I visited Gujarat in 2013 for a week and spent five days exploring the Kutch artist villages. Although at times I felt Kutch to be a bit overrated, especially the salt desert, my overall experience was a mind blowing one. This unique region of Gujarat is steeped in natural history, traditions and art and Kutch people left deep impressions on my I often felt that the extremely photogenic and superbly talented local artisans were often being taken for granted by the tourists, photographers and the handicrafts entrepreneurs, who minted money or won accolades at their expense while tossing them only mere pennies in return. This resulted in the Kutch people in harbouring mild resentment towards all outsiders and at many places, taking photographs of the locals came at a fee. Although, not everyone I met were mercenary, it was hard to shake off the shock at the effects of tourism on Kutch.
Take time to immerse yourself in Kutch artist villages
The rest of my Kutch experience was a mind-blowing affair and it was so overwhelming, that even today I find it difficult to pin down my travel memories in an organized manner. How can you sum up a place full of natural history, people, art and mysticism in a few words or posts without drowning in the depth of the experience? My five days of visiting an endless number of Kutch artist villages was equally disorienting and I often gasped for breathers as we dashed from one incredible place to another. Getting bedazzled by the beauty of the locals’ faces and being awestruck at the intensity of their talent was so mind-numbing, that today I no longer recollect my Kutch itinerary at all.
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I recollect Kutch through its smells
What remains, is a movie like a continuous sequence of beauty, art, talent, and hospitality and I am still entranced by it. Names of a few places, however, are still fresh on my mind and they are accompanied by unforgettable smells, sights, and sounds. My first Kutch artist village visit was to an obscure potters’ hamlet and funnily, I can still recall the heavy fragrance of the mango blossoms of their orchards. That coupled with the aroma of ripening sugarcane had made my head buzz that day and I had to sit down among castor fields of the villagers to catch my breath. Isn’t it funny, how our memory of smells can transport us to some places and we vividly feel as if we are reliving that experience all over again? Today, I feel like that as my fingers type these words and I even remember the crunch of dry village path under my shoes.
My first stop was at the potters’ village of Khavda
That Kutch artist village was a prosperous one, where wheat and cotton fields grew abundantly and the surrounding hillocks contained small spots of natural water in their bosom. The water bodies attracted kingfishers, sunbirds and village belles in hordes and their calls rang through the Kutchi rural tranquility. The excited birds flitted across the snowy sea of cotton, on the backs on the domesticated buffaloes and on piles of pots left out by the potters to dry in the sun. The Kumhars or potters of Kutch were busy with their craft at the time of my visit and this extremely talented, yet hardly recognized Muslim community of artisans are a dwindling group. This was quite different in the past and traditionally, the Kumhars shared a close relationship with different communities of their village.
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Khavda was the first of the many endangered Kutch artist villages
Their job was to supply the whole village and its neighbourhoods with earthenware used in kitchens as well as in various rituals associated with festivals or occasions such as birth, marriage, and death. This made the Kumhars one of the most prosperous craftsmen of the yesteryears. In recent times, however, the popularity of cheap substitutes such as plastic, steel, and aluminum has nearly wiped out this trade and only a handful of three or four potters practice their art today. The potters of the Khavda village of Kutch made exquisite pottery items for generations and these artisans work in cognizance with their surrounding environment.
The old, nearly dead art of Kharad weaving
They use only locally available resources such as red clay, water, leaves of a plant called ‘Jaru’ (local name), thorns and tender stems of ‘Prosopis Julifera’, ‘white clay’ and black stone for their craft. The finished products are painted in dotted patterns with hand chiseled bamboo brushes and recent rapid industrialization of the area have made these resources difficult to procure. Even the availability of the thorns and tender stems of ‘Prosophis Julifera’, which are required to coat the kiln during the firing of the pottery items have become scarce. With hardly any takers and such immense adversities, it is no wonder that Kumhars of Kutch are a dying community and Khavda was the beginning of a long list of Kutch artist villages on the verge of losing their craft.
