Walking Down Memory Lane: 10 Months of Service in Kachchh

India is such a diverse country with different cultures that even as someone who’s born and brought up in this country, I cannot claim that I am well versed with all the cultures in India. The more I travel in India, the more I realise how little I know about my own country. 

One such place is Kutch. Kutch is an exquisite region situated in the westernmost tip of India in the state of Gujarat. The vastness of the region makes it the largest district of the country.

Through this blog, I am sharing my experience around Kutch – that made my fleeting movements in the hinterland, become the most awe-inspiring moments of my AIF Clinton Fellowship journey.

As an arid-semi and arid region, Kutch is known for the largest salt desert in India, the Rann of Kutch. For half of the year, the Rann of Kutch is a vast salt flat — bleak, hot, and dusty.

But for the other half, it’s a huge marsh teeming with flamingos and hundreds of other bird species. [1] Interestingly, it is one of the only places in the country with desert wetlands.

Mandvi beach, The Arabian Sea in Kutch

Desert wetlands are ‘a desolate area of unrelieved, sun-baked saline clay desert, shimmering with … a perpetual mirage’. Indeed, Rann itself means ‘salty desert’. But between May and October, it’s a different place altogether. [2] Situated near the Arabian Sea, during the monsoons, the salt flats get submerged in rainwater and seawater. This transforms the desert into marshes swarming with wildlife.

A region of colour and contrast, the traditional crafts and people of Kutch burst with vibrant colours juxtaposed with the vast and barren landscape of the region.

During the first few months of my AIF Clinton Fellowship, I interacted with all the artisans and visitors at Khamir, my host organisation, and travelled around Kutch to learn about the communities that inhabit the region and associated with Khamir. This process helped me understand about the culture, local ecology and stories of people from different indigenous communities. As a communication and branding professional serving at Khamir, it was crucial to meet these people to be able to write impact stories and case stories for them. These visits gave me an in-depth understanding of the values that Khamir and the local communities live with, their philosophy and their indomitable spirit to sustain the traditional knowledge systems, the community ties and the craft eco-system.

Awadhnagar and Ajrakhpur

The first-ever village that I visited in Kutch was Awadhnagar, a small village near Khamir, Kukma where women and men weave Kala cotton and upcycled plastic sheets. There I had a conversation with a young inspiring weaver named Champa, whose story I have also narrated here. Later, I went to villages such as Ajrakhpur, the village of Ajrakh block printing to learn about the history of Ajrakh, one of the most appreciated textile crafts of Kutch.

Bhujodi

Bhujodi is a small crafts village near Bhuj that boasts of the majority of handloom artisans in Kutch hailing from the Vankar Community. Famous for its Kutchi shawl and Bhujodi sarees, Bhujodi homes many award-winning weavers of Kutch. The weavers weave sarees, stoles, fabric, shawls, carpets and rugs with local raw materials such as Kala cotton and indigenous wool sourced from the local farmers and pastoralists of the Rabari community respectively. The weavers also use BT Cotton, silk, merino wool and synthetic fibres depending on the demand of the customers, while retaining their traditional style of weaving.

Dhanji Kharet Velji kaka* is one of the many artisans in Bhujodi who works with Khamir. I learnt that many weavers of the Vankar community in Kutch have an affinity with bhajans and play local folk music instruments in their free time. More so, they take a lot of creative inspiration from these Bhajans for designing their textile products. These bhajans are rich with philosophical connotations. Indian saints, as well as folk culture, have often explained the non-dualities of life through the metaphor of weaving craft. 

Khengar Manasi Vankar, a dyer in Bhujodi worked at Khamir for many years in the natural dyeing unit before establishing his own business. Today he has set-up a fully functional natural, vegetable dyeing unit within his house. His whole family works with him. They dye raw wool, cotton and woollen hanks and fabrics for weavers and organisations like Khamir.

Khavda, Gundiyali, Bhuj and Anjar

While Bhuj is known for Bandhani and Khavda for Ajrakh block-printing artisans, these places are also recognised for pottery. There are potter communities in Bhuj, Khavda and Gundiyali that create earthenware such as pots, bowls, plates, small urns, jugs and glasses that have a distinguishable red colour which comes from geru, a natural dye applied onto the surface of the objects using a piece of cloth [3]. Celebrated for its designs made of black and white lines and dots, the handwork brings the pottery to life, transforming it into art.

