A Wada Koli woman and her daughter sell their bead and mirror work dolls in Nirona village Image Credit: Supplied

Kutch, a district in the western Indian state of Gujarat, rests uneasily on the fault lines and fidgety tectonic plates of India. Its landscape is unrelenting, dominated by the dazzling whiteness of the world’s largest salt marsh, the Great Rann of Kutch, covering more than 7,500 square kilometres.

Here, its outer edges are brimming with wildlife in the patched earth colour and dusty desert shrubs. Small wisps of sand randomly rise, like the spirits of a million thirsty seeds buried in the alluvial soil underneath and waiting for the rains.

This stark land too accounts for the intense thirst its people have for life in all its colours, for a sense of aesthetic that runs like blood in their veins. It is evident too in their decorated homes, their cattle and their bodies, through vibrant colours, intricate patterns, and the rhythm of their steps. The sheer beauty of what this land has managed to produce is overwhelming — more so when you step backstage, meet, interact and break bread with the artists involved.

Imran Hassan Lohar’s workshop is a small shed to one side of his house. There is barely enough space to seat the seven that have come to watch him work. His tools are like those of a roadside cobbler; his raw material a sheet of scrap iron.

Lohar cuts pieces from the scrap iron with practiced ease, interlocking them in the shape of a cowbell in mere minutes.

Clockwise from left: Imran Hassan Lohar at his workshop; a half-finished copper bell at Lohar’s workshop; Bandhani or tie-and-dye work in progress. It is a traditional process which involves dying a fabric after tying parts of it so that they will not absorb dye, giving the fabric a streaked or mottled look; and Shakil Ahmed Khatri displays his Batik designs.

“This will be coated with copper using mud paste and then heated in a wood-fired furnace to fix the coating,” he explains. A smaller room behind his workshop has samples of his work on display — bells, wind chimes and wall hangings of varied designs — gently singing the characteristic metallic chorus of Kutchi cowbells.

“I am so glad that you have taken the time and effort to come all the way to Bhuj,” he beams. To his urban audience, far removed from the realities of a rural landscape, the short bell-making session is a revelation.

“I had purchased these copper bells for my home earlier because of the beautiful sound they make,” says Remya Arun, an accountant from the UAE. “But I would never have imagined that this is how they are made — in a tiny workshop by this unassuming man, using just a couple of handheld tools!”

“This is precisely what we had in mind when we conceived of the idea of a craft tour,” remarks Ann Thomas, who organised the craft tour to Kutch. A passionate spokesperson for all things handmade, Thomas is the co-founder of The Craft Safari, a Dubai-based boutique that exclusively sells Indian handmade artefacts and weaves. “I wanted buyers to meet and understand the people behind the products they buy, to experience firsthand the processes that go into these beautiful pieces of art,” she tells Weekend Review.

Thomas chose Kutch for a reason.

“There’s so much happening here in terms of indigenous arts, crafts and weaves,” she says. “The Gujarat government is supportive of both artisans and tourism, which makes things easy. Moreover, artisans here are proactive, open to ideas and hospitable.”

She has been working with Kutchi artisans and weavers for the past six years. The artisans too are tourist-savvy. Visitors are warmly welcomed and the craftsmen willingly show off their work.

Harish Hansraj Vankar, a weaver from the nearby village of Bhujodi, for instance, takes his guests through the entire weaving process — from spinning the yarn from freshly picked cotton bolls to preparing the warp and weft, and working the loom of the famous Bhujodi weave. His family prepares a simple yet delicious meal. Their demeanour, though humble, is assured — a confidence born out of experience. Vankar’s family, like thousands of others, have been interacting with tourists for almost two decades.

He, like all others, have stories to tell. Stories of hope and despair, perseverance and endless toil, tales of a people whose resilience even earthquakes cannot shake.

Most adults in Kutch bear the scars of the earthquake that shook Gujarat in 2001, taking more than 20,000 lives and injuring more than 166,000. Kutch, close to the epicentre, was badly hit, and the city of Bhuj was almost razed to the ground, and nearly 2,400 died then.

Refusing to be defeated, Kutch rose from its debris, armed with a keener awareness of its strengths and vulnerabilities. Kutch is home to a primarily nomadic pastoral people, with several sub-communities existing in a symbiotic relationship. Blacksmiths like Imran used to make bells for livestock owned by farmers and cattle-herders, and Bhujodi’s weavers clothed the entire community. Others like traders, dyers, potters and embroiders, had their own role in the community. The inherent industriousness of Kutchi people allowed them to thrive despite the challenges meted out by the harshness of the terrain.

This simple, self-contained way of life suffered during the pre-independence period, and Harish Vankar recalls the stories he had heard from his forefathers.

“When the British introduced synthetic fabrics to India, it destroyed the lives and livelihoods of handloom weavers in the whole of India,” he says. “The Swadeshi Movement (part of the Indian independence movement) did help revive it to a certain extent, but in remote villages like Bhujodi, the impact was much less. It was a setback that lasted decades.”

It was after the earthquake that things really picked up.

“The last couple of decades have witnessed a renewed interest worldwide in handmade and natural products,” he says. “We are encouraged to experiment with weaves and designs, and there is a demand for fabrics made using natural dyes.”

It’s a theme picked up by tour guide Kuldip Gadhvi. “Before the earthquake, the reach of Kutchi arts and crafts was limited to the local market — mostly markets within the state of Gujarat. As very few artisans had access to even the other states within India, the variety in terms of colours and designs was limited. Back then, there was no real awareness about the intrinsic value and beauty of these arts and crafts.”