With the crash of co-existing Kutch social system, Kharad died too
The Kharad weavers are another community of rapidly declining Kutchi artisans and today only one family practices the art. These specialized weavers excel in making Kharad (floor spreads), Khurjani (draped on camel backs for carrying heavy items) and Rasa (thick cloth used for covering grains). In olden times, they roamed the villages of Banni, Pancham, and Sindh to peddle their products and residents of Mugdan, a small township at the Indo-Pak border used to be their most important customers. Khurjani and Kharad had a large market in Sindh in Pakistan and the camel owners there purchased them in bulk. Just like any other Kutchi craft, Kharad too uses only natural resources and the wool is dyed with vegetable colours. In olden days, Kutch nurtured a robust tradition of animal husbandry and the pastoral communities maintained large herds of camels and livestock like goats, sheep etc.
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Kharad is an example of the long-lost self-sufficient Kutch social system
Thus, originally Kharad carpets were woven from goat and camel hair wool and these used to be supplied by the coexisting pastoral communities of Maldharis and Rabaris ( pastoral communities ). They, incidentally were also buyers of these woven items and this balanced coexistence of artisan communities consisted of the self-sufficient Kutchi system of habitation. Some of these arts received patronage from the local royal families as well and Kharad woven products adorn many palaces in Sindh and Gujarat. The patron kings and their ministers preferred Kharad for their vibrancy and longevity and an original Kharad can easily last up to 100 years. It is sad that today, this art cannot be found in any of the Kutch artist villages.
This is how centuries-old arts die
Today Kharad weaving is believed to be a nearly extinct art and it suffered a slow death. The partition of India-Pakistan destroyed the highly lucrative Sindh market and the co-dependent chain of Maldharis’ giving wool to the hand spinners for spinning of thread and the Kharad artisans using the wool for the production leading to a sale, has broken down. Camel and goat hair hand spinners have completely become extinct today in Kutch and Kharad weavers face lots of difficulties in procuring raw materials from neighbouring Rajasthan.
Lack of infrastructure, dying arts, and some overhyped Kutch artist villages
It was too much of information on my first day of exploring Kutch artist villages and my head was ready to burst. The day was also extremely hot and bumping along long Kutch roads in my small rental car was tiring. Badly caked with dust, its sputtering air conditioning, coughed dangerously on broken interior dirt tracks. Thirsty and exhausted, I made regular stops at the Bhudia Patels organic juice shops. Shaded by a thick grove of date palms, it was my favourite pit stop during my entire Kutch artist villages visits and I ended my first evening there with a sweating glass of coconut milk juice.
It was a very beautiful eye-opening day
Although the evening was drawing closer, the day remained hot and sandy and with mixed feelings, I watched a deep red sunset behind the scrubby dunes. While my day was extremely impressionable, the memories of centuries-old arts dying unrecognized deaths bothered me a lot. Deep in my heart, I knew that these handicrafts had run their course, yet the sadness was hard to shake off. Travel sometimes does that to you. It reveals so much of awareness and information that your head pounds with thoughts and during those times, only letting go brings relief. So, I too decided to let the dying Kumhar and Kharad traditions of Kutch rest in peace and focused instead, on a glorious desert sunset staining the controversial India-Pakistan horizon red. It was a very beautiful day indeed.
Visit Abdulla Kumbhar, his wife Rahima Behn, and their children in Khavda to learn about the traditional Kutch pottery. Khavda is 66 kilometers north of Bhuj and serves as the jumping off base for the world’s largest flamingo colony, at a lake in the desert. Nearly half a million flamingos visit it every year and the colony can only be reached by camel. Khavda is best visited from Oct. to Mar. The weaving technique of Kharad can be experienced at the workshop of weaver Tejsibhai Dhana Marwada in the village of Sanjotnagar, near Bhuj. He is also the world’s last hand spinner of sheep and camel wool thread.
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