I  met Anwar Razzak Khatri on a social media platform and we connected over Batik. Anwar designs and makes exquisite Kutch batik and I promised to visit his workshop, when in Gujarat. That same year, I visited Kutch and on the second last day on my trip, took a detour to meet Anwar. His Batik workshop was situated at Bhujpur and it was a five generations old enterprise. Originally, an art from the coastal city of Mundra, Batik is one of the lesser known exquisite Kutch handicrafts.

Batik is one of loveliest kutch handicrafts

This is a batik design by Anwar. PC Anwar Khatri

Did you know about the Kutch batik print of Mundra and Bhujpur ?

Traditionally, Kutch Batik prints were made by pressing a block dipped in hot piloo seed oil, on cloth. The oil paste was taken off after dyeing to make the original print liven up on the fabric. Over the years, beeswax was substituted and it turned out to be a more practical alternative to the oil, which had to be painstakingly extracted from large amounts of small seeds. pressed from huge amounts of tiny seeds. The introduction of wax, subtly altered the style of the batik prints and this Kutch handicraft actually became more appealing. The cracks in the wax printing made thin, spidery lines of dye to run through the motif, thus creating a beautiful veined appearance. In the 1960s Kutch batik was a huge hit and this is one art which worked in tandem with the emergence of chemical dyes.

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Kutch batik block printing in progress

Kutch handicrafts can survive by being adaptable

Today, unfortunately, the Kutch batik has again gone downhill and the artisans are fighting for survival in a modern and competitive marketplace. Their designs are often replicated by screen and laser printers, who produce these textiles in bulk at cheaper prices, thus nearly smothering this Kutch handicraft out of existence. However, thanks to dedicated artists like my friend, Anwar Razzak Khatri and Shakeel Ahmed Khatri, Kutch Batik continues to exist and today more and more Batik printers are working towards the revival of the art. To keep up with the changing times and heavy demand, these pioneer artists are incorporating modern motifs and using paraffin wax, which is sourced from China. Around 75% of the wax is re-used and Kutch batik is becoming one adaptive, sustainable art. To understand Kutch batik, make sure to pay a visit to one of the workshops in Mundra, or contact my friend, Anwar Razzak Khatri.

Traditional Kutch batik block

Knife, nutcrackers, and sword making are one of the oldest Kutch handicrafts

Anwar took me to visit his cousin, who practiced one of the most dangerous and obscure Kutch handicrafts. Nabeel, was a traditional knife maker of Kutch and his great-great-grandfather cut off from the family batik printing trade to join the then lucrative business. Today, this craft still goes strong and despite, the knife makers being chronic tuberculosis victims, many families like Nabeel’s have sustained this art in the villages of Nani Reha and Mota Reha. There are basically two types of knife making traditions in Kutch and the craft is segregated by artisans who specialize in different steps. While, some are experts in crafting the blade, others make the handles, while the rest give finishing touches to the knives. Today, this craft is saved due to heavy regional demand and some of the best knives and swords are sold as far as in big cities like Mumbai.

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Knife making is one of the most elusive Kutch handicrafts

The knife and sword maker of Kutch

Then there are the vibrant Kutch lacquer wares

On the way back from Anwar’s workshop, my guide, Ketan and I stopped for refreshments at a little village near Nirona. We were on the road for a long time and the hamlet seemed to be the perfect place to take a break. Incidentally, the village happened to be the hub of one of the most elusive Kutch handicrafts and all around me families were busying creating gorgeous lacquerware. Though lac has been popular all over India throughout centuries, the Kutch lacquerware is painted in a peculiar kaleidoscopic design with vivid colours. Made from Babool wood, Kutch lacquerware can be found as spoons, ladles, rolling pins, and decorative sticks and it is one of the fastest diminishing crafts of the region.

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The polished motley of colours of Kutch lacquerware

Visit the villages around Nirona for Kutch lacquerware items

Traditionally, the lac in Kutch was obtained from insect resin by Vadha nomadic communities, who roamed the villages of Nirona and Jura, peddling their wares. They collected natural stones and colours from the forests, made colourful lacquer goods, and bartered them with the pastoralist Maldhari community. Nowadays, the descendants of Vadhas are permanent settlers in Nirona or Jura and the few practicing families struggle to find natural resources or takers for their labour intensive art. Most of the lacquer-ware process in Kutch is done on a manual lathe, which is a tick and a rope contraption. Once the wood is shaped into desired forms, each piece is individually put on the lathe and smoothened using wooden tools. Simultaneously coloured lacquer is applied to wood at that time by heat and this process allows the artisan to create kaleidoscopic designs by hand. Lacquerware is practiced by the whole family and while men do the grunt work of cutting and shaping the wooden articles, the women applying finishing touches to them. This artwork is can be found in and around the villages of Nirona and Bhirandiayara.

Visit Jura village to capture the essence of morchangs or Jew’s Harps and metal bells

The evening started deepening as we headed towards Bhuj, and the sounds of bells and morchangs filled the Kutch air. Old men in startling white herded animals along long dusty roads, and their grandchildren trotted behind playing morchangs. Those were the quintessential sounds of Kutch, and the clear Ting-Ting combined well with the sharp, rhythmic harp-like tunes of Morchangs. Similar to a Jew’s Harp, morchangs are palm-sized musical instruments comprising of the horseshoe-shaped metal forks, which meet in the middle. These have a long metal strip in between called the tongue and this is slightly broad, fixed at one end while being loose and free at the other end. Morchangs are placed between the teeth, held in one hand and struck with the other to produce the plucking rhythm. While the bell making is one of the most popular Kutch handicrafts, there is only one professional morchang artist in Gujarat. He is the 70 years old Pathan Shahmat Shajan, who spent nearly 60 years introducing the sound of his little instrument all across the world. Even though morchang found its way into AR Rahman’s compositions in the movie, Taal, sadly hardly anyone practices this instrument anymore.

You can shop there for metal bells, the most durable of Kutch handicrafts

Thankfully, that is not the case of the region’s unique metal bells and this art is still going strong. Believed to be originating in Sindh (now in Pakistan), the Lohar communities are experts in this craft and some of the practicing families have been making these bells for centuries. The ancestors of the present day artist sold copper bells to local pastoral families like Maldharis, Bharvads, and Rabaris. Traditionally, the clients could custom order the sound of their herd’s bells and the makers set the tone till his customer was satisfied. Needless to say, these bells came at very high prices, carrying lifetime warranties. Almost thirteen sizes of Kutch metal bells can be found in the region and these are customized for the size of the animal. In each size, the bells can make up to five or six different notes and today, this is one of the Kutch handicrafts, which is commendably using recycled metal waste.

Saying goodbye to some of the Kutch handicrafts is not easy

The strong sound of the bells contrasting with the weak notes of morchangs, beautifully summed up the scenario of Kutch handicrafts. While some of the crafts have stood the test of time, many have slipped through the cracks of time. The reason behind these losses are not only man-made but also an art running out its course of usefulness. Grieve as we may, but that is the cycle of the end and new beginnings; and as the French put it blithely, C’est la vie. Such is life! To know more about the diminishing Kutch handicrafts, check out these excellent posts on Namda weaving, Bela printing, and Mud Mural work.