Irfan Anwar Khatri, who runs an Ajrakh workshop in Ajrakhpur, agrees. A unique form of block printing, Ajrakh uses wooden blocks and Arabic gum as the medium of resist to create intricate designs on cloth.

“Around 30 to 40 years ago, screen-printing took over the market, causing a major setback to Ajrakh printing,” he says. “The number of block printers reduced drastically as it was no longer viable to go through the lengthy process of traditional Ajrakh printing. But in the past 15 years or so, there has been a marked rise in the number of international tourists and the general level of interest in traditional crafts. And increased demand automatically translates to increased employment.”

Kutch’s artisans also benefit from expert intervention and educational support. Shakil Ahmed Khatri, a much sought-after fifth generation Batik artisan, attributes his success to his time in Kala Raksha Vidyalaya, an institution dedicated to the rejuvenation of traditional arts and crafts. Batik, another resist printing technique using wax as the medium, is much in demand today.

“Of course, I grew up learning the craft from my uncle and other family members,” Khatri says. “But under Judy Frater’s guidance, I learned to innovate. I began to work with designs, fabrics and products that cater to the contemporary global market.” He’s referring to American-born Judy Frater who has been working with local artisans for 25 years.

Attending a half-day Ajrakh printing workshop is an unforgettable experience. Visitors are elated as a piece of plain, unbleached cotton evolves into a beautifully designed stole beneath their fingertips. At the same time, they also become conscious of the arduous working conditions of the printers who handle dyes day in and day out. What seems exotic to the visitor is monotonous, backbreaking work for the artisan. Since materials such as wax and gum congeal easily, work spaces lack fans to relieve the stifling heat. The dyes stain their entire bodies while chewing tobacco stains their teeth.

“Chewing tobacco gets them through the monotony of their work,” Gadhvi notes.

Techniques like Bandhani, an intricate style of tie-dye, requires dyers to manually handle boiling hot dyes. In the small workshops, workers are exposed to fumes and constant exposure to chemical dyes can cause damage to lungs and kidneys.

According to Iqbal Ali Mohammed Khatri, a fifth-generation Bandhani artisan, synthetic dyes are mainly used because of customer preferences. “Using natural dyes is expensive in terms of effort and resources, so such clothes are priced higher than the ones that are chemically dyed,” he says. “Since most customers prefer to buy cheaper products, we go for synthetic dyes. Even a customer’s choice of colours has a lot of say in the level of toxicity in dyes. The chemicals that go into making yellow and pink dyes, for instance, are less harmful than other, stronger colours.”

Mohammed Khatr hopes that customers meeting artisans and witnessing their lives first hand will result in more educated purchasing practices, improving the artisans’ lot

Many smaller independent artisans too are rendered obscure by larger collectives and those supported by high profile names. They have wider exposure, more public interest a higher income — as in the case of Sumar Khatri’s family in Nirona village that practises Rogan art. A technique of creating intricate patterns on cloth using a castor oil-based medium and natural dyes, Rogan used to decorate bridal trousseau in the past.

“Things became really bleak in the 1980s, so we started creating decorative pieces as wall art,” Mohammed Khatri says. Fortunately for them, support came from the highest possible quarters. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose Rogan paintings as gifts to dignitaries including former US President Barack Obama.

On the outskirts of Nirona village, however, a group of artisans still live in relative poverty. They are members of the Wada Koli community that specialises in lacquer work on wood. The men of the village used to make wooden furniture. Now lacquer work artisans like Bhawik Bachaya Wada make smaller household artefacts like spatulas, bread rollers and bowls decorated with multicoloured lacquer dyes.

Thomas, who has been supporting Wada Koli artisans by selling their wares, feels that introducing a fresh range of products and designs is essential for the long-term survival of lacquer work.

“If design graduates, or even high school and college students, get to interact with traditional artisans, it can work wonders,” she says. “Young people will gain a better understanding of our rich heritage, and artisans can imbibe fresh ideas and concepts.” She strongly recommends schools and colleges include culture tours as part of their curriculum.

Notwithstanding the fact that tourism plays a huge role in reviving the arts and crafts, both she and Gadhvi insist that it should be done in a sustained manner.

“The Kutchi way of life is simple, lived closely and in harmony with nature. It is a simplicity that has worked well through ages,” explains Gadhvi. “I would request visitors to be sensitive enough to not disrupt this way of life.” He quotes instances of tourists violating the privacy and cultural restrictions of communities by taking photographs without permission.

“Some well-intentioned tourists distribute sweets and chips to children without the approval of responsible adults. I know of people who gave tubes of lipstick to kids. Trivial as it may seem to the outsider, such actions result in unnecessary clashes between villagers, and introduce children to unsustainable habits.”

As if to prove his point, a few children from one of the villages near the Great Rann ask visitors for lipstick. Thomas too is quick to point to plastic waste on the once-pristine landscape. “With a little consideration, we can experience all that a place has to offer without causing damage to its environment and culture,” she says.

Thanks to the concerted efforts of individuals and NGOs, and the reach of the internet, Kutch has become the handicraft hunter’s favourite destination. Internet and smart devices have also opened new doors for artisans to learn and exchange ideas, create new products.

Personal interactions change perspectives. As Sheetal Rajan, a human resources manager from Dubai says: “Now when I look at the artefacts at home, they all seem different somehow. I keep trying to understand the mind, the land that created them.”

Mini S. Menon is a writer based in Dubai.