I am fan of Indian handicrafts, and have some familiarity with the vast craft heritage of the country. I seek out the local craft on any holiday and there can be no destination more suited for a craft tour than Kutch – we tried to get in as much as possible in the 5 days of the recent Kutch tour.
The most impressive, and painstaking of the crafts were ‘Rogan’ and Patola. Rogan is an art form which is left with a single family, that of Ghafoorbhai Khatri, a much decorated master craftsman in the village of Nirona. In this most painstaking craft, castor oil is boiled to a thick glue and then mixed with various natural mineral based colors. This guey stuff is then pulled with a stick into thin thread and put on the cloth, a finger under the cloth guiding the design. It is difficult to explain this ancient Persian technique, which has been with this family for hundreds of years and which they have now patented. The final product is very fine and in fact a piece was selected by PM Modi as one of the gifts for President Obama. Here is the one, a tree of life, I felt compelled to buy
But this is a niche craft, which I had not heard of before. Kutch is better known for its embroideries, of which we only see a small fraction outside. Each tribe and community has its own style and the number of stitches and techniques for embellishment that are used can be mind boggling. Traditionally done by women for their own use, there are styles and items for every occasion – the most important ones being for marriage, where both the bride and groom wear these clothes.
Its not just the variety of the stitches, there are also tribes that specialize in incorporation of embellishments like, beads and shells, glass etc And then there are the various applique and quilting varieties too.
Many parts of the region also have various printing methods, and although the synthetic colors have crept in due to economics and the non-availability of natural dyes, there are some efforts to retain the use of natural dyes.
A large number of NGOs work in the area, trying to provide design inputs, ensure better wages and take the craft to the appropriate markets. The appropriate market and commiserate wages are the major issues faced by this sector across the country. Adequate wages, means higher costs which we the customers are unwilling to pay – because we associate handicrafts with low price and are unwilling to pay for the vast improvement in finish and quality.
The extreme limit of this conflict is the ‘patola’ saree. Sitting next door to the famous rani-ki-vav, is the home of , the family that has been producing the famous patola sarees. These are unlike the patolas made anywhere else, since they use a ‘double’ patola method – the warp is dyed by the most tedious and time consuming method, to reflect the pattern and then the colored threads are used in the weft to bring out the startlingly clear patterns on these fabrics. In the more common variety available, there is no dying of the warp and so there is less clarity of the design. Suffice it to say that the family produces 3-4 sarees a year (Rs 3-5 lakhs each) and the waiting list is of 3 years. You can see that the in this case, the craft/wage/market conflicts has so evolved that only a handful of the super rich can enjoy these sarees. And without this patronage, it will die out in the years ahead.
I’m not sure how this scenario will play out in the years ahead. But I do feel fortunate, that I have been able to enjoy the work of many of these talented crafts persons.