Crafts of the Kutch
Perhaps 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.
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.
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.
Had a late lunch of some mango juice, a bhel and a dahi vada in a slightly grubby roadside eatery.
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.
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
-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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And there was also an underground indigo vat for us to poke around in.
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.
He 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.