Thursday, 22 February 2018

Indian Epic - Travels in Kutch, Gujarat - Textile Heaven

Kutch is famed for its rich textile heritage so what better way to spend our final day than overdosing on them. Our first call was to the Living & Learning Design Centre (known as LLDC) in the village of Ajrakhpur, just outside Bhuj, a world class crafts & textile museum with an education and resource centre enabling the craftsmen and women of Kutch to interact with designers, learn about new designs and products to ensure that their work remains both relevant and marketable. You can learn more about the work of the LLDC HERE.

Photographs aren't allowed inside, which was probably a good thing, as Jon and I were able to fully immerse ourselves in the textiles on display and the incredible exhibition of costumes worn by the many tribes of Kutch. There were also some fascinating videoed interviews (subtitled in English) with representatives from the various Kutchi tribes, discussing their outfits and their way of life. We were sad to learn that the custom within many communities is that the clothing and jewellery of the deceased is thrown in the sea, buried or burnt, neither recycled or passed on.

I was interested to read a quote from a woman belonging to a Kutchi tribe where females stay indoors. Nobody has ever told us we can't go out, she said, our husbands say that we should, it's just that we don't want to be the first of our generation to do so. We want someone else to go before us. The weight of tradition can be such a heavy burden.

The women of the Rabari, one of many Kutchi tribes famed for their embroidery skills, used to start embroidering their trousseaux in their early teens. Their work was so intricate that the women were often in their mid-thirties before they were ready to marry. In recent years the tribal elders banned the women from embroidering their own clothes dictating that their work be sold. In an interview with one of the Rabari women she said I feel sad that I can't own the beautiful clothes my ancestors wore. I'm proud that my work is valued and that the money we make from selling our work supports our community but I feel that I've lost part of who I am by having to wear plain clothes.

The centre was only inaugurated in 2016 and is a wonderfully modern and imposing space. On the day we visited they were preparing for an arts festival, due to start later that day.

 Ramji wasn't available on our last full day so K provided us with another driver. Although he didn't speak a lot of English he was from Bhuj and so, when asked if we could see some traditional block printing he knew exactly where to take us......those of you with a fetish for fabric, look away now!!

Dr. Ismael Mohammed Khatri can trace his Ajrakh block-printing heritage back at least nine generations. This is just a small part of his warehouse.

We asked if it was possible to see where his fabric was printed so he hopped into our car and directed us a mile down the road. I expected a factory but we were taken to a village, with every adult resident involved in the process of block printing cotton -  while men stood over huge vats of simmering dyes, stirring away, women laid lengths of partially printed cloth out in the sun to dry, children played amongst the fabric, cows were tethered to gateposts and cats slept in the shade.

The actual block printing process took place in a large brick-built building with a corrugated metal roof. Unlike factories here in the UK there was no radio blasting away in the background, just the satisfying thud of wooden printing blocks against seemingly endless sheets of pristine white cotton - with the occasional chirp from a family of sparrows, who'd made their nest in gap in a factory window.

Dr. Khatri told us that it takes each employee three days to print a 100 metre length of cotton. That's why block printed cotton isn't cheap.

The factory supplies block printed cotton to some of the best known shops in the country, including the wonderful FabIndia where this fabric was destined, to be made up into women's knee length kurtas and bed covers. 

Dr. Khatri

Gives a whole new meaning to sun-dried!

The process was mesmerising. Again, sorry about my terrible accent - I can't stay quiet for a minute.

Needless to say, we popped back to the warehouse after our visit and treated ourselves to two scarves as souvenirs. I loved block printed fabric before, now I bloody adore it.

By now it was lunchtime so we picked up the driver's wife from Bhuj hospital where she worked as a nurse and went to their favourite basement canteen for a massive veg thali. The food was incredible and the company, despite the language barrier, was warm and lovely.

When we visited Manvi you may have noticed the Gujarati tie-dye shawl I wore. I was excited to find it in a 50p bucket in a charity shop and was intrigued by the process involved. Gujarati tie-dye is a lot more intricate than my teenage attempts with waxed string and marbles.

We asked our driver if we could see some tie-dye and ended up in the front room of a house in a nearby village. The householder explained how he sketches a series of dots and dashes on lengths of white fabric (either cotton or silk) and pays local housewives to sew around the dots, pulling the thread tight. The completed lengths of fabric are then returned where they're immersed in a tubs of vegetable dye. When dry, more markings and stitching are added and the fabric is dyed again.

Here's some of the completed work.

The chap wasn't interested in selling us anything, he was more than happy with a selfie!

We finished the day with a stroll around Bhuj. It's probably a good thing that Saturday was half day closing or I'd probably have bankrupted myself.

Everything you could possibly want including pom pom necklaces for your water buffalo and replacement legs for your charpoy.

I'd forgotten that I'd seen the fake ivory arm bangles on Bhuj market. Jon put me off by saying that they looked like onion rings.

