After living here for three months, I can confidently say that Kachchh is a place full of enchantment. It is difficult to describe, to boil down to a phrase or two. Nothing fits into a box here–not the people, nor the landscapes, and certainly not their talents. Working at Khamir, you hear the greatest of stories about artisans who have overcome difficult challenges, who have taken huge risks to take their art to new heights, and also of those who willingly share their knowledge with others. Some have big dreams of where their art can take them, others are perfectly content with their stable business, and even more have no idea what potential their talent actually has. I can only imagine how excited designers must get when they visit this mecca of craftsmanship and witness the creative genius that is evident everywhere you look.
Over the course of my project here, I have had the good fortune to travel across the region visiting artisans in their homes and speaking to them about their craft, history, and their inspiration to continue their chosen profession. Ranging from weavers to potters to leather and bandhani artisans, I have seen them in their natural environment: beautiful homes in Bhujodi, peaceful and spacious bungas (huts) in Hodka, and tiny shacks in smaller villages. Each artisan is proud of their work—no matter their level of craftsmanship or success. These artisans have a sense of satisfaction, of fulfillment with their chosen path, and also possess a determination to do what it takes to preserve and promote their craft.
Kachchh has multiple landscapes from the desert to the sea to the farm; people of many professions and religions and histories; birds and buffaloes and jackals and sheep. You name it, Kachchh probably has it. One of my new favorite places is a village called Hodka, where we had a memorable day with a family of leather artisans who lived in hut-like bungas and have the most pleasant demeanor. Their hospitality put me at ease within minutes, the peaceful atmosphere of the Banni region was relaxing, and the sincerity with which our hosts lived, worked, and talked, was the best takeaway of them all. This family has been working with leather for many generations, and in much the same way they always have, except for an advancement in designs, colors, and markets.
The Banni region, where Hodka is located, has evolved from tall grasslands to dry, more arid land, but the pastoralist communities are still in the area tending to their buffaloes. Here, no one actually owns their piece of land on which their houses are built, and therefore resource management often depends on trust alone. As you drive through the region, you eye can see wide expanses of open grassland spotted with groups of large black buffaloes grazing or lazing around. Even the homes, or bungas, as they are known, are a collection of huts in a small compound-like area: one for each nuclear unit with a shared kitchen for the larger family. The food we were served was traditional, fresh, and absolutely delicious: bajra rotla with homeade ghee, jaggery, potato curry, garlic chutney and lassi. Walking into their huts was like stepping back into time—the mirror work on the walls, old photos, traditional embroidery blankets and overall atmosphere were all textbook perfect. The sun was shining, the women embroidered in the courtyard, men worked in their workshop, children played together outside, and the buffaloes lay in the shade…it felt more like a movie set than a real village. I could easily see why this place has earned the moniker “heaven on earth,” as a coworker described it.
Another day was spent in Mandvi, which used to be one of India’s most active ports in its heyday. It is a bustling place with shipbuilders, artisans, a thriving market and many historical places to visit. The atmosphere is pleasant due to the proximity to the beach and the town still exudes the charm of its past glory. Here, we spent a few hours with a bandhani artisan whose family has been involved in the craft for many generations. As he recounted a story about the first time a designer came to meet his grandfather—an event that changed their business forever–I couldn’t help but think back to those times when handiwork was the norm. Historically, women tied their own bandhani shawls, blouses, skirts, or odhanis in their free time after all the housework was completed. Now, bandhani is a commercial business with machine-made versions sold alongside authentic tie-dye pieces. The process has been shortened, and the shelf life of a garment has also decreased. The market now demands new pieces every season, whereas a woman would traditionally use one odhani for several years, and would therefore invest more time in making that piece. The bandhani market is only growing, but I have repeatedly heard the concern that the quality of traditional, fine bandhani has gone down. On the flipside, I have also seen so many contemporary pieces utilizing new techniques and concepts that have taken the art to a different level altogether. The juxtaposition of the two make for an interesting study in bandhani—paying homage to the traditions of the past while still responding to the current marketplace.
Everyone you meet here has a story connected to the crafts. Even the ladies all know embroidery or bandhani or beadwork, and Khatri women are always taught the tying process of bandhani before they get married—it is tradition, and whether the women choose to continue the work or not, they must know it. The insights I have gained through my travels here have been eye-opening and a unique way to experience Kachchh. To witness the role these creative industries play in the overall social and economic fabric of the history, people and their everyday life has given me a renewed respect for professionals whose art is their life, and whose wild imaginations and can-do attitude keep the vibrancy and charm of a place alive forever.