The Kutch Renaissance
It’s been 16 years since the Bhuj earthquake wiped out lives, livelihoods and villages. A journey through the region now reveals how it has found new life through crafts, and how tradition has become its route to modernity
When a natural calamity destroys lives and livelihoods, assets and resources, human capital and wealth, the survivors and state stare at a difficult question: What should be restored and what should be allowed to pass? Kutch in Gujarat faced this question after 26 January 2001. Kutch lives by its crafts and textiles, and with its diverse yet syncretic religious communities. A drought-prone region dotted with Jain temples, shrines and mosques, bounded by the sea on one side, and sharing the White Rann with Sindh in Pakistan on the other, it is a land where pastoral Maldharis are craftsmen by day and Sufi singers by night.
In 2001, a violent earthquake measuring 7.7 on the Richter scale, its epicentre 20km from Bhuj, the district capital, left more than 22,000 people dead, destroyed close to 400,000 houses, rendered more than 600,000 people homeless, and razed entire villages and towns like Anjar, Bhachau and Rapar.
That fateful morning of the 52nd Republic Day followed a ravaging cyclone in 1998 and two years of drought in Kutch. Did these calamities force the people of Kutch to look at the other side of the philosophical riddle—the new and the untapped? Yes, say many survivors of the Bhuj earthquake, as well as the region’s civil society foot soldiers and saviours, welfare workers and resurrection architects who galvanized into a collective force.
The earthquake became the trigger to value what was intrinsically local and unique. As Sushma Iyengar, co-founder and president of Khamir, a non-governmental organization that sustains the value chain of Kutchi crafts and their creators, says, “The earthquake triggered the reconciliation of nature with culture that had already begun, it forced communities to reflect urgently on their situation, it articulated directions for community and crafts empowerment, brought a surge of collective energy to disparate movements preceding it.” No one had anticipated the digital revolution or the economic boom that added to the motivation of rebuilding Kutch, says Iyengar.
Her observation resonates with that of Pankaj Shah’s. This development activist and founder of Qasab, an artisanal embroidery brand that grew out of the Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan, a trust and society, says, “The earthquake gave an exponential push to the work of arts and crafts organizations which had been working in the region. It brought aid and the attention of the world to Kutch, raising funds as well as awareness for local arts. Government awards, income-generation programmes, crafts enterprises, design boutiques, tourism—all these surged after the earthquake.
The stories of Zakiya and Adil Khatri in Bhuj and Khatri Aslam A. Karim in Ajrakhpur, both students of Judy Frater, a co-founder of Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya, the region’s first design school, and now the founder-director of Somaiya Kala Vidya, represent this 21st century renaissance.
Twenty-two-year-old Zakiya, a newly-married, pretty and cheerful young woman, is one of Kutch’s few female Bandhini designers. She was 6 at the time of the earthquake. Dressed in fancy clothes for her school’s Republic Day parade in her hometown of Mundra, where she lived in a 66-member joint family of batik block printers, she was eating breakfast when the earth began to convulse violently. She believes that even if it didn’t leave physical scars, the earthquake left many Kutchis more possessive of what defined them.
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Zakiya used to be envious that all final Bandhini products—her favourite local technique, one she would watch artisans working on—were credited to men even though women helped dye the fabric. So she decided to find a way to enrol with Frater at Somaiya Kala Vidya. Soon after her design course, she launched her label Bairaj—which means the rule of women, the same year—in 2013. Not only did she meet her husband Adil Khatri, 23, also a Bandhini artisan, during the course, but she and Adil—whose label, also launched in 2013, is called Nilak—are now busy creating collections from their Bhuj home. Zakiya’s design signature combines variant patterns of small and big dots of Bandhini—all painstakingly hand-done; a bulk of her work is in natural dyes. Her clientele, she says, is in cities, outside Kutch. Zakiya pulls out the sketches that helped her visualize her future. In five years, she dreams of showing in Santa Fe, in the US, and having a website of her own. In 10 years, she wants a store that stocks traditional, modern and fusion wear in Bandhini.
