Sangeetha Devi Dundoo gets an insight into the textiles and crafts of the region, speaking to artisans and understanding their lifestyles

Say Gujarat and the much-advertised Rann Utsav and Amitabh Bachchan listing out must-visit sites of the State come to mind. On a different pitch, the fashion and film industries have been drawing from the wealth of textiles the State has to offer. The ‘kediyas’ worn by Ranveer Singh in Goliyon ki Rasleela - Ram Leela , are stylised versions of the garment worn by herders in Kutch and the heavy skirts and black shawls of Deepika Padukone all have a story to tell... a story of elderly women passing on a textile legacy to the younger generation, a story of how each tribe is identified by its unique embroidery, and above all, how artisan clusters have risen from the debris of the 2001 earthquake. In a bid to acclimatise textile lovers to the life of artisans, the Jaypore-Breakaway Journeys began a Kutch trail this February. 

Quake proof, almost

As we drive into the planned settlement of shawl weavers in Bhujodi, it’s hard to not notice the houses of weavers, each one proudly displaying their creations and boards mentioning state-level and national-level awards showered on them. “We’ve been living here for 835 years, though only recently this cluster became an organised one,” says weaver Vankar Shamji. “Our house is built with a 2.5ft thick wall, like traditional ‘bhungas’ (circular mud houses). We escaped the wrath of the quake. Our neighbours weren’t lucky,” he says.

After the quake, many architects argued that the bhungas could withstand weather travesties from any direction. Shamji and his brothers display an understanding of indigenous skills, use local ingredients as mordants for their natural dyes. 

We walk through narrow lanes, surprised at the cleanliness levels and spot elderly women belonging to Rabari community busy with their needles and threads. A few women, well over 70, sew with their naked eyes, not relying on spectacles. Shamji credits the good health of the natives to their lifestyle. “We eat according to season, from ingredients sourced from farms nearby. In winters, we stick to a diet of bajra rotis (called rotlas ), vegetables, khichdi , buttermilk and kadhi . In summer, we switch to wheat rotis ,” he says. His backyard, like that of others in the vicinity, is home to cows and the families enjoy diary products free of adulterants. 

Identified by a stitch

For an outsider, a fabric with Kutch-embroidery would amount to ‘beautiful and intricate work’, but spend time at organisations like Shrujan, Kalaraksha and Khamir and the eye gets used to identifying at least a few embroidery styles — jat, suf, ahir, aari and the communities they represent. “There are 31 confirmed styles. We are working on identifying the others on the verge of being lost,” says Ami Shroff, who manages Shrujan with her mother and founder Chanda Shroff. We listen in awe how Chandaben, as the natives refer to her, offered to help women in Kutch after the 1969 famine. “Women did embroidery for personal use. They laughed when my mother told them they could use their skill to earn,” says Ami. Shrujan is now a success story, supporting clusters of artisans. 

Kalaraksha came in later, beginning operations in 1991 and registered in 1993, now working with over 1000 artisans from seven communities. Khamir was established after the earthquake, in 2005, as a joint initiative of Kachchh Nav Nirman Abhiyan and Nehru Foundation for Development. A visit to these organisations is not over before we get to try our hand at pottery and block printing.

Life in clusters

Kutch has more than 30 different clusters according to the crafts. The rusticity of Ajrakhpur where we meet artisans discussing block printing and dyeing is contrasted by the sophisticated lifestyles of silk patola weavers in Surendranagar. At each place, we witness traditional patterns (Jabbar Khatri, an award-winning ajrakh printer, holds forth on the traditional ‘champakali’ blocks among others) while Sufiyan Ismail Khatri has given the art a contemporary spin, incorporating Japanese shibori technique with blocks. The Patola group isn’t behind. Dharamshi K. Maheshwari elaborates the nuances of traditional patola motifs and at the same time, shows off his innovations.

At the end of a seven-day tour involving meeting craftsmen, museums and a taste of living in bhungas and sampling farm-fresh cuisine, we feel we’ve only skimmed the surface of a textile tradition. At a larger level, we wonder how these craftsmen in far-flung areas attract buyers. They do. The established artisans now supply to designers and retailers and reel off names like Fabindia and Tarun Tahiliani with ease. A few have travelled the globe, conducting workshops and talking about their craft. One doesn’t need to look too deep to understand that their journeys haven’t been easy.

(The writer was in Ahmedabad and Kutch as part of a textile trail tour organised by Jaypore-Breakaway tours).

Travel off-the-map

‘Following the thread - a textile trail in Ahmedabad and Kutch’ by Jaypore-Breakaway group introduces textile enthusiasts to craftsmen in their habitats. “Artisans have been practicing century-old crafts and most often, these arts are specific to sects or regions. Jaypore.com is an online initiative that sources arts and crafts from remote parts of the country and promotes artisan stories, while exposing and selling handcrafted products to the world. As an extension of this, we launched Jaypore Journeys in association with Breakaway. These journeys are conducted in small groups and facilitated by textile designers, historians and art connoisseurs,” says Aarti Jesrani of the group. Other tours in the pipeline include a summer trip focusing on the crafts of Kashmir and Ladakh. For details, www.break-away.in

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