It was with a heavy heart that we said goodbye to K and the Devpur Homestay on Sunday morning.

But that wasn't the end of our adventures in Kutch. We had one place to visit before our flight to Mumbai. Run by the not-for-profit organisation Kala RakshaSumeraser Sheikh maintains an archive of antique textiles, a handicraft workshop, a museum and a fixed-price shop. Most of the participants are women from marginalised communities (like the ladies below) .

This elderly woman is suffering, like many professional embroiderers, from failing eyesight. She arrived as refugee from the Indo-Pak war of 1971 and has lived here ever since.

Kala Raksha employ her to make these beautiful patchwork chess pieces from salvaged fabric and also provide her with accommodation.

Such incredible skill. I was pleased to learn that the not-for-profit organisations that promote the skills of Kutchi embroiderers provide regular eye tests.

The antique textiles & tribal jewellery on display made me giddy with excitement. I bought a DVD from the shop called When Stitches Speak, an award-winning animated documentary (link HERE) which I'm looking forward to watching soon. 

I wanted it all!

Appetite for textiles sated we continued on our journey to the airport where, once again we were treated like rock stars, with the cabin crew meeting us outside the terminal, unloading Ramji's car and carrying our luggage for us. 

And that was Kutch! As you can probably tell from the profusion of posts we loved every minute of our week-long adventure. If you're interested in visiting you'll find the wonderful Devpur Homestay's website HERE and if you want any further information & advice about visiting the Kutch region of Gujarat please feel free to email me.

You'll find the whole set of photos HERE.

See you soon!

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Indian Epic- Travels in Kutch, Gujarat - Birding in Banni

Just before sunrise on Friday morning we were collected from Devpur by an ecologist & his driver from the Centre for Desert and Ocean (CERO) and taken to the Banni Grasslands, a semi-arid region skirting the Great Rann of Kutch for a morning of bird and mammal spotting. That's a desert warbler in the photo above (or sylvia nana, which has to be one of the greatest Latin names ever).

I'm beginning to run out of words to describe Gujarat's astonishing landscape so I think other-worldly is probably the best I can come up with. The odd shaped rock formations and pink-tinged environment were breathtaking at sunrise especially accompanied by the soundtrack of Kutch's dawn chorus.

Other than us, our guide and his driver there wasn't a soul around.

To be honest I was a bit worried about going bird spotting as I know hardly anything about them. I leave food out for them at home and know the difference between a robin, a sparrow and a blackbird but that's about it. I'm also useless at looking through binoculars so I was expecting to spend the morning having to pretend I'd seen things I hadn't.

I needn't have worried. Our guide, Veer's passion for birds, mammals and nature was contagious. He didn't expect either of us to be familiar with the creatures we spotted - he even slowed down to point out a domestic cat (Felis catus). He'd position his telescope on a tripod so we could see exactly what he'd seen. He played their calls on his smart phone and showed us the individual birds in his manual just in case we couldn't understand his accent (we could, his English was excellent). 

The Indian paddy bird.

The common crane (Grus Grus).

A pair of painted sandgrouse. As is usual in the birding world, the boys are prettier than the girls.

Time for our car bonnet breakfast!

The long legged buzzard.

The silence was broken by the sound of bells emanating from a hundred-strong camel caravan passing through. The maldhari* comes from one of Kutch's nomadic tribes, the Jat community, whose forefathers fled from Baluchistan in Pakistan around 500 years ago. Following a feud with the king, the Jats sold all their other animals replacing them with camels to prepare for their 440 mile journey to Gujarat.

*Camel herder.

The maldhari and his family were moving on after a week spent grazing their herd elsewhere in the area. Although the Jats are Muslim and our guide & driver were Hindu they greeted each other warmly. When asked if his family were in need of food and water he happily accepted what was left of our breakfast picnic and continued on his way.

One of the most enchanting things I've ever seen. I'm so glad we bought a bell from the workshop in Nirona, I'll have a reminder of those precious few moments forever.

We came across another tribe of nomads on our journey through Banni. The milk from their water buffalo is so highly prized that each beast is said to be worth over one lakh rupees (£1,100).

The herd is looked after by these young men, also from the Jat community, whose tribe have been herding water buffalo in Kutch for over half an millennia.

We found it very strange that, unlike elsewhere in Gujarat, the nomads showed absolutely no interest in our foreignness and definitely didn't ask us for a selfie.

We also spotted (to name but a few) the white tailed tit , the grey hypocoliusSkye's NightjarSkye's Lark, the MacQueen's bustard, the lesser florican, the cream-coloured courser, the sociable lapwing, the white-browed bush chat, the grey necked bunting, the white bellied minivet, the graceful prinia, and the red-tailed wheatear.

Our favourite spot of the day had to be this gorgeous Indian grey mongoose.

You can see rest of our Banni photos HERE.