Where crafts weave magic

A display of kharad weaving.
A display of kharad weaving.

Kutch in Gujarat, with its stunning landscape, brown, barren and yet so enchanting… particularly the Rann of Kutch stretch… is a traveller’s delight of course. But more so, it is a shopping paradise, particularly for women, unless you, as a couple, are hunting for a typical Kutchi carved door or window to adorn your dream house. But for women, it is guaranteed to deliver an ecstatic experience. Even if you can’t buy all you want… to see, touch and feel those beautifully embroidered shawls, sarees, wooden carvings, leather products, embroidered purses, shoulder bags…is a treat in itself.

I found myself in Bhuj, and the adjoining Bhujodi village, for the second time in a year… yes, a rare treat, I know. This time to recount the story of PDG of D 3050 Mohan Shah, who played such a big role in the rebuilding and reconstruction work that Rotary did in Kutch after the devastating earthquake of January 2001. As promised, he and his son, Jay Shah, also a Rotarian, drive me to Bhujodi for a shopping experience.

After a few bandhni and Ajrakh stoles, embroidered cloth bags and kurta panels have been bought, at half the price they are sold in Chennai or Delhi, we visit the Hiralaxmi Craft Park in the village. Set up over a sprawling 10 acre area, the beautifully conceived and executed complex, mainly to preserve, restore and promote the crafts of Kutch, takes your breath away. For one, in a water starved region such as Bhuj, the green expanse of the Park is a welcome relief. It is monsoon time and everyday dark clouds cover the sky, but only to disappoint. It is July end, but the rain gods are in no mood to shower their blessings upon Bhuj. But the overcast sky cools down the area and weaves a magic spell over it.

In Marwada samaj daughters are not educated, they are made to do only this embroidery. But we thought otherwise.
Mayabhai

The Craft Park is the brainchild of Chetan Shah, Managing Director of the Ashapura Group, and was set up in 2005 after a delegation of rural artisans, invited to the Ashapura guesthouse to demonstrate their arts and crafts impressed upon Shah how many of the treasured arts and crafts of Kutch were on the verge of extinction. As usual, the artisans had no organised forum to support or market their craft, organise exhibitions, fund their travel, stay and food.

Every month 12 different artisans are hosted here and given a room, constructed on the model of the traditional Kutchi bhunga, made of mud, thatch and bamboo sticks. An architectural marvel, the bhunga keeps the interior cool in summer and warm in winter. Each bhunga nestles amidst greenery and provides the artisan sufficient space to display and market their wares during the month. There is a beautiful amphitheatre too in the complex to host traditional music and dance programmes.

Anjuben, the skilled artisan.
Anjuben, the skilled artisan.

Relaxing on a bench outside her bhunga, I find Anjuben, an artisan from the Marwara community, who has come from Dholaveera village, about 250 km from Bhuj. In her stall are displayed beautifully embroidered purses, cloth bags, clutch purses, runners, panels and patches in a rainbow of colours. The kurta she is wearing is exotically embroidered; the chunky silver neckwear, a plethora of colourful bangles covering her wrist as well as upper arm, present a captivating image. But above all, it is her smiles that draws you to her, and her shop.

Mayabhai, her husband, who specialises in making Kutch’s traditional leather ware, smiles as he describes himself her “assistant”.

Chetan Bhai of Ashapura Turst encourages artisans like us and Meenabhabi bahu dayalu chhey (very kind). They treat us with respect.
– Anjuben

“She is the artisan, I am only her helper… I couldn’t send her so far for an entire month all alone, so I have come with her.” The month is coming to an end, and the couple is very happy with the sales she has made. Craft Park gets about 4,000 visitors every week. “We manage to sell our products only when we go to a mela (exhibition), but this place is so good. There are many foreigners who come here… from Japan, France, Bhopal, etc and they love our embroidered crafts. She has sold most of what she had brought,” beams Mayabhai..

The couple has been to melas in Delhi, Kolkatta, Jaipur. He does leather work, she does embroidery. What about the Rann Utsav at Dhordo, I ask him. “No, we haven’t gone there; it is too far and becomes very expensive as there is no accommodation given and while there are only 12 shops at a time here, at the Rann Utsav there are too many shops, so the competition is much more.”

Anjuben is very happy that they are given free food from the canteen, toilets with running water are available, and as the bhunga has a fan, they sleep in it at night. “I don’t have to cook, which is such a huge relief, says the woman who has been doing fine embroidery work for 20 years.

“Chetan Bhai encourages artisans like us and Meenabhabi bahu dayalu chhey (very kind). They treat us with respect,” she adds. While their two sons are not interested in learning their father’s craft, daughter Ranjan has learnt embroidery from her mother and helps her in her craft. “But she lives in Bhu and is going to a school; her education is sponsored by a kind family. In Marwada samaj daughters are not educated, they are made to do only this embroidery. But we thought otherwise,” says Mayabhai proudly.

A typical Kutchi bhunga at the Craft Park.
A typical Kutchi bhunga at the Craft Park.

In another bhunga, Haneef Khatri has an enchanting range of Ajrakh stoles, shibori dupattas and tie and dye chunnis.

But the most fascinating stalls are those displaying kharad and artistic cotton and wool weaving. Kharad weaving — done using goat and camel wool — is over 100 years old and according to literature available at the Park, there is only one family in Kutch doing this. Kharad weaving is known as jiroi (Mat in English) in Rajasthan.

One bhunga is devoted to artistic cotton and wool weaving; the Kutch landscape and weather are both suited to rearing sheep. In many weaving families, a skilful mix of both cotton and sheep wool is used to weave beautiful carpets, dhurries, shawls, dress material, hand and shoulder bags, curtains, table cloths and bedspreads.

The Craft Park has beautiful panels educating visitors about the rich heritage of Kutchi arts and crafts. For instance, in a part of Kutch, exquisite mud mirror work is done. We’re told how many Kutchi communities traditionally decorate the mud walls in their homes with mirror work, designed around the figures of parrots, elephants, horses, camels, etc. This craft has now been transferred onto small wooden panels and other objects which you can either use or display in your house as they come nicely framed.

A Kharad artisan takes a break from the strenuous weaving.
A Kharad artisan takes a break from the strenuous weaving.

Both the landscape and the crafts of Kutch mirror the resilience, brilliance and hard work of the Kutchi people. The earliest migrants from India to cross the shores and reach Africa were Kutchis, and some of them had built their own boats. In many areas, the land is so arid that nothing but the thorny bawal bushes grow… small wonder that the artisans of Kutch filled their arts and crafts with so many vivid colours… to make up for the browns of the desert area they inhabit.

Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat

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