What does Bhuj remind you? The vast stretch of salt desert or the ’96 earthquake?
For me, the word Bhuj always flooded my mind with the hues and crafts native to Gujarat. The sari lover in me always fantasized the block prints that make their way into fine beautiful and elegant cotton mul mul sarees. But tell me, do you remember the old AMUL advertisements that aired on Doordarshan ? Those women clad in mirror embroidered backless blouse and saris? Those crafts and colors stayed in my mind since the 90s and it got life in Dec’19, when I could actually make a trip to Bhuj. Let’s get started with the Bhuj crafts tour.
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Ajrakhpur which is 30-40 kms from Bhuj is the hub for Ajrakh artisans who had shifted from Sindh in Pakistan a few hundred years.Make sure you pay a visit to one of the stores and studios in Ajrakhpur and keep this home craft alive. A detailed post on Ajrakhpur can be found here.
Nirona is an important hub for Kutch crafts. The traditional art forms of this region are again from the Sindh(very much like Ajrakh) and has now traveled across the continents and guess what – it has even reached the White House. Yes, you read that right!
Rogan Paintings of Nirona
Rogan painting is an oil based art work which is preserved by the Khatri family in Nirona, for the last 300 years. While drawing or sketching on a fabric is a nearly impossible things for many of us, the Khatris do it effortlessly using a long needle like tool and a sticky pigment that is colored.
We were walking along the narrow lanes of Nirona and the scene was very similar to every other Indian Village with cattle folks lazying on the streets and little happy faces of kids waving frantically at the tourists visiting their abode.
A welcoming middle aged man invited us to visit his place to see his work on the Rogan art. He was a member of the Khatri family and showed us several samples of his work. He effortlessly made a pattern on one side of the fabric and folded it to make a mirror print on the other side of the cloth. He gave us a sample fabric and some pigment to try our hands and it was not easy to make a single pattern . Tremendous effort and skill goes into this.
We walked a little more form his place and reached the famous Gaffur Khatri’s household where we had old styled cots laid out in open porch and he explained once again how meticulously the craft is made. This family had won several accolades for preserving the legacy of this craft and his clients needed no introduction.
Travel Tip: The streets of Nirona are studded with small houses with artistically made doors and the blooming Bougainvillea adds more color to the village during the Winters. The villagers were polite enough to let me click some pictures. But always remember to ask permission.
Copper Bells of Kutch
Walking past the Khatri household, the dusty lanes took us to a house that looked more like a craft shop at the first look, but when entered, it was the workshop of Mr Hussain Siddik who has been into the art of making copper bells for the last 4-5 decades.
These copper bells were again brought to the Kutch region from the Sindh and was used to identify cattle herds in the olden times. Cow, goats, and buffaloes were adorned with these bells around their neck and the owner of the cattle would identify just by the sound of the bells. The sounds were sweet, medium and bitter(hard) and it depended on the type of copper sheet used. These were mostly crafted from disintegrated craft items or waste and reused to make copper bells and decors.
In-spite of all the tourist distraction, Mr. Hussain was meticulously crating his copper sheets.There were no high end equipment to cut & melt or beat the sheets. It was all happening in a few minutes right in front of our eyes. The very form of sustainable art.
Located at a distance of 10 kms, the village of Bhujodi is the main repository to all Kutch-y crafts. A lot of shops are set for the villagers to sell their wares at fixed price and there are also some standalone stores, selling unique designer stuff.
I learnt from my driver that Banni is not just one village, but a group of 30+ villages in Kutch. The villages were devastated by the earthquake and now in an effort to develop the economy, tourism and handicrafts are promoted. As you cross the villages, every now and then you would see mud Bhungas erupted and ready to host tourists. That winter morning as we walked along the muddy roads of Banni, we caught sight of cans of milk loaded in trucks to be sent to the Milk society. The villagers are largely dependent on their cattle livestock and dairy industry.
Apart from pasturing and milking the livestock, some families engage in traditional weaving and crafting. While the men went out with the livestock to the pasture lands, the women settled down with the needle and thread to do their embroidery with a never fading smile on their face.
We sought permission to click pictures of the women, but they shied away and insisted that we buy their products. Heavily embroided fabrics, kutch-y metal jewellery(absolute love), slings and joola bags with leather handles were a few that were laid out under the shades of the trees on a old style cot.I wanted to buy all of that was laid out and this is not unusual for anyone who loves crafts, colors and boho-ic stuff .
The Bhungas in these villages were colorful and artistic and caught my attention. Built from clay, the walls had colorful patterns with mirror studded decorations and embroidered cloth hangings. It was rich in interior and exterior decorations. Amidst the dry arid land, these ornate Bhungas radiated a rich ambiance.
Months later, as I sit and pen this article, with the pandemic affecting larger economies, I worry about the survival of these people that predominantly depend on tourism. My mind travels back to Banni and Bhujodi villages , curious to see if those women in these villages are still busy with their needle and thread weaving colorful embroidery into pieces of fabric with their neck bent and the hand moving rhythmically tracking the patterns .
Let us make “Buy Local” not just a fad or a trending hashtag on the social media, but to strengthen the domestic crafts and economic base of many such communities.