Dhamadka, the village with a huge concentration of Ajrakh printers that shares handblock printing traditions with artisans across the border with Pakistan, was devastated by the earthquake. That was when Ismail Mohammad Khatri, now a household name in the rebuilding narrative of Kutch, urged a section of the artisan community to resettle some distance away. They set up a village and named it Ajrakhpur, which then rose to prominence.
A 20-minute drive from Bhuj, Ajrakhpur that is today a shopping stopover for foreign tourists, a production and design centre and a symbol of successful resettlement in the wake of a natural disaster (Ismail bhai was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2003 by the UK’s De Montfort University and a Unesco seal of excellence in 2006).
In appearance, it is a cement and brick resettlement colony, with most structures unpainted, dusty and grey. Homes are lined up on one side; on the other side are working sheds with groups of Ajrakh printers—both labourers and artisans. There are central dyeing vats where workers dressed in silicone suits (to stave off dye stains) pulse fabric into red-black-green or pink chemical, but industrially safe, dyes. Multi-metres of dyed fabric can be seen drying on the ground everywhere. It is the industrial face of a crafts village, a case study in itself.
Ajrakhpur is also the address of 21-year-old Aslam, a light-eyed, boyish-looking, impeccably behaved artisan in messy clothes stained with dye and a skull cap. He is one of the star students from the 2016 batch of the Somaiya Kala Vidya (SKV) of Adipur, run by Judy Frater. Aslam was five years old when the earthquake struck—today he understands that the path his life has taken is the design of destiny. His workshed has three rows of tables where Ajrakh printing is done by young men. Two rows are “jobs” that Aslam has taken on to keep up a steady flow of income. One row, he says, is for “my next collection”. Last season, Aslam made saris printed in dull blues, moss greens and midnight blacks—inspired from the colour gradation of sand in the evening on the salt marsh of the White Desert. Indian fashion’s matriarch Ritu Kumar loved his work.
The search for an identity coupled with opportunity is flammable. Aslam is wrapped in its flames. “After training under Judyben, I began to enjoy what I was doing anyway since childhood—printing Ajrakh. Till then, it was a mechanical response, I had no clue what it was all about, except that it had to be done for my livelihood. Now I enjoy it and want to carve my own identity, open my own store. I want to be someone,” he says. A few of his striking saris have just been picked up by a fashion store in Mumbai.
There are many ways to study Kutch today. Through the deployment of the financial, strategic, legal, humanitarian and medical aid that came through public and private assistance. Through disaster management (and mismanagement) lessons. Through city rebuilding efforts and architectural revival—the rebuilt Bhuj has wide roads and a bustling local market. Through the tourism impetus of the Gujarat government that has made the annual Rann Utsav possible on the periphery of the White Desert, a popular winter destination. Through rapid industrialization—the Kandla and Mundra ports are special economic zones (SEZ). Through the inspired work of global and Indian fashion designers and organizations like Dastkar, Dastkari Haat Samiti and Bandhej, which has revitalized the region’s multidisciplinary artisanal skills. Through books like Bandhej founder Archana Shah’s 2013 tome Shifting Sands: Kutch, Textiles, Traditions, Transformation. Through cinema—Aamir Khan’s Lagaan, shot near Bhuj, released in 2001, and the lavish costumes of Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela in 2013.
Then there is a fundamental way to tell the story of Kutch. It breathes under the scramble of bureaucracy, government, social workers and rewired tourism. It is the work of local visionaries, NGOs and their commitment to sustain tradition as the route to modernity and the reciprocation of that spirit by local artisans who found robust reasons to stay home. This travelogue takes that route.
Brick, mortar and Hunnarshala
On the day of the Bhuj earthquake, a workshop by social organization Kutch Nav Nirman Abhiyan to train local artisans in mud stabilization was under way in Khavda, near the Kutch border. That day, however, turned out to be a life lesson in destabilization.
