Nirona village: Rogan art, copper bell & lacquer craft

Nirona

 

Kutch is a fascinating place; besides textiles, there are various other arts and crafts being practised in the region. Located around 35 km north of Bhuj, Nirona village is a small village famous for Rogan art, a rare traditional art form originated from Persia/Sindh, which almost disappeared until efforts to revive it in recent years. For over three centuries, one Khatri (Muslim) family called Abdul Gafur in Nirona has kept this traditional art form from vanishing completely.

There are only about 5000 people living in this quiet village, and there is nothing particularly appealing as you walk through the village, though I do like the bright colours and geometric patterns on the facades of the buildings.

 

Nirona

Nirona

Nirona

Nirona  Nirona

Nirona

Nirona

Nirona

Nirona

Nirona

Nirona

Nirona

Nirona

Nirona

Nirona

 

It is hard to believe that only one family in this world has managed to keep the Rogan art alive. The reason for this is because traditionally the art form was passed on only to the male members of the Khatri family. (Many ancient art and craft forms around the world have died out because of family secrecies, which is a big shame.) Today, Khatri Abdul Gafoor Daud and Khatri Sumar Daud along with five other artists, including a woman are the practitioners at their studio in the village. Abdul Gafoor Daud has also been teaching the art to local women in collaboration with a non-profit organisation as a way of reviving the art.

The family has been presented with the Padma Shri Award (2019), an International Designer award, 5 National award, 8 State award and 3 National Merit certificates over the last four decades. In 2014, Rogan art became internationally known when it was presented to Barack Obama (the then President of the United States of America) by Narendra Modi during his visit to the US.

Traditionally, the Rogan art was painted on bridal clothing of the regional tribes, and on ghagras, odhanis and bed spreads. Nowadays, though, more people used them as wall pieces and ‘Rogan kaam’ has gained immense popularity.

 

Nirona  rogan art

rogan art

 

The word rogan means oil or oil-based in Persian. Paint made from thick brightly coloured castor seed oil is used to paint on fabric. Castor is a crop commonly grown in the Kutch region of Gujarat and the artists source it from the local farmers.

To prepare the paint, castor oil is heated in a vessel and continuously stirred for more than 12 hours till it catches fire. The paint-maker has to take extreme care to ensure it doesn’t get burnt. The residue is then mixed with cold water until it thickens into a sticky elastic paste called rogan. This paste is then mixed with stone pigments to lend it different hues. Next, the artisan uses a six-inch metal stick to paint with a fine thread of rogan on cloth.

During our short visit, a young artisan demonstrated his skills and it was jawdropping to watch him apply paint onto the fabric with such precision and focus. If he makes one mistake, he would have to start all over again because there is nowhere to hide the mistakes. It is no wonder this art form is being so highly regarded in India and globally.

 

rogan art  rogan art

rogan art

rogan art  rogan art

 

After the visit, we went to the studio of a copper bell maker, Mr Husen Luhar, who has been making bell-making since the age of 12. The Lohar community is originally from Sindh, and Mr Luhar‘s family has been making copper bells for at least 7 generations. I have never seen a bell being made before, and I was captivated by Mr Luhar‘s skills and speed. Within 15 minutes of cutting and hammering continuously, he somehow turned a piece of copper into a bell that produces a crisp sound – it was like magic! Besides bells, he also makes wind Chimes, Xylophone and Jhumar etc. I have never given much thought on the different sounds produce by bells or other metal materials, but the visit to Mr Luhar‘s studio has opened my eyes and made me appreciate the craft of bell-making.

 

Mr Husen Luhar

Mr Husen Luhar  copper bell art

copper bell art

copper bell art

copper bell art

copper bell art

 

Our final stop in the village was to meet the artisans of lacquer art practiced a semi-nomadic tribe called Vadha. Traditionally, artists used to obtain the lac resin from insects found in the forests. Nowadays, lac is readily available in the market.

The resin is mixed with different colours and applied onto carved wooden objects such as wooden spoons, bread rolling pins, containers, toys and utensils etc. The tools to make these objects are very basic: a manual lathe, a hammer and chisels, but it is the bright zigzag patterns that distinguish them from other lacquerware.

It is incredible that such a small village can produce such an interesting variety of arts and crafts. I think all visitors who come to Kutch have to explore beyond the cities to appreciate all the hidden treasures in this region.

 

lacquar  lacquer

nirona village

lacquer  lacquer

 

 

Kutch textiles: Ajrakh & blockprinting in Ajrakhpur

Ajrakhpur

Ajrakhpur

Ajrakhpur – the land of Ajrakh

 

Before my trip to India, my knowledge on Indian textiles was minimal, yet the textiles workshop at Somaiya Kala Vidya (see my earlier post) completely opened my eyes. I did not realise that block printing is such a complex and time-consuming process, especially when only natural dyes are used. The ajrakh printing techique is an ancient craft with a history of over 4000 years, and it is believed to be originated from Sindh along the Indus River (now Pakistan). Since it uses natural dyes only, the process would require weeks of work which includes multiple times of dyeing and washing. Sadly, the introduction of chemical dyes from the West led to the decline of this ancient craft at the end of the nineteenth century.

In recent years, the revival of ajrakh printing has been credited to a 10th generation master craftsman, Dr. Ismail Mohammed Khatri. Originally from Dhamadka (about 50 km east of Bhuj), a famous ajrakh village where artisans of the Khatri community resided, Dr. Ismail Khatri and many of the artisans had to leave their ancestral homes and relocate to Ajrakhpur, 15 km SE of Bhuj. The reason for this migration was due to the the drying up of the river caused by the earthquake in 2001 (since water is an essential element of this craft).

