I visited Kutch, Gujarat during the peak winter in January. The wind was biting at my face when I stepped down at the bus stop, 4 am in the morning. I caught an auto and headed to Khamir’s site.
Khamir is a Rang De Impact Partner. An organisation dedicated to uplifting the handicrafts and traditional culture of Kutch. Knifemaking, weaving, printed textile, lacquered wood, pottery, painting are a few craft forms I recall.
I met Ghatit Ji, who gave me a tour of all the products that were associated with the craft society. The many artistic traditions awaited exploration in a modest hall.
However, simply seeing these various art forms did not entice me to believe in their worth. For that, I had to venture into the distant villages of Mandvi, Bhuj, Godhra and Reha.
I hopped on the bike pillion to meet the first artisan. A few kilometres from the site, I could see people washing clothes in large tanks. Beating clothes on stones and coloured water gushing out in various colours of dyes. I was in Ajrakhpur.
Ajrakh block printing is a time-honoured emblem for the local communities in kutch.
The word Ajrakh means ‘Aaj rakh’ which translated to ‘keep it today’. An Ajrakh print saree can be completed in 8 hours but it would lack the colour & contrast compared to the one completed in 8-10 days.
Ajrakh block printing is an intensive process. I had a brief conversation with Khatri Shaliman Dawood, who has been doing it for 24 years. He says, during his childhood, everything was done by hand. Now there are machines that help scale the work. But still, the print on the clothes are manually pressed and printed.
With the introduction of more affordable synthetic clothes, the demand for traditional textiles has subsided. Khamir has been working with many artists in Ajrakhpur. Giving them new orders, designs and an extended market.
After Ajrakhpur, we headed for a drive to Bhuj to meet the Reha community of knife makers. I was introduced to Narayan Chauhan, who walked me through an 800-year-old artform.
The knife making evolved from a peculiar habit of eating betel nuts (supari). During the time, every household ate a piece or two after their meals. Soon nutcrackers became an essential utility. The Marwari community made embellished nutcrackers for the elites. From there they picked up knife carving. The knife was so good that they were sent off to trade across India through sea routes.
Narayan Ji says the art form flourished in the 1960-70s. But from the 90s the downfall began due to industrialization. The mass-produced factory knives were cheap and easily available.
But still, there are people who buy knives from the Reha community. Narayan Ji makes an entire set of knives as per the needs of the people. He says, there are many design interns who come to khamir, they come up with new innovations. Narayan Ji implements them and keeps his craft evolving.
Here are a few pictures showing Narayan Ji’s art forms which are completely handmade.
Next up to explore was a community of plastic weavers. Women having access to handlooms worked out an efficient way to reuse plastic. Not mainly an art form, but a substantial source of income for many in the region.
They weave plastic bags, mattresses, purses and different daily to use products that can be woven out using plastic.
Woven textiles are a major form of craftwork in Kutch. Camel wool, Kachchi, Kala cotton, Kharad, Mashru are the notable ones. On the second day of my visit, I met Devji Ravji who walked me through the history of a languishing art form called Mashru.
Mashru is a special kind of cloth. The Muslim communities then believed that silk should not touch women’s bodies. An innovative solution honouring this resulted in Mashru – Weavers mixing silk and cotton to create a textile that was cotton on one side and rich silk on the other. Mashru translates to ‘this is allowed’. A royal craft for local elites in the 1900s.
Devji Ravji shared that Mashru weaving is intensive. A 7- 12 peddle loom operated by the skilful artisan. The weaving is so intricate that it is difficult to make cloth wider than 22 inches.
In 1978, there were 30 workers in the Mandvi village. The number has been reduced to just six. The artform is languishing. Devji has retired, his brother and son are carrying the legacy ahead.
My first field visit was very defining to me. I explored things beyond my understanding. About people who kept age-old traditions alive despite hardships. The intervention of organisations like Khamir in preserving the rich heritage and culture of indigenous communities. Rang De being the financial partner for Khamir’s distribution, marketing and operational needs gave me the window seat to this niche experience. Rang De Social Investors enables Khamir to back these rare artforms and preserve the age-old heritage.