A 4-week trip around Gujarat at Christmas 2012 and the New Year


Pithora Painting


Murals covered the interior of the farmhouse

We took a short drive just to the north of Chhota to find some pithora paintings.

Off a side road we walked to a farmhouse to meet a farmer who paints in the afternoon. Man Singh had painted a mural in the Chhota Udaipur museum and had decorated the interior of his house – a basic mud-floored building – with colourful pictures of trains, galloping horses, guns, birds and animals, processions, and farm activity.

The paintings contain elements drawn from oral history, tribal legends and fantasy; silhouettes of galloping horses, birds and animals, people, village life, hills and landscape.


Man Singh at work on the wall of his barn


He sold us a painting outside for 3,000 rupees; a more colourful one was cheaper but far too large to bring home.



Factory visits

One of the (rather uncomfortable) oddities of travelling in India with a driver is the ability to walk into people’s working lives and ask them to explain their production process.


So on a whim north of Diu we set off to find out how seeds get removed from balls of raw cotton and wandered into a factory where ginning machines extracted the bolls from huge piles of cotton. The seeds were then fed to cattle.



On the way to Junagadh we visited a family factory producing jaggery (raw sugar). Sugar canes were being fed into a crushing machine and boiled down in a series of three iron basins. The girls of the family fed the dry cane husks into a furnace under the boiling pots.

sugar-cane2An older man was standing in a container of water, crushing some herbs with his feet, extracting a flavour for the sugar.

The final pot was emptied into a mud container where the yellow sugar paste precipitated, and the barefoot boy scraped it off the mud and into tin containers for sale.

Screen printing


In Jetpur we walked into a fabric printing factory where they showed us their collection of screens – often resembling wood block patterns – and a vast room where the fabric was printed.

Hand weaving (Khadi)

gondal-mill1At Gondal we visited a hand weaving factory. Quite Victorian; a deafening room full of treadle weaving looms operated by young women. Ear protection was available but no-one was using it. Shuttles shot and clattered, the women controlled the speed, peddling with their feet, mending broken threads as they went along. Each could produce 6-7 metres of simple woven cloth a day. Followed by a quieter room where they were preparing the warps.

An old guy sat on his own in a third room knitting socks on an extraordinary little machine. He enjoyed taking us through the process in great detail. He produced about 22 pairs a day.

gondal-mill2Finally a room that at first glance seemed almost empty, but there were rows of woman sitting on the floor, hand winding yarn into bobbins for the looms.

We bought some of their output in the shop; a £2 shirt, some fabric for Kim at around £2 a metre and 8 napkins (35p each).

The khadi movement was set up by Gandhi in the 1920s. The spinning of home-made cloth was both practical (promoting rural self-employment) and political (boycotting the cloth manufactured industrially in Britain).


Also in Gondal we turned up at an Ayurvedic factory. (Their claim to fame is that Gandhi gave a speech here in 1915 praising ayurveda.) We feigned a sudden interest in the manufacture of pills and syrups while a man showed us around mixing, grinding, heating, and packaging of a range of products. He held up a bottle marked that it was derived from pure cow urine.

Best was the bottling line which consisted of an enormous metal container with a tap at the bottom where a man flowed contents into small bottles, one by one, while the man next to him fastened on the tops.


Crafts of the Kutch

village-fashion2Perhaps unfairly, it felt that all the handicrafts we had seen so far were simply a prelude to the glories of the Kutch district. In the far west of Gujarat, this is the area most associated with fabric printing, embroidery and a long list of crafts.

Cloth printing

A couple of stop-offs before Bhuj. Firstly in a small lane on an obscure village we visit a family of textile makers. They don’t make the cloth or the wood blocks, but do everything else. The son was block printing at high speed in the back shed. All the registering was done by eye; striking simple prints in contrasting colours. Coloured cloth was lying in the dirt at the back drying. The little shop attracted a constant stream of visitors and is the only place he sells his work. Initially attracted by the block prints, we then spotted brush work printing where dye is simply applied with a scrubbing brush, and bought some metres of that. A highly effective pattern. (All this costs 100 rupees a metre; unclear whether we should bargain.) We’re then attracted by the bandhani, on cotton and silk. Priced from 3,800 up to 16,000 rupees (£45-£180). But you could get 6 metre saris with two or three dyes, dip-dyed as well as bandhani for 9,000.



Close-up of a £300 piece of embroidery

Closer to Bhuj we visited a group of women working on embroidery. One skirt was being worked on for for months with unbelievable care. Work for sale was unrolled in the kitchen.

We were shown pieces of increasing complexity and size; 1,500 to 6,000 up to 26,000 rupees for an astonishing piece. Having no money we said we’d think about it.embroidery2

Had a late lunch of some mango juice, a bhel and a dahi vada in a slightly grubby roadside eatery.

