Marveling at Indian artistry up close

Stitch by stitch, the creation of India’s traditional fabrics seems as much about family as it is about craft. Secret skills and signature patterns have been passed through generations, and the best way to discover this treasury is to touch and marvel at the family workshops.

For centuries, the western state of Gujarat has been textile central, and is still called “Manchester of the East,” flashing back to England’s cotton-mill glory days. Farthest west is Kutch, India’s “Wild West,” with dozens of its own distinctive embroideries, block prints, and weaves.

By a thread
In Kutch’s tiny Nirona Village, one textile family is eight generations deep into its distinctive craft. After 400 years, the entire enterprise has come to rest upon the slender shoulders of one young man.

Sahil is the lone heir to the traditional Rogan art of his Khatri family. They are some of the few artisans left who know how to paint on fabric with a stringy vegetable resin made from castor oil.

Centuries ago, someone chopped down the thorny babul plant and alternately boiled and cooled it, discovering a blob a bit like Silly Putty. Add coloring, tap a little into your palm, and after years of practice, you might be able to pull up a thread of the resin with a metal rod and place it on a fabric.

We watch Sahil emboss yellow sunbursts onto red cotton, pinned taut across his knees. When he finishes the medallion, he carefully folds the fabric in on itself, sealing a mirror image.

One of the highlights of the family’s long tradition came in 2014, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave President Barack Obama an intricate tree-of-life Rogan wall piece crafted by the Khatris.
Even so, “it’s a dying craft,” said patriarch Abdulgafoor Khatri. But this hasn’t stopped him from teaching Rogan to 100 students, hoping to keep the mystery alive.

Block by block
Another Khatri clan, this time in Kukma, has been following the ancient art of Ajrakh for generations. It’s resist-dying fabric, in the style of tie-dye, using natural colors. Then, the prepared silk, cotton or wool is manually over-printed with designs carved into teakwood blocks.

At the Ajrakh headquarters, a scarf, saree or tablecloth might require 14 to 16 different stages of dying and printing, completed over two to three weeks.

The reds come from madder root, blues from indigo, and yellow from pomegranate rinds and turmeric. They even use scrap iron and raw cane sugar to make black.

In one of the workrooms, a young man stretches over a table to add another layer to the company’s trademark butterfly pattern. There is no roar of machinery: This is strictly handmade artistry.

Block printing has been traced back 4,000 years. “In our fast lives today,” said Elder Ismail Mohammad Khatri, “this reminds us of the value of pause and patience.”

Fair-trade consortium
The round mud cottages of Kala Raksha Trust seem to rise like Brigadoon from a dusty country road. We’re in Sumrasar Sheikh, and the traditional bhunga buildings create a village all their own.

Kala Raksha, translated as “art preservation,” is a non-profit trust that brings together women, who have been embroidering since childhood, to share their skills and sell their goods in a fair-trade setting.

Artisans are paid for their work, and then also receive 35 percent of their sales.

Today, more than 1,000 women from 25 villages participate, plus students in the design school, said Mukesh Bhanani, project coordinator. He proudly shows us a few of the 3,000 samples in the research center; each glorious color and tiny stitch is also digitized on the trust’s website.

Can we buy on the website, too?

“No, you have to feel and see the pieces,” Bhanani said, “so we don’t put those online.”

We meet Mukesh’s aunt, Kesarben, sitting in the sun and working on a Suf-design saree. She works in the Suf counted-thread style, stitching from the back of the fabric freehand.

Kesarben has been working on this glorious white saree for three months and is nearly finished—which goads us to the shop, full of exquisitely finished pieces whose quality far outstrips the average village market. Prices are higher, of course, but then paying a fair price for beautiful artistry comes with a good feeling all its own.

Master weaver
Kutch’s settlement of Bhujodi glitters in fresh whitewash under a blistering sun. Much of the construction is new, after a 2001 earthquake in Kutch that killed 20,000 people.

The village is devoted to weaving and embroidery—we round a corner and a Rabari woman on her stoop sits embroidering tiny mirrors into a stole. From trousseaus to baby clothes, mirrors are meant to keep evil spirits away.

Nearby, Arjun Valji weaves as his father Vishram did, designing hand-loomed blankets, carpets and scarfs. Each has won a national award in his generation, the father for a geometric rug worked in red and orange in 1974, the son for a blue mixture of traditional and modern patterns in 2005.

Arjun gladly unfurls each masterwork in his cool, white showroom, as we sip welcoming chai. For his blue silk-and-cotton pattern, trials went on for months, followed by weaving that took two workers another seven months.

Building on his heritage, Arjun modernizes as he goes. “Kutch wool is rougher,” he said, so he added cotton in 1990. By 1995, he was importing softer Merino wool from Australia and New Zealand.

“People like Merino wool,” and indeed his stoles and scarfs drape softly around the neck. It might be 100 degrees outside, but nearly every traveler is soon rolling up yards of wool scarfs, wall hangings, and carpets to trundle back to the States.

When you go
India Tourism, incredibleindia.org. Travel planning: jnrglobetrotters.com.
American travelers to India need an e-visa: indianvisaonline.gov.in/visa/index.html.
Traditional Rogan Art, traditionalroganart.com.
Ajrakh traditional block printing, email dr.esmail2005@gmail.com.
Kala Raksha Trust, kala-raksha-museum.org.
Vankar Vishram Valji, email vankarvishramvalji@gmail.com.
Gujurat Tourism, gujarattourism.com.

Travel journalist Betsa Marsh has reported
from more than 100 countries on seven continents.
She is past president of the Society of American Travel Writers.

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