With the help of the Maiwa Foundation from Canada, and orders from India’s most renowned ethnic collection studio, Fab India, Dr. Ismail Khatri‘s workshop started to thrive after the resettlement. Not only he was awarded an honorary doctorate from De Montfort University in Leicester in 2003, he also won the UNESCO Award Seal of Excellence for handicrafts in 2008 and 2012 for his dedication to this craft. Now he still runs the studio with his two sons, Sufiyan and Juned.

 

Ajrakh studio  Ajrakh studio

Ajrakh studio

Ajrakh studio  Ajrakh studio

Ajrakh studio

 

Now the Ajrakh Studio has become a popular destination for foreigners who are interested in ajrakh and Kutch textiles. The new spacious studio, designed by Indigo Architects, opened in 2017 and has a retail shop and a hall where visitors can view a film on the ajrakh craft.

We met Juned and he led us to the printing workshop and explained the process involved in ajrakh printing. The un-dyed fabric is first cut into 9 meter lengths, then washed to remove starches, wax and impurities, followed by dyeing it with myrobalan. A wooden block hand-carved with traditional designs is seleced, coated in lime and Acacia gum (as a resist) and pressed onto the cloth at regular intervals. The artisans continue the process with different blocks and coating them in dyes, aligning them with previous prints, then pressing them onto the fabric. After each colour of print, artisans have to rinse and sun-dry the cloth. This process would be repeated with each layer of colour, hence it is extremely arduous and time-consuming.

 

Ajrakh studio

Ajrakh studio

Ajrakh studio

Ajrakh studio

Ajrakh studio

Ajrakh studio

Ajrakh studio

Ajrakh   Ajrakh

Ajrakh studio

 

Ajrakh is traditionally worn by the pastoral Maldhari (meaning herdsman in English) community. Apart from pagdis and lungis, it is also used as bed covers and wedding costumes etc. Traditionally, the colours and motifs symbolise nature with symmetrical designs. Indigo blue (from the indigo leaves) and crimson red (from alizarin found in the roots of madder) are the two most predominate colours for ajrakh.

 

Ajrakh studio

Ajrakh studio

indigo dyeing

indigo  Ajrakh studio

 

Before visiting Ajrakhpur, I told Judy Frater about our itinerary, and she suggested that I pay a visit to the studio of my ajrakh instructor Khalid as he is also located within the village. With limited time, I dashed off from the Ajrakh studio and headed towards Khalid‘s studio (his big signage was useful), which turns out to be only 5 minutes away.

Although Khalid‘s studio is much smaller than the Ajrakh studio, there were still at least 5 employees (including his son) printing and dyeing during my visit. I also met a friendly young textiles student who is working with Khalid on her graduation pieces.

Khalid spent 10 years learning his printing skills from his father, and he only went to study at Somaiya Kala Vidya after his son had done a course there. The course helped him to break away from the traditions and explore new ideas and techniques. Since I learned the basics of ajrakh printing from Khalid at the workshop, I know how talented he is and I wanted to support him somehow. The result was a shopping spree at his studio/shop, where I bought a few scarves and shawls for myself and my family. One of them is a combination of ajrakh print and bandhani (done by his wife), which I particularly like. He also offered to customise the fringes/tassels for me, and the finished scarves were delivered to my hotel by the kind textiles student 2 days later. The prices of his scarves are not only reasonable, they are also unqiue and more contemporary. You can check out his instagram account @ashk_by_khalid to see more of his works.

 

khalid usman Khatri

khalid usman Khatri

khalid usman Khatri

khalid usman Khatri

khalid usman Khatri  khalid usman Khatri

khalid usman Khatri

Khalid Usman Khatri’s studio

 

After we left Ajrakhpur, we headed to the nearby Living and learning design centre, a textiles and craft museum run by the Shrujan Trust that aims to preserve, revitalise and promote the craft heritage of Kutch. Upon arrival, I was very pleasantly surprised by the beautiful and Mexican/Pueblo Revival style contemporary architecture and lush gardens. Opened in 2016, the complex took about 5 years to build and comprises a museum with three galleries, an auditorium, a library, an outdoor cafe, a shop and three crafts studios for practitioners. Again, the architects behind this project was Indigo architects, whose chief architect Mausami had received her MA in architecture from University of New Mexico, hence both the Ajrakh studio and LLDC have a strong Mexican/Santa Fe influence.

 

LLDC, Living and Learning Design Centre

LLDC, Living and Learning Design Centre

LLDC, Living and Learning Design Centre

LLDC, Living and Learning Design Centre

LLDC, Living and Learning Design Centre

LLDC, Living and Learning Design Centre  LLDC, Living and Learning Design Centre

LLDC, Living and Learning Design Centre

LLDC, Living and Learning Design Centre  LLDC, Living and Learning Design Centre 

 

Strangely, the vast complex was very quiet during our visit and we hardly saw any other visitors. If this museum was situated in London or New York, it would be jam-packed with tourists. And I think this museum deserves to be visited by more tourists because of its excellent contents. You really need a few hours to go through the exhibits as they cover all the textiles styles, techniques and fashion from different tribes within Kutch; you can even find out how to tie a turban in different ways. If you want to learn more about Kutch textiles, then this place is a good starting point. Photography is forbidden inside the upper galleries, but it is allowed in the lower gallery where there are paintings and textiles on display.

 

LLDC, Living and Learning Design Centre

LLDC, Living and Learning Design Centre  LLDC, Living and Learning Design Centre