Leather goods

Found money in Bhuj, along with good roads and an increasing military presence. Visiting a leathermaker, Kim turned down all his bag options and went through piles of sandals of a leathermaker before finding something to buy.

The resort


Our tent bedroom at Hodka

We spent two nights at the Hodka Village Resort (Shaam-E-Sarhad). (The idea had been to stay there for three nights but a slight booking mix-up and the intense cold drove us on early.) We had to buy a permit for these more distant parts.

The village is pretty resort of tents and mud huts. Lots of mud


The eating area

-formed features; the walls were built of sticks and then covered in mud, the delicate mud and mirror work (that you see in local huts) and the central village area is covered in a dried layer of once liquid mud and dung, and then painted in ochre and red tones. The eating area had a roof of multi-coloured fabrics.


The huts at Hodka

Tasty vegetarian set meals were served and local musicians sang and danced around a wood fire. Not warm enough – it was falling to around 3° – so we fled early to our tent.

Inside the tents the bed and the sofa base are made of mud. And beyond there is a second private toilet tent containing a mud and mirror work wall with a basin and flush toilet. Hot water arrived at agreed times in the morning as the staff steamed up a wood furnace behind. Hot water bottles and thick blankets kept us warm in the bed. We spend a happy hour in the resort shop/tent looking at old and slightly fraying handicrafts.

Bunga huts

bunga-decoration Nearby is a the village that specialises in producing marvo(?), a thickened buffalo milk dessert eaten warm. Guys were stirring vast boiling vats of sweetened milk by the road. A short off-road drive to a small group of round huts. (Not entirely of the beaten track; a Japanese girl was also there.) The interiors had painted mud decorations with mirror inserts and tidily ordered sets of cooking utensils.

Visited people to see their wares. Picked on a woman selling detailed embroidery, and bought as dress for 3,000 rupees. The adult woman all swore these back-less blouses (and a veil), and the kids were colourful too. Some very heavy jewellery.

As with the resort shop, there’s an awful lot of secondhand fabric too; often not in the best of shape. One of the sellers showed us a couple of dresses that he said were 80 – years old. But you couldn’t tell.

Kim gets a lesson in the variety of stitches. I’m impressed by the outdoor mud floors that all these villages have. They need renewing every couple of weeks, which constantly raises the level but that’s not a bad thing as the area can flood by several feet.bunga-decoration3 bunga-decoration2 bunga

We also go to the local village at Hodka. Get mobbed by adults and kids who bring us bags full of dresses, beadwork from the kids, miscellaneous bits of leather, dolls made by the kids, and various decorative items. Slight sense of desperation when we visit a hut and they start looking for things that are potentially saleable.

Mirror work

That afternoon we visited an embroiderer north of Hodka. Her family (and tribe) specialises in fine embroidery with mirrorwork. She only has one or two pieces for sale and at 7000 rupees, but great pieces. She had a copy of a book ‘Threads’ and a Japanese magazine, both of which featured examples of her work. One was in a museum in Japan. She spoke good English and was part of a family that had produced handicrafts for generations. She said she spent 4-5 months on a piece, working perhaps about 3-4 hours a day, because of her housework duties,

Rogan art


The last practioners of rogan art in Nirona

We go to Nirona to see the last family practicing rogan art. This type of fabric painting consists of applying heavily-reduced castor oil onto fabric from a metal rod. (Castor oil plants are everywhere round here.) Thick strings of paint drip off the small rods; the pattern is repeated by transferring by folding. Intricate free painting and very clever but the family has been trying to develop it into a fine art form.


Peacocks and the tree of life


An older piece created by the grandparents of the family

Their intricate designs around the tree of life and peacock were not for us, but I really liked the large-scale naive paintings that their grandparents produced. And they were prepared to sell these at 10,000 rupees. Surprised and tempted.

Bell makers

Then visited some copper-coated bell makers. Perhaps a little bit twee but we couldn’t resist a set of tinkling bells for 800 rupees. I had seen a video of them being made; they are cut from scraps of metal, hammered and soldered into shape and finally fired with a coating of copper powder and cow dung.

Promoting handicrafts

We also visited the famous Kala Raksha Trust, dedicated to the preservation of the traditional arts of the area. It has been working for the last 20 years alongside artisans educating them in design and colour, helping them collaborate with urban design students and to travel to Mumbai and Delhi to see other exhibitions and to create their own. They are promoting handicrafts as a viable source of income, especially among women. We occasionally spotted signs in villages indicating they were graduates of Kala Raksha. We had a look at their displays, were shown a few drawers from their archive (all now online), visited a couple of workshops, and finally raided their shop. And found the bandhani we were looking for.

