Kutch has always been known for its wealth of culture, handicrafts and artforms. It produces some of the world’s most unusual textile products, as well as intricately crafted metal works. In the book, Kachchh: The Last Frontier, author Tejinder Singh sums it up pretty well: “The intricate embroidery stems from the Kutchi lifestyle… One can see the influences of the Cretan stitch of Greece, surface interlacing stitches from Armenia and the French tambourine techniques. It is a reflection of their lifestyle… of camels, peacocks, parrots, flowers, trees and women churning milk. Each pattern tells a story.”
So when you’re on a holiday in Kutch, one thing that you really shouldn’t miss is exploring a few local art forms. And the best way to do that is by visiting a few villages. As you pass through various artisan villages of the indigenous tribes that inhabit the district of Kutch, you find a striking contradiction. But one needs days to explore them all, or perhaps even weeks. So those with only a limited time in hand, can take a drive along the dusty road, and explore the humble village of Nirona.
Located around 40 kms north of Bhuj, Nirona village is where you can find three very unique local art forms — one of which even made its way to The White House. Yes, I’m talking about the popular Rogan art, a legacy art form that has been taken forward, for the past 300 years, by the Khatri family of Nirona.
Resemling the characterstics of embroidery, Rogan art is when you paint on fabric using a thick brightly coloured castor seed oil (castor is a commonly grown in the Kutch region of Gujarat). To prepare the paint, castor oil is heated for more than 12 hours till it catches fire, it is then mixed with cold water and vibrant colors to give a thick residue called rogan. The artist then uses a six-inch thick metal needle to paint with a fine thread of rogan on a piece of cloth. Even the simplest design takes days to complete.
The Khatri family, in Nirona village, gives you a free demo, before showcasing a variety of different roganed fabrics, should you wish to make a purchase. Simply walk in or call them in advance to book an appointment, Khatri family welcomes all. You can call Abdulgafur D. Khatri at +91 98257 53955, or Jumma D. Khatri at +91 96013 24275.
Next in the list is The Luhars of Nirona, and their popular Copper Bell art. Preserving it for the last 10 or so generations, many families in Nirona get their livelihood totally out of this. Copper Bell art has mainly originated from Sindh, and even today many villages, around the border area inside India and Pakistan make it.
Just like Khatri family of rogan art, if you visit any Copper Bell artist in Nirona, he will show you how it was done. I ended up at Lohar Haji Saddiq’s shop in Nirona and was given a small demo of making a bell from scratch right in front of my eyes. The ease and finesse with which his hammer moved to create a musical masterpiece that uses no welding joints but a unique interlocking system had me impressed, and I ended up buying a medium size copper bell for myself.
You can get in touch with the Luhars of Nirona at +91 97248 81026 and address the person as Ali Jaji Lohar. He will personally come to escort you to his workshop and even give you a demo.
Once done with Copper Bell, I moved to familiarize myself with the art of Lacquer. Practiced by a semi nomadic tribe called Wada, in the Banni area in and around the villages of Nirona and Bhirandiayara, Lacquer at turned out to be yet another distinction. I was told that the art and the tribe practicing it are the original migrants from beyond Sindh, before partition.
Obtained from the sap of the Rhus Tree which changes colour from white to brown upon exposure to air, Lacquer is a simple reflection of Zigzag patterns creating waves of colors mixing with one another and adorning simplest of the products like wooden spoons, bread rolling pins, containers, toys, utensils etc.
And if the lacquer work starts to lose its sheen, just apply some oil on it, and it will look no different as new.
What most people miss out on their trip to Kutch is visiting the local villages to witness their arts first hand. But if you’re visiting Kutch anytime soon, do not do that. I mean the experience of shopping local art after seeing how its done with all the effort and practice behind it simply takes the shopping experience to the next level. It moreover helps local people sustain and continue preparing such legacy art forms.
Update: I just found out that a few ecommerce players are selling the same sized copper bell, that I bought from Nirona at a whopping 650 Rupees. Whereas the amount I paid in Nirona was only 150 Rupees. I wonder how much profit are they sharing with the original artists, or if they’re selling the original product at first place!
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