In dusty little Nirona village in Kutch, Gujarat, 52-year-old Abdul Gafoor Khatri dips a six-inch-long stylus into a pot that contains five sticky pigments of different colours. He delicately twists, turns and drags the stylus with the pigment (which is called rogan) over the blue cotton fabric to form a flower. He then carefully folds the cloth, so that there’s a mirror image of the still-moist flower.
Thousands of kilometres away at the White House in the US, is a rogan painting symbolising the Tree of Life. It was gifted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to US President Barack Obama during the Indo-US summit in Washington in October 2014.
It was made by Khatri, a National Award-winner who, along with six members of his family, are the only remaining practitioners of this art. It was handed down seven generations of Khatris over three centuries. Sumar, his younger brother, takes me inside the house to show me how the pigment is prepared. Castor oil is heated for about 12 hours and then mixed with cold water to form a sticky, elastic paste called rogan, which is then mixed with organic dyes from stone. From thereon, the artist takes over.
“We don’t sketch any pattern on the cloth, it’s always free-form,” Abdul tells me. “We allow our imagination to tell the quill what to draw.” Traditionally, rogan was used to embellish bridal wear and Abdul shows me an exquisite 80-year-old piece that looks like an artist’s canvas with geometric designs and gorgeous detailing. The organic colours are so vibrant, as if it was created just hours ago.
The techniques used in rogan art were the preserve of the male members of this family. But in the last 30 years, the Khatris (whose ancestors are from Sindh in Pakistan) have opened up and taught this art form to craftsmen (including women) outside the family. Publicity helped and rogan art has now gained worldwide recognition.
Almost everyone in the family is a National Award-winner and their beautiful and unique work has a fan following including Amitabh Bachchan, Waheeda Rehman and Shabana Azmi. And of course, Narendra Modi.
As I leave their modest home, I catch a glimpse of Khatri’s son with a piece of fabric laid out in front of him. He spins a fine thread of rogan on the blank canvas and magically draws the outline of a tree. The boy is giving shape to his imagination, in much the same way his forefathers did for the last 300 years.
Getting there Nirona Village is 40km/50min northeast of Bhuj and 370km/7hr from Ahmedabad. It is best to hire a taxi or auto from Bhuj for a day trip to the village.
Sugato Mukherjee is a photographer and writer. He has contributed to publications such as The Globe and Mail and Al Jazeera, and has received UNESCO's Humanity Photo Award. He is the author of "An Antique Land: A Visual Memoir of Ladakh" (2013).