Pit looms


Dying bundles of silk

Just outside Bhujodi (in the outskirts of Bhuj) we went to a family of weavers. Colourful bundles of silk were being dyed in large vats and then dried on lines in the front garden.

In a backlot we found people stretching out and combing lengths of warp, stretching perhaps 15 metres.

Nearby a number of men were working on pit looms.


A pit loom


Combing and tidying the warp

And there was also an underground indigo vat for us to poke around in.


Indigo-coloured silk drying in the sun

Felt maker

Close to Mundra we were taken to a guy who  makes felt. (Well he also turns and laquers the feet of beds, but we were less interested in that.)

He only makes things to order so only showed a few floor cushions and some photos of some carpets felt carpets. The simple geometric designs are appealing and he sold them for just 2,000 rupees.

felt-makingHe had also some an artistic collaboration with an Indian/American/Swedish artist who had sought him out as the last felt-maker in Gujarat (seems unlikely). She got him to make rolls of felt in a way so they resembled logs.

Over an hour he showed is how to make a felt cushion, a butterfly design, simply by laying dyed felt. No rubbing; simply rolled, soaked and dried in the sun for hours. Kim is very sceptical.




The Bhuj palaces

In Bhuj we visited a pair of palaces. Both were badly hit in the earthquake; the devastation still very obvious, lots of architectural  rubble lying where it fell and large cracks across various buildings. Some of the renovation has only started in the last couple of years.

pragmahal-palace1 The Prag Mahal is newest palace and an Italianate wonder; really quite bizarre for India. It had suffered with serious-looking cracks in the clock tower, up which we were surprisingly encouraged to climb. The darbar hall was closed for work.

pragmahal-palace3The interiors were in extreme decay; I’m surprised they wanted visitors. Most of the plaster had fallen off the ceilings, pigeons sat on what remained of chandeliers, and the taxidermy had decayed into grotesque shapes. Various humdrum belongings and bits of furniture were on display along with polo equipment, relics from famous Edwardian Indian cricketers and pictures of the Maharani sitting in various expensive sports cars.

The older palace next door is the Aina Mahal. Again it looked fairly devastated but the museum inside was intact and showed off the extreme wealth of the family. The last Maharaja was a friend of Mountbatten, so there were series of letters between them. And there were pictures of viceroy Lord Curzon coming to visit the palace.

bhuj-palace2An incredible embroidered dado panel stretched round an entire room. There was an inlaid ivory and teak door with a letter addressed to the V&A in 1969 explaining why they wouldn’t lend it. Lots of interesting glass portrait paintings; the idea brought back from China and developed here. But no sign of the ceremonial solid gold fish used in parades; the guard said it was upstairs and not on display.bhuj-palace

The antique collector

Kim’s cold is getting worse so we skipped the Bhuj museum but were offered as chance to visit Mr Wazir,a collector of old textiles. We turned at on his front door and he seemed unfazed by this visit. He already had some relatives visiting from Mumbai.

His collection consisted of a vast pile of fabrics stored on shelving either side of the front door. He and his sons picked up examples, and set them down on the carpet in front of us while we nibbled on nut brittle. He showed 3-4 of each type: torans, cradle cloths, appliqué, quilts, wall hangings; mainly but not entirely from the region.

Old generally meant 20-30 years, but there were much older pieces. He was pessimistic about the future of these handicrafts. Despite initiatives to support artisans he said that modern producers were driven by what would sell. In the past dowry pieces were much more about competing and led to far more innovation in the designs.

He wasn’t sourcing directly himself any more; the examples from Sindh in Pakistan came from a long chain of agents. There were also some interesting pieces from Bangladesh. He had been to London 20 years ago and visited the V&A about 16 times over a few weeks. He’d visited various overseas exhibitions; he mentioned the world’s largest folk art event in Santa Fe. Whittling our selection down, they all turned out to be geometric. We spent the best part of £200.


Bobby Mudflaps


My new mudflaps

We had the usual problem with getting people to understand where we wanted to go (how many ways can you pronounce Dilli Darwaja?), but eventually found rickshaw to take us to Delhi Gate.

There we started to look for Bobby Mudflaps, a guy who painted accessories for rickshaws. We found a repair shop with mudflaps for sale and the owner pointed further down the road to a guy painting images of Big B on wooden panels to decorate the inside of rickshaws.

(A fair proportion of rickshaws had either painted interiors featuring Bollywood stars or a selection of mudflaps.)


Bobby Mudflaps painting Big B

Bobby didn’t have a word of English and he didn’t seem that interested in sales. So we went back to the repair shop and bought a pair there. Salman Khan was their favourite and my requests for Shahrukh Khan or Big B were met with short shrift. The guy said I couldn’t just buy one, but they were just 250 rupees.

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