Sixteen years later, as we drive up to the Hunnarshala Foundation on the outskirts of Bhuj, the irony is resurrected. The neighbourhood, sparsely dotted with mud-coloured buildings, appears arid and insipid, yet architecturally compelling. Hunnarshala’s central structure is a large, thatched, hut-like structure. Founded by 27 people in 2003, this skill centre was an extension of the shelter cell that had sprung up under Abhiyan after the earthquake, to aid the homeless. Today, 50 people man and mentor it—architects, engineers, social workers, planners, artisans. It provides shelter, support, education, traditional architectural knowledge to help set up enterprises, make buildings resilient in natural calamities, and uses recycled and environmentally responsible raw materials by working collaboratively with master artisans. Besides a research and design laboratory, and a project for a slum-free Bhuj, Hunnarshala has a residential masonry and carpentry training unit for youngsters who have dropped out of school. “The answers to the most complex environmental dilemmas lie in community traditions and knowledge,” emphasizes Kiran Vaghela, a co-founding member. Executive director Tejas Kotak, who takes us around the campus, points out windows that were brought in from dismantled buildings, wattle and daub (a walling network of interwoven sticks and twigs covered with mud) partitions, lime plaster, recycled country tiles and construction debris, staircases made from local wood, walls with rammed earth, low ceilings with plaited thatched roofs, mud painted façades—these are interventions that help the local economy and offer calamity-resistant solutions to buildings as far away as Auroville in Puducherry or Bali in Indonesia. Research collaborations with design and architectural schools as well as the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) extend Hunnarshala’s activities.
A not-for-profit which ploughs incidental profits back into the enterprise, Hunnarshala recorded a turnover of Rs3 crore in 2015-16.
Khamir’s Kala Cotton
Like most January mornings, it was pleasantly cold last week when we left our Bhuj hotel for Kukma, a village where Khamir is located. The NGO was founded in 2007 to nurture value chains that create craft, sustain local skills and the ecosystem. A campus with a warm vibe, painted mud walls and wooden structures, Khamir has an artist’s residency for students or faculty, besides spaces for weaving, dyeing, yarn spinning, plastic recycling, tailoring, an exhibition area and a thoughtfully curated store that stocks an unpredictable selection of Kutch crafts and textiles. Juhi Pandey, the director, treats us to Gujarati-style poha and chai for breakfast.
There are Mashru prints, Ajrakh stoles and long dresses, lacquer and leather items, brass bells, Bandhini, batik and Shibori items, pieces made from recycled plastic and clay artefacts. In 2015, storied Parisian luxury brand Hermes collaborated with Khamir for Ghadai, a pottery exhibition mounted at the brand’s Mumbai store. Yet what stands out here are Kala cotton creations—tailored pieces and drapes. Kala cotton is an indigenous, organic, rain-fed crop, off-white in colour. The fabric is textured with slubs, making it distinctive in a rural, visibly artisanal way. “Kala cotton began as a fresh story after the earthquake even though the short-staple cotton was grown earlier in parts of eastern Kutch,” says Pandey. She emphasizes its popularity with Indian fashion designers like Shani Himanshu of 11:11 CellDSGN, Aneeth Arora of péro, Paromita Banerjee, Anita Dongre for Grassroot, Anavila Misra, Fabindia and online crafts store Jaypore. Recently, it has got orders from minimalist Japanese store Muji.
Khamir co-founder Iyengar, on the other hand, argues that Kala cotton is a good example of collaborative work in Kutch. Khamir stepped in when Satvik, another NGO, was working on organizing the farmers of Kala cotton, researching the nature of the crop to bring know-how to the weavers. Arvind Mills too had commissioned a Kala cotton garments project.
Today, Khamir functions as the raw-material bank for artisans, designers or companies. “Fair prices, a weaving facility for the yarn, timely payment to weavers and artisans, and a surety to buy the yarn if there are no other buyers is how Khamir propels the value chain,” says Pandey. Khamir has recorded a 15-20% increase over the last two years in the yarn used to make Kala cotton.
