As humans, we traditionally savoured the simplicity of living that came from working manually, eating locally and loving fully. Fast forward to the present day Kutchi village, and it feels as though not much has changed. The local artist communities in the small hamlets of Kutch still reside in painted bhungas (circular mud homes with sloping thatched roofs); wear vibrantly-coloured, mirror-filled, patchwork garb; and nurture centuries-old art and crafts. A wander through these villages is like stepping back in time when the world wasn’t constantly connected, machines couldn’t talk and relationships weren’t complicated. Thankfully, the ethos of Kutch isn’t lost to modernisation and contemporary mannerisms!
Stretching along the Tropic of Cancer, from Rajasthan to the edge of Pakistan and the Arabian Sea, Kutch is a fusion of several semi-nomadic communities that migrated from as far as Sindh, Baluchistan and Afghanistan, nearly five centuries ago. They may have left their homes but they brought with them their signature art forms as well as compelling stories, experiences, history, culture and traditions that laid the foundation of the region’s rich heritage and social fabric. Even today, each of the communities express themselves through their art and textiles, only hoping to keep their craft alive for years to come.
Hence, a trip to Kutch is incomplete without a deeper understanding of the various art forms practiced here, which include weaving, quilting, embroidery, tie-dye, appliqué work, block printing, bell making, painted pottery, lippan (clay) art, lacquer work and more. Consider taking a break from the city sights and go gallivanting around some quaint Kutchi villages to spend quality time with local artists who are not only warm and welcoming but also profoundly committed to the intangible and intuitive aspects of art. You’re sure to return with heart-warming tales, deeper connections and meaningful moments of reflection.
Home to creaky old palaces and the stark Great Rann of Kutch, Bhuj is an excellent base for exploring nearby villages of Harijan, Ahir, Jat, Meghwal, Rabari and other communities that craft magic. A must visit is Khavda village.
Get a peek into POTTERY PAINTING
While many things have changed since the Indus Valley Civilisation, one thing that remains constant is the use of earthenware. Living in Khavda village in Bhuj, Kumbhar Abdul Ibrahim practices the art of painted pottery ever since he was a child. “One of the oldest existing art forms, painted pottery dates back 5,000 years. Kutchi Khavda pottery is all about nature-inspired designs, resembling those on clay pots found at the ancient archeological sites,” says Ibrahim who takes pride in the god-gifted art. While men in the family mould clay to make bowls, teapots, cups, lanterns, plates etc, women do the creative job of painting the earthen ware with frayed bamboo twigs. Clay-based natural colours like white, red and black are used in the art.
In this age of quirky prints and fickle fashion trends, Kutch boasts of a town of block printers, all excelling in the art passed on to them by their forefathers. Named after the print Ajrakh, Ajrakhpur came into existance after the massive destruction caused by the earthquake of 2001.
Acquire the skill of AJRAKH
When here, visit block printer Dr Ismail Khatri’s workshop to understand the history and nuances of ajrakh – one of the oldest types of block printing on textiles. “Blocks carved in traditional designs are coated in dye and pressed onto cloth. Layers of colours and prints are added between stages of rinsing, dyeing and sun drying,” explains Khatri who has wooden blocks over 200 years old. Apart from its trademark colours, black outlines and white accents, the Kutchi Ajrakh is characterised by symmetric geometrical patterns.
Traditionally worn by maaldhari (cattle herder) communities, ajrakh involves the use of natural colours on fabrics such as cotton, linen, wool and different types of silk like tussar, crepe, georgette and chiffon. While blue comes from indigo plants, red is obtained from madder root, alizarin, sappan wood and lac. Yellow is from pomegranate rinds and turmeric, and green is achieved by over-dyeing indigo with turmeric and pomegranate.
Skip the tourist trap and devote a few hours to Nirona, a village home to artisan families who practice some of the most extraordinary art forms of Gujarat. Located 40 km northwest of Bhuj, Nirona’s landscape features a mix of bhungas and two-storey concrete homes, some with elaborately-carved wooden doors.
Let ROGAN rouse your curiosity
Prime Minister Narendra Modi famously presented a fine piece of Rogan art to Barack Obama during the erstwhile American president’s visit. The piece was created in the village of Nirona. Originated in medieval Persia 300 years ago, Rogan is a time-consuming, free-hand art singularly practised by Abdulgafur Khatri and his family, for eight generations. “Rogan means oil-based. All the colours we use are natural dyes mixed with castor oil and a secret ingredient,” says Sumar Khatri while tracing a yellow flower on a piece of red cloth, using a wooden tool that resembles an earbud. Mostly inspired by nature, designs and motifs of rogan are very intricate, with greater attention to detail.
Master the art of BELL MAKING
A section of the Lohar community from Nirona and Zura villages are skilled in making bells that chime to create some of the most soothing sounds. “These bells were used for centuries by maldhari bharwads and rabaris (local cattle-breeding communities) to identify their cattle. In fact, maldharis would sit with us to describe the sound that their cattle recognise and we would beat the bell till we achieve the desired sound,” says passionate bell-maker Ali Lohar. Visit Lohar’s workshop to witness him hammer plates of iron into dainty bells. These bells are then coated in brass and baked in a coal fire before polishing them to achieve the finished product that is tied to strings, wires or embroidered leather strips to create hangings and other home decor items.
Learn all about LACQUER
A burst of vivid colours and kaleidoscopic designs, lacquer work is an uncommon art practiced in Nirona by the Vadha community. Traditionally, the Vadhas obtained lac from insect resin, created colourful lacquer art on locally-sourced babool or mango wood and bartered them with the maldhari community. “Even today, most of the lacquer process is done on a manual lathe. Once the wood is shaped into desired forms, each piece is individually put on the lathe and smoothened using wooden tools. Simultaneously, coloured lacquer is applied to wood to create psychedelic designs by hand,” says Bhachaya Bhai Vadha who uses ancient techniques and tools to create beautiful kitchen ware like spatulas, ladles and rolling pins as well as hair pins. Kutchi lacquer art is usually practiced by the whole family. While men cut and shape wooden articles, women apply finishing touches to them.
MUST-VISIT FOLK ART MUSEUMS
LLDC (The Living and Learning Design Centre), Ajrakhpur
Think splendid galleries that showcase the 42 Kutchi embroidery styles, practised by 12 different communities. Each style is described masterfully, along with its history and significance. When here, try a hand at block printing.
Folk Art Museum, Bhuj
This museum provides a fascinating window into traditional Kutchi way of life including bhungas (mud and mirror-work huts), vintage textiles, wood and stone carvings and musical instruments.
Kutch Museum, Bhuj
Opposite Hamirsar lake, Gujarat’s oldest museum has eclectic displays of Kutch tribal costumes and artefacts including weapons, silverware, sculpture etc
Kala Raksha Museum, Sumrasar Sheikh
Expect to see a collection of heirloom textiles at this museum that encourages locals to preserve and present their own culture.
Museum Quality Textiles
If antique embroidery interests you, browse through eminent private collector AA Wazir’s stunning collection of more than 3000 pieces.