Fusing innovation with tradition

Chaman Premji with his wares at the exhibition. Photo: R. Shivaji Rao  

Chaman Premji Valkar, master weaver from Kutch, Gujarat, loves music. Not surprising, in light of the fact that his creations are compositions of lyrical beauty born on the loom. As he holds forth on the unique features of his craft, he hums snatches of a Bhuj folk song to illustrate a point. “My father, 78-year-old master weaver Premji Velji Valkar, is a living legend and recipient of the Shilp Guru National Award. He considers music as a form of meditation. Music spreads love, nurtures compassion and elevates man. Weaving, like music and all art, is a form of expression. Our weaves are an expression of a heritage handed down through eleven generations, from father to son. We belong to the Vankar (weaver) tribe of Gujarat. For over 200 years when the barter system was in vogue, our tribe would migrate along with the nomadic Rabari (shepherds) wherever they moved, as our livelihood depended on their custom. Their migration trails, in turn, followed the ebb and flow of seasons and rainfall patterns. Thus our livelihood was determined by the rhythms of Nature. However, during the last century, we settled permanently in Bhujodi to form a village community.

“In 1946, Mahatma Gandhi established, near Bhuj, a training centre for handloom weavers and artisans under the ‘Self Reliance’ project, in which my father was the first teacher. He trained many weavers, travelling to Ahmedabad and other centres in Gujarat to research various weaving techniques. In 1959 he set up a pit loom at home, that yielded 300% more productivity, a fact that rekindled interest in weaving as a livelihood among those hesitant to take it up as a full-time occupation.”

Premji and Chaman work only with natural fibres – cotton, wool and silk, as they best counter the rigours of the climate of the Kutch-Bhuj region which can be harsh yet invigorating. In recent years, tussar and muga have found their way to Chaman’s loom, extending his pact with natural fibres without diminishing his original commitment. The uniqueness of Kutch weaving lies in crafting fine fabrics with intricate motifs from coarse natural fibres that keep the wearer cool in summer and warm in winter. “I specialise in motifs such as Chomak, Dungli, Panchko and Tippo,” says Chaman. The woven range includes stoles, scarves, shawls and shirts. Despite competition from low-priced machine-woven goods that flood the market, Chaman is confident that handwoven fabrics will always find buyers due to a renewed surge of interest in crafts and a growing appreciation of their unique appeal in recent times.

Several visitors stare curiously at Chaman’s display of weaving implements. One visitor voices a question they all want to pose. ‘Why have you placed an onion on the table? ‘That is not an onion’, clarifies the craftsman politely. ‘It is a bulb called vrath, indigenous to the Bhuj region, but not used in cooking. Instead, it is boiled to yield a paste with which the woolen yarn is coated before weaving. Once the paste dries, the treated yarn is woven into shawls and stoles protected by the vrath coating that acts a natural insecticide. If the fabric is aired seasonally, washed and sun-dried, it will endure for even a hundred years! No need for mothballs,” he declares with a flourish. The visitors look suitably impressed and immensely pleased to be in on this particular secret.

For Chaman, tradition is a vibrant thread that binds his art to the business of everyday living. Tradition is also an unbroken thread that picks out the subtle brown and black checked weave of the woolen shawl he sports. Woven by his grandfather, it has weathered the winds of change for over a century, although its supple texture belies its venerable age. Innovation fuses seamlessly with tradition in the form of a broad mirror-encrusted panel jubilant with yellow, blue and pink Kutch embroidery that Chaman has attached to the shawl - an accessory that attracts a slew of compliments, as does the intricately patterned stole that takes pride of place in his display enclosure. Framing myriad shades of blue (yarn naturally dyed in indigo) set off by white, pink and beige accents, it is a study in understated elegance that astounds with its wealth of staggeringly minute detail when viewed up close.

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Printable version | Apr 14, 2021 12:56:39 AM |

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