The Shrujan museum
Fabric mannequins dressed like traditional Kutchi women from different communities—Ahir, Muthwa, Jat, Rabaris, Sodhas and Jadejas, among others—in riotously colourful garments kick-start the captivating and sentimental experience of the Shrujan museum. From the mango and chikoo orchards that surround the eco-correct building on Living and Learning Design Centre (LLDC) campus, to the visually powerful stories of 12 communities told through their embroidery and crafts inside, this is an unmissable artisanal destination. Located on the Bhuj-Bhachau road, the museum, six years in the making, opened its doors last January. Since each rural community uses a varying grammar of colour, mirrors, threads and beads in embroidery, contextualized in the life stages of a woman (childhood, adolescence, marriage and old age), birth, wedding and death rituals, lifestyle and religious practices, the museum experience—broken into photography, tangible objects like costumes, shawls, turbans, clay creations, musical instruments, kitchen and storage items, footwear, audiovisual mounts and framed archives—is like a fascinating, lesser-known world.
Chanda Shroff, the well-known crafts visionary, founded Shrujan—Threads of Life in 1969 as a house of local embroideries sustaining the work of women artisans. Chandaben, as she was called locally, died last year, months after her brainchild, the Shrujan museum, created in collaboration with the LLDC, a sister organization, opened its doors. Shroff’s three children, Ami and Dipash Shroff and Kirit Dave, are among the most quoted names in crafts conservation in Kutch. All three have contributed to the museum. “While the gallery showing the living embroideries has been open since Day 1, the research gallery and workshop and an inspiration gallery are in the pipeline,” says Ami, the director of Shrujan. Research and design students from colleges and schools, or anyone keen on embroidery, can sign up with Shrujan’s workshops. The canteen is a delightful stop, vying in popularity with the museum store. It is hard to stop asking for more ghee-dabbed paper-thin rotis and sweetened dal served with choondo—sweet pickle made from grated mango.
Ami says that till the old Shrujan store and campus building in Bhuj crumbled completely about six months after the earthquake, more than a few people risked their lives, along with her mother, to retrieve embroidery archives, panels and books worth saving. That gutsy retrieval paved the path for this museum.
About 2,200 women artisans worked with Shrujan before the earthquake. The number went up to over 5,000 within three months as the women sought to involve themselves in community activities. “After the earthquake, women stopped doing embroidery for personal use and began exploring it for commerce,” explains Ami, adding that every spare second during the rebuilding of Kutch was spent by women artisans on embroidery—everything else had come to a standstill. She remembers women, perching on the rubble, singing as they worked on their embroidery. Shrujan, which now has about 3,000 women artisans on its roster, produces the highest number of local embroidery designs on garments, drapes and products in the finest-quality fabrics and silk threads. At the Lakmé Fashion Week’s Summer/Resort edition, starting 1 February in Mumbai, Shrujan will present a fashion show on the Textile Day.
Qasab: The eye of the needle
A deeper and enduring resonance with embroidery among women is also the overriding sentiment at Qasab, which specializes in channelizing local needlework and quilting by women artisans. Among Kutchi communities like the Ahirs, Muthwas and Rabaris, embroidery is an existential, must-do ritual. A mother embroiders ghaghras (skirts) for her daughter for years before she is married. Adolescent girls embroider cholis, pouches, appliqué and needlework throws—for their own dowries. Even when it’s done for commercial purposes, embroidery is still seen as a secondary source of income for women in Kutch. “Teaching these communities that even though embroidery is ritualistic, it can be turned into an income-generation source and a matter of pride is part of Qasab’s work,” says its chief executive officer, Punit Soni.
Around 1,200 women artisans from 11 ethnic communities and 65 crafts-rich villages of Kutch are associated with Qasab, which was registered as a producer’s company in 2010. Only female local residents who practise traditional embroidery can enrol as members. Artisans are commissioned work that combines the traditionality of local designs and market needs—cushion covers, throws, bags in various sizes, waistcoats, wall hangings and other accessories. The design mentors of Qasab give raw materials and keep a record of the work done. They also attend skill-enhancement workshops. Apart from per job wages, artisans also get a share of Qasab’s profit at the end of the year. Most women artisans earn Rs3,000-4,000 a month for embroidery work for 2-3 hours a day. Demand for hand embroidery, both from markets in India and abroad, is booming, though production can’t keep pace, and Qasab’s turnover from 2010-16 has shown a 12% average annual increase, says Soni.
