While the endless expanse of Kutch in Gujarat is dotted largely with the brown of arid stretches and the white of salt pans, there are other things that make up for its lack of colour. In stark contrast to the landscape of Kutch shine its colourful art forms that are spread generously across the region.
The capital of Bhuj is quite a revelation to someone who thinks of it as a little hamlet that shot to limelight in the aftermath of the 2001 quake. Bhuj, on the contrary, is a surprisingly green and thriving town, where one can walk through the crumbling walls of Darbargadh, around the forlorn Prag Mahal and the beautiful Aina Mahal adjacent to it.
My primary interest in Kutch has always been the Little Rann that is home to a variety of animals rarely found elsewhere in India. On an evening safari that takes one beyond the salt pans, flamingos reflect the colours of the sinking sun in the pink of their wings, and small herds of wild asses watch over mothers nestling their young. The ‘ghudkar’ is a species of wild ass found nowhere else in the world, and watching them run with willful abandon has been an experience that tops my list. This time round, however, I was determined to discover the colourful heart of Kutch that is brimming with artisans the way its brown earth is laced with crystal salt.
Bell makers of Nirona
For an introduction to local arts, the Kutch museum in Bhuj provides a good head start. For a deeper insight though, it’s better to travel to the sources of these art forms. About 25km from Bhuj lies Nirona, known for its many art forms including a community of copper bell-makers. I walked past a man demonstrating to his young son the right way of beating a strip of copper, and the adjoining workshops with mud floors where men squatted amongst beautiful bells of all shapes and sizes. The art of copper-coated iron bell making is a specialty of the ironsmiths hailing from the Muslim community of Nirona. Initially for cattle, bell making has evolved today into a fine art that caters to décor.
Another art form here which is the forte of the Koli community, is lacquered colouring. I looked on wonderstruck as old Wadi took pieces of lac made from tree sap and transported them smoothly on to wooden objects purely by virtue of friction on a lathe.
There is a plethora of other arts in Kutch including tie and dye, kharad and kala cotton weaving, camel wool weaving, ajrak block printing, and leather art. The rarest of them, however, is rogan, a form of painting believed to have come from Persia. Rogan art’s main ingredient is the paint which interestingly is castor seed oil boiled for over three days with natural colours obtained from stones. The Khatri family of Nirona is the flag bearer of this art that dates back nearly 500 years.
It entails dipping a small metal stick into this paint and twirling it with enough precision to produce intricate patterns on cloth. The cloth is then folded such that the paint leaves an impression on the other half, creating symmetry of pattern that is the trademark of rogan.
Towards the end of this enriching art pilgrimage, I was keen on seeing the one art form that is more commonplace and rarely given its due—pottery. Widespread because of its utility, few know of pottery’s evolution from functionality to an art. Though it is hard to identify specific regions and artists because it is thinly spread out, Khamir is a great place to start.
About 15 km off Bhuj, the Khamir campus is a haven for Kutchi arts. The non-profit organization is a platform for the crafts, heritage and cultural ecology of Kutch that allows artisans of the region to come together and provides them space for engagement and development of their respective art forms. The artefacts produced are then sold at their store here and available online for purchase.
Every year, Khamir chooses one art form to highlight, and pottery is the chosen art form for this year. The ongoing exhibition is an ode to the multitude of nameless potters of Kutch who have aided the rise of pottery. The three-month exhibition called Ghadai – that roughly translates to tapping – is an important process in making pottery, that showcases old designs revived by resident and day artists, live workshops on the wheel, documentaries highlighting the problems faced by potters today and a pottery bazaar that showcases work that can be purchased.
The exhibits have moved the spotlight on ancient utensils such as kara and bhuddad and traditional toys such as the hatdi that is gifted to the girl child on her birth. The exhibition highlights issues of small-scale industries that will not survive increasing market demands of mass manufacture.
One of the reasons why Khamir functions so well – the workers here blend in seamlessly despite their diversity. For every design school graduate putting stellar ideas on the table, there are women who weave those ideas into patterns on the loom and men who shape them on the potter’s wheel. Raji Ben, a local woman from the weavers’ community, heads the plastic weaving department as flawlessly as Meera Goradia, the director of Khamir, who heads the entire organisation.
The need of the hour is to preserve these practices, promote fair trade and endorse these ancient arts that will otherwise be lost in the swirling white of the salt desert.
Ghadai is on till 31st March, 2015. The Khamir guesthouse is a great place to not only enjoy the exhibition, but to also make base to explore the surrounding craft-rich villages of Kutch. To know more, visit www.khamir.org.