dinesh churn out their trendy and much in demand furnishings, carpets, stoles and shawls with the assistance of 60 other families from the village. Yet when probed, it is their father’s multi-hued award-winning dablo (blanket) they still uphold as their crowning glory.
Our arrival at the boundless saline marshes of the Rann of Kutch couldn’t have come at a better time. After the sensory assault of the past few days, the white wastelands were exactly what I yearned for as a refreshing palette cleanser. Take it from me – there can be too much of a good thing. At the moment, even the romantic sienna of a setting sun hurt the eye! My delight-in-dun continued through to the Little Rann next day, where the soothing sandy-white of the nimble Indian wild ass presented no threat to a self-imposed colour-curfew.
Save for the pink haze of a flamboyance of flamingos, the white pelicans, common cranes, egrets, and ibis’ we spotted here helped hugely in my detox. By the time we were done peering at erotica-in-stone at the Sun Temple in Modhera, and the eye-popping sculptural panels at Rani Ki Vav, the seven-storied step well built as an inverted temple in the 11th century, I was no longer hue-shy.
That’s a good thing because our return to respective homes (irrefutably to less colourful lives) later that day was via Patola House at Patan. This is one of last remaining bastions of patola–double ikat silk saree–weaving families from Maharashtra who, on behest of the ruler, settled here in the 12th century. Rahul Salvi, working the tilted loom for our benefit, is 35th in a line of generational practitioners of an art nonpareil. Requiring precise placing of the tied-and-dyed warp and weft for the motif to manifest, a single patola saree is shaped over four to five months by an equal number of highly skilled and imaginative artisans. Any wonder it is feted as the Queen of Silks?
Note: This article has recently appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine.