A.A.Wazir’s invaluable collection of ancient textiles narrate little known facets of Kutch’s history and social fabric
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that A.A.Wazir lives in a little museum in Bhuj. A portion of his home is a storehouse of painstakingly collected textiles from all over Kutch. The genteel researcher in his seventies hopes to open his own museum and display these collections. For now, he is glad to share his knowledge to focused groups touring the region and displaying a few of his pieces at museums in and around Kutch.
He unravels an old fabric that’s been wrapped in a protective muslin cloth and the small audience looks eagerly at what seems to be elaborate embroidery done with tiny stitches. “Look carefully; you’ll need a pair of magnifying glasses to understand the work better,” he says. Through the glass, thousands of mirrors held together by a complicated network of stitches are revealed. Life has revolved around stitches for generations of natives in Kutch and collectors like Wazir want to preserve them for posterity.
We look through a few pieces of textiles from Wazir’s collections and ask him what made him research and collect them. Wazir bhai, as he is referred to, rewinds, “I studied commerce and later studied miniature paintings at the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai for three years, during which I got to meet S.H. Raza and M.F. Husain and other progressive artists of the period. I began buying and selling miniature paintings and discovered that many fake paintings were in circulation in India.”
Years later he turned his attention to textiles and a friend approached him to return to Bhuj and help preserve dying textiles from different parts of the region. By then, Wazir was already collecting rare and old textiles such as embroidery from Sind, phulkari from Punjab, kantha work from West Bengal and tribal textiles from southern India. “When the earthquake stuck Bhuj in 2001, our house was damaged and we lost around 3000 pieces,” he says. After reconstructing the house, he and his sons resumed collecting rare textiles. “The textiles are one way to bridge the old and the new worlds,” he reasons.
The innumerable fabrics, bedspreads, coats (including 100-year-old capes from Afghan), saris, thorans and other pieces rolled up in de-starched muslin cloth at his house all display a genuine necessity of museum space for display and preservation. Wazir admits he sought government funding once but didn’t receive a favourable reply. He stopped trying and instead focused on exhibiting his collections wherever possible — including 17 international exhibitions. “I keep tiny bags of cloves, cardamom and cotton in the shelves to ward off insects and once in four to six months, each piece is kept in the sun for a few minutes, the folds changed and wrapped in muslin again,” he says.
Wazir then details the intricacies with which a 100-year-old shawl pertaining to the Bishnois of Rajasthan were made, the rare paisley motifs in kantha work and explains how kantha embroidery was a mode of expression for women of Bengal, he says, “Each kantha, or for that matter each work of embroidery narrates a story.” We couldn’t agree more.
From kitchen rags to dowry bags
Collecting old textiles is easier said than done. There are occasions when Wazir chanced upon forgotten varieties of embroideries in someone’s kitchen. “I saw this piece of cloth used to wipe the kitchen table. When the lady of the house learnt it could be of historic value, she wanted a neat sum to part with it,” says Wazir.
Museums in Europe use carbon dating to determine the date of a fabric, but Wazir goes by his knowledge of textiles and dates them taking into account the colours and patterns. “There’s a difference in textiles coming from each group. The mushru silk of Patels living in east and west Gujarat have different motifs. Some of the ‘thorans’ I collected are rare pieces, belonging to the time of Debaria Rabari communities. Young girls had to stitch elaborate thorans with embroideries as dowry for her in-laws. The girls also had to stitch dowry bags to keep valuables,” he shares.
The silk route brought in Chinese silk and Wazir is in possession of 100-year-old Chinese silk ‘rumals’ with badla work and bandhini.
(The writer visited Gujarat as part of a Kutch textile trail organised by Jaypore-Breakaway Journeys. www.break-away.in)