Hodka, Nirona and Misariyado

People in Kutch are extremely kind, giving and considerate. If there were a kindness index in India, Kutch would top it!

From hosting guests and feeding them hearty meals to chiselling handcrafted products on the spot for guests for a demo, Kutchi people top the charts of hospitality!

The ever-smiling, always kind – my favourite confectioner in Kutch

Hodka is renowned for leathercraft, embroidery work and bead jewellery. Artisans across Kutch are not only brilliant at their work but also known for their hospitality and teaching spirit. Pababhai, a leather artisan from Hodka once told me, “I prefer calling visitors and customers ‘mehmaan‘ (guest) because that’s how I like to treat them”.

Nirona village is known for its magnificent Rogan Art, copper bell making and wood-turned lacquer crafts. Only three families in India practice Rogan art today. The craft is slowly diminishing because of lack of market and talent as this craft requires remarkably fine skills.

Misariyado is a small village tucked away in the hinterlands of Kutch, where only one family practices lacquer turnery. This beautiful sustainable craft is also diminishing because of a lack of patrons and market but organisations like Khamir work hard to make sure these crafts revive and the artisans’ livelihoods sustain.

Crafts have always worked in harmony with their local environment. Khamir works with all these artisans to make the supply chain stronger and resilient to outside market fluctuations by pioneering the use of locally sourced raw materials and natural materials. Khamir also assists artisans with design developments and helps them make functional and aesthetic craft products.

Varnora, Nakhatrana and Todiya

I have written more about Tabaria Wana and Namda crafts in this blog.

To sum up the experience – the communities of Kutch have taught me lessons that I may not have ever received had it not been for the ten-month fellowship. There is a sea of lessons to learn and imbibe from the indigenous communities of Kutch and this may just be the tip of the iceberg.

The significant things I learnt from the communities are the values of bestowing respect, kindness and thoughtfulness equally towards all living beings and your local ecology; frugal, conscious & sustainable living; the value of preserving and sustaining your local knowledge systems to battle problems like migration, poverty and climate crisis. I also discovered the beauty of having an intrinsic pride in one’s community, culture and work; and the foremost of all, the value of a healthy community.

In this world of increasing digitisation and lack of shared spaces for people who share the same values, beliefs and purpose, the single-most-important thing missing from our lives is the presence of a community – lived experiences with the indigenous tribal communities and cherished moments with the fellows have helped me realise the value of it.


Citations:

[1] “Desert Wetlands.” WWF, wwf.panda.org/?5741/Desert-wetlands#:~:text=Two major areas are recognised, Little Rann (495,300 hectares).

[2] Ibid.

[3] “The Handicraft Hunter’s Guide to Kutch.” Your Site NAME Goes HERE, www.natgeotraveller.in/the-handicraft-hunters-guide-to-kutch/.

*In Kutch, people always add suffix with names – older people are called by kaka (for males), kaki (for females) and middle-aged people are called by bhai (for males) and ben (for females)  to pay respect.Z

Aishwarya is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Khamir in Bhuj, Gujarat. For her Fellowship project, she is designing a unique range of craft products and publicity materials to support local artisans reach new markets, increase their income, and secure their livelihoods. Born and brought up in a small town, Aishwarya always questioned the increasing dichotomies between the developed and developing world. To channelize her curiosity for social impact, she decided to pursue her graduation in mass communication. During her undergrad, she participated in the YES Foundation Media for Social Change Fellowship to learn about the impact of social media in the development sector. She did an internship with the Indian Express as a journalist and photojournalist, where she covered issues ranging from mob lynching to climate change. A stint at TEDxGateway 2018 gave her an opportunity to work with inventors from around the world, learning aobut the power of storytelling as a medium for change. Aishwarya made a documentary on the Juvenile Justice Act 2015 to study the increase in juvenile crime rate and the discrepancies between the act and implementation. In 2018, Aishwarya participated in a 15-day entrepreneurial train journey across rural India to meet social change-makers who enlightened her about the balance between social impact and profitability. This experience also made Aishwarya look at her hometown in new light: she learned about problems related to declining tourism and waste management. She founded her own nonprofit, ARTC Foundation, to solve these issues. In her free time, she enjoys reading, travel, and photography. Aishwarya is honored to be serving as an AIF Clinton Fellow to expand her horizons in the development sector.

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