This January, the first time I felt the winter chill was during my week-long trip to Gujarat. A boisterous group of 11 companions and I were living in tents set up at the outskirts of the city of Dhordo in Kutch, about 1.5 hours northwest of Bhuj. Every year, between November and February, a “tented city” comes up in Dhordo for the Rann Utsav, complete with restaurants serving lip-smacking Gujarati food, handicraft stalls and a performance area.
I spent some evenings watching Siddhi dance performances and driving across the salt marsh at the Little Rann of Kutch, which lay a 15-minute drive away from the tents. But I reserved two days to explore some of the artisan villages of Kutch, meeting artists who are helping preserve centuries-old art and craft traditions.
“There is not much money to go around here. But as you can see, there is definitely colour,” says Achar Maya Marwara.
It has been about 250 years since his ancestors migrated from Jodhpur to the Kutchi village of Ludiya, bringing with them the distinctly Rajasthani style of embroidery—vibrant patchwork, golden gotas and mirror-work done on bright ghagra-cholis, dhotis and short, flared men’s kurtas. A 30-minute drive from Dhordo took us to Ludiya, about 70 kilometres northeast of Bhuj, where the art thrives in the village of about 20 families. Their love for bright colours is vividly reflected in their bhungas—traditional circular Kutchi homes—with sloping thatched roofs, whose walls are painted with peacocks, geometric patterns and flowers.
At Marwara’s home, the women do most of the embroidery, making dupattas, bags and clothes. His wife was hard at work, with spools of threads in vibrant pink, yellow, red, blue and green spread around her, unperturbed by the presence of a bunch of us curious visitors.
The men, on the other hand, take care of the woodwork workshop across the road, carving low stools, tables, and even sofa sets with flowers and jali work.
“We sell things out of our home,” said Marwara. The Rann Utsav, which brings many a tourist to Ludiya, is their busiest time. He also gets orders all year round, and his brothers and sons often travel to the cities to deliver products.
“We are doing so much better now. The entire village was rebuilt by an NGO after the terrible earthquake in 2001. They gave us the material to build our homes again, and we could keep these family traditions alive,” explained Marwara. “The whole village celebrates this art; this is what our lives revolve around.”
About an hour away from Ludiya is Nirona. The village is a mishmash of simple one- or two-storey concrete homes with open terraces. Some have elaborately carved wooden doors, a legacy of their original, grander facades. Tucked in one of Nirona’s dusty uneven roads is the house of Gafoor Bhai Khatri, whose family practises rogan painting, a tradition said to have come to India from medieval Persia. The Khatris are its sole practitioners in Kutch, and have been committed to it since 300 years.
“We are the eighth generation of the family doing this,” Gafoor Bhai’s younger brother Sumar Bhai, told us while demonstrating the technique. “Rogan means oil-based. The colours we use are natural dyes mixed with castor seed oil.”
He traced a pattern of flowers in yellow on the plain green cloth in his lap using a tool that resembled a wooden earbud. The viscous paint reminded me of ink jets from 3D printing pens. I began to understand what Sumar Bhai meant when he said that, at first glance, a rogan painting can look like intricate embroidery.
The results are rewarding but process of creating these artworks is tedious. “We work in the heat, without fans, because we can’t have the fabric fluttering and the paint sticking if the cloth folds over,” explained Sumar Bhai. After painting, the fabric is dried in the sun for at least a day. The designs are almost all inspired by nature—the most common is the tree of life—and have become finer over the years. Samples of older work I saw had simpler, less busy patterns, while the family’s recent work was far more intricate, with greater attention to detail like the textures of leaves, and more complicated motifs. Rogan is drawn freehand, without stencils or tracing.
The four Khatri brothers and all their six sons are trained in rogan. Only a small trained team works under their supervision, creating paintings and items of clothing with rogan art from their home workshop. “We still do the bulk of the work and they add finishing touches. Rogan takes a lot of time and that’s why we don’t mass produce,” explained Sumar as he turned to the accolades on the walls of his home. Among the awards and certificates was a framed news article about Prime Minister Narendra Modi presenting a rogan painting to erstwhile U.S. President Barack Obama, an event that put Nirona on the global map.