Judy Frater’s students
On a freezing morning in 2001, a few days after the earthquake, Judy Frater, an American design and museology student who had arrived in Kutch in 1993 on a Fulbright scholarship, never to go back, was asked by a Western journalist what she would like to see come out of this. She was sitting outside a tent for survivors. “A design school,” she replied. Frater, whose name is synonymous with the pragmatic training of young Kutchi artisans, would—in an almost preordained way—co-found the Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya, a design school, in 2005, as part of the Kala Raksha Trust that preserves traditional crafts. It was the first of its kind in the region.
The essence of Frater’s mentoring remains simple: Focus on tradition and understand it before you improvise and innovate. “If students know craft, they can learn design. It is easier for artisans to learn design than for designers to learn tradition,” she says. Frater’s students—161 students in 11 years—are spread across Kutch. Some exhibit in India and abroad, others have revitalized their small home enterprises, working locally but thinking big. Most importantly, Frater has taught her disciples to refrain from becoming “labourers or workmen” for others and, instead, set up their units, push their own ideas, evolve a design signature. “When you do your own work that derives from your own tradition, quality happens,” she says, adding that while there is a surge in what’s produced in Kutch, it is important to ask if all of it is indeed craft. Zakiya and Adil Khatri and Aslam are Frater’s students.
Frater, who moved from Kala Raksha to Adipur’s Somaiya Kala Vidya (SKV) as its director in 2013, continues the work. We met her in her workspace in Adipur. SKV offers one-year courses in design (Rs10,000) and business (Rs20,000), with classes taught by visiting faculty. The fees include trips outside Kutch, workshops, boarding and rooms. They also get to exhibit in city crafts bazaars, even fashion stores. Seven of SKV’s chosen students, who Frater calls “artisan-designers”, will display their saris on 2 February in Mumbai at the Lakmé Fashion Week’s Summer/ Resort edition.
I was born and raised in Adipur, Kutch. Three days after the Bhuj earthquake, with all phone and communication lines down and no message telling me if my parents had survived, I called in favours in Delhi to jump on to a special plane carrying journalists to report on the disaster. It landed in Bhuj but there was no airport—everything had crumbled. We flung our bags out of the plane and jumped down. Shared taxis were ferrying those arriving there—mostly rescue or media teams—to villages. I got into one, driving through devastated Bhuj and Rapar, which looked like a giant foot had trampled them. When we reached Adipur, the topography of the town had changed so drastically due to the earthquake that it took me some time to find my home. My parents were alive but shaken and my grandmother was on her deathbed. Our home had hundreds of tiny cracks but it was still standing. Many of our acquaintances had died in the quake and a couple of my friends from school had lost spouses and children. It was freezing cold and secondary tremors continued for about a fortnight. My father Harish Vaswani, a well-known Sindhi writer, wrote a Kutch travelogue that was published that year, after the earthquake. It was a memoir reclaiming his motherland, Sindh, through the desert land of Kutch. The section of its opening chapter—The Search For Earth In The Sky Of The Sand—would help me intimately understand Kutch.
I decided to bury the idea of home after my parents died, despite regular visits to Adipur. Hometown without a home, I called it. Until this visit. The idea of sustaining, nurturing and rebuilding what we have instead of escaping to a panacea that promises to rid us of the debris of the past struck me when I heard weavers, artisans, dhow makers, craft visionaries and development workers build this argument around post-earthquake Kutch. It is not a utopian region free of problems but, broadly speaking, it has tamed modernity and erred on the side of inheritance—both in nature and culture. It has inspired me to rebuild my parental home in Adipur with local raw materials, thatch, lime plaster and rammed earth and decorate it with the artisanal products created by Kutch’s craftspeople.
As the 17th century poet Mizuta Masahide, who studied under Japanese wanderer Basho, wrote,
My house burned down
Now I can better see
The rising moon.
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