A few houses away, 70-year-old Husen Sidhik worked in his shop creating copper bells. He flashed a toothy smile as he beat plates of iron into shape. One sheet formed the cup-like top, which was then fitted with the cylindrical body of the bell created from a separate sheet. Through the back door of his shop-cum-workshop is the courtyard of his home where his wife was busy prepping the bells for baking. She coated them in a mix of bronze, copper, zinc and borax before wrapping them in a casing of mud and cotton gauze. Husen Bhai would bake these bells in the coal fire blazing in the courtyard, and polish them to create the finished product.
Opposite the fire, a stall displayed the different sizes of bells—from two inches to about a foot tall. They were tied to embroidered cloth, leather strips or along metal-wired frames to create wall hangings. Some were woven into long strings of colourful cloth to be hung as decorative curtains.
“You know, there is a specific sound to each bell,” explained Husen Bhai, ringing three of them with a wooden stick one by one. “They were traditionally created to produce distinct dings, to differentiate between the ones tied around the necks of a goat, a cow, and a buffalo.” Soon, a cacophony of dings and dongs filled the room as our group tested the bells a tad too enthusiastically. Just as we were about to leave with our souvenirs, Husen Bhai caught up with us to reveal one last thing, something he doesn’t sell but enjoys making.
He held out in his palm a mortangi, a small, two-pronged-clip like musical instrument that gets its name from the peacock-like shape of one end. He put it to his lips and used his fingers to play us a lilting tune, before bidding us goodbye.
Our last stop in the desert lay a 1.5-hour drive from Nirona, in the village of Dhamadka, at the doors of Suleman Khatri’s block printing workshop.
A smiling Suleman Bhai continued to take orders on the phone as he demonstrated the technique of Ajrakh. The wooden blocks, he said, come from Pethapur in Gandhinagar district, and the paint with which the motifs are created is a mix of acacia gum and limestone. The motifs are first pressed on the plain cloth, which is then dipped in black, red, or yellow dye (made of alum, tamarind seed powder, or more recently, indigo).
The small workshop, which had a long table with stacks of fabric all around, also had two pieces of fabric—dupattas, judging by the size—hanging to dry. Suleman Bhai pointed to the dry, almost crisp piece of faded yellow fabric, its motifs highlighted in off-white. “That is after one coat of dye, and is not the final colour of the product. This yellow-looking cloth will undergo a few rounds of dyeing and drying before it turns red. The motifs of the finished product will be white, black, or red, while the background takes on different colours. As with most handmade art, the process is long and mass production is difficult.
We returned to our tents in Dhordo in the evening, to catch the sunset in the salt desert. A camel cart took us to the vast, white expanse of the Little Rann, where salt crystals produced a gravel-like crunch under our feet. On the way back, I couldn’t help but think of how art is woven so seamlessly into the lives of the people of Kutch. The men with their colourful turbans who steered our carts, the local dancers who put up a small show in the middle of the desert, the women in their patchwork ghagras we saw walking by the roads, to the painted walls of little bhungas we passed along the way to Dhordo—the colours and crafts always manage to seep into everyday scenes here.
Dhordo is a 1.5-hr drive from Bhuj, the nearest major city and airport. The best way to reach Dhordo and to explore the villages is to rent a car from Bhuj (rentals from Rs9/km and minimum 300 kms per day; driver allowance Rs250 per day). Speak to a local travel agency or the staff at the reception in Dhordo Tent City for information on the villages and other nearby spots to visit (Dhordo Tent City; rannutsav.com; tent doubles from Rs7,100)
Rumela Basu is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. Her favourite kind of travel involves food, literature, dance and forests. She travels not just to discover new destinations but also aspects of herself.