The rich and diverse creative traditions of Kachchh live at the intersection of cultures and communities. Once a destination by land and sea for people from Africa, the Middle East, and the Swat Valley, Kachchh has a rich tradition of sea trade from Mandvi and a global connection. A river system was shared between Kachchh, Sindh and Rajasthan. As a border state, Kachchh is constantly absorbing cultures from the north, west, and east. Kachchhi motifs can be traced to the ancient Harappan civilization, yet craft is developing and growing with the innovative and entrepreneurial drive of spirited artists.
The arid climate has pushed communities here to evolve an ingenious balance of meeting their needs by converting resources into products for daily living.While embroidery has become a craft synonymous with Kachchh, other textile crafts and hard materials crafts give this land color and identity. Craft is inextricable from the numerous communities, connected by trade, agriculture and pastoralism in Kachchh.
Traditional Embroideries of Kachchh
Kachchh is world renowned for its mirrored embroideries. Most of these were traditionally stitched by village women, for themselves and their families, to create festivity, honor deities, or generate wealth. While embroideries contributed to the substantial economic exchange required for marriage and fulfilled other social obligations which required gifts, unlike most crafts, they were never commercial products.
Embroidery also communicates self and status. Differences in style create and maintain distinctions that identify community, sub-community, and social status within community. The “mirror work” of Kachchh is really a myriad of styles, which present a richly textured map of regions and ethnic groups. Each style, a distinct combination of stitches, patterns and colors, and rules for using them, was shaped by historical, socio-economic and cultural factors. Traditional but never static, styles evolved over time, responding to prevailing trends. (for more information on Kachchh embroideries, see Frater, Judy, “Embroidery: A Woman’s History of Kachchh,” in The Arts of Kachchh, Mumbai: Marg Publication, 2000.)
The Main Styles of Embroidery in Kachchh
The Sindh-Kachchh regional styles of suf, khaarek, and paako, and the ethnic styles of Rabari, Garasia Jat, and Mutava.
Suf is a painstaking embroidery based on the triangle, called a “suf.” Suf is counted on the warp and weft of the cloth in a surface satin stitch worked from the back. Motifs are never drawn. Each artisan imagines her design, then counts it out –in reverse! Skilled work thus requires an understanding of geometry and keen eyesight. A suf artisan displays virtuosity in detailing, filling symmetrical patterns with tiny triangles, and accent stitches.
Khareek is a geometric style also counted and precise. In this style, the artisan works out the structure of geometric patterns with an outline of black squares, then fills in the spaces with bands of satin stitching that are worked along warp and weft from the front. Khaarek embroidery fills the entire fabric. In older khaarek work, cross stitching was also used.
Pakko literally solid, is a tight square chain and double buttonhole stitch embroidery, often with black slanted satin stitch outlining. The motifs of paako, sketched in mud with needles, are primarily floral and generally arranged in symmetrical patterns.
Ethnic styles express lifestyle. They are practiced by pastoralists whose heritage is rooted in community rather than land, and considered cultural property.
Embroidery is unique to the nomadic Rabaris. Essential to Rabari embroidery is the use of mirrors in a variety of shapes. Rabaris outline patterns in chain stitch, then decorate them with a regular sequence of mirrors and accent stitches, in a regular sequence of colors. Rabaris also use decorative back stitching, called bakhiya, to decorate the seams of women’s blouses and men’s kediya/ jackets. The style, like Rabaris, is ever evolving, and in abstract motifs Rabari women depict their changing world. Contemporary bold mirrored stitching nearly replaced a repertoire of delicate stitches (for more information on Rabari embroidery see Frater, Judy, Threads of Identity: Embroidery and Adornment of the Nomadic Rabaris, Ahmedabad: Mapin, 1995.)
Garasia Jat work similarly “belongs” specifically to Garasia Jats, Islamic pastoralists who originated outside of Kachchh. Garasia women stitch an array of geometric patterns in counted work based on cross stitch studded with minute mirrors to completely fill the yokes of their churi, a long gown. This style, displaying comprehension of the structure of fabric, is unique in Kachchh and Sindh.
The Mutavas are a small culturally unique group of Muslim herders who inhabit Banni, the desert grassland of northern Kachchh. The exclusive Mutava style comprises minute renditions of local styles: paako, khaarek, haramji and Jat work, though these are known by different names. Specific patterns of each style, such as elongated hooked forms and fine back stitch outlining in paako, and an all-over grid in haramji, are also unique to Mutava work. Though technique varies, Mutava style is uniformly fine and geometric.
Patchwork and Applique
Patchwork and applique traditions exist among most communities. For many embroidery styles, master craftwork depends on keen eyesight. By middle age, women can no longer see as well and they naturally turn their skills and repertoire of patterns to patchwork, a tradition that was originally devised to make use of old fabrics.
Needlework is a broad term for the handicrafts of corative textiles and sewing arts. The craft in which needle is for construction can be called needlework. Needle work is unique, it has beautiful names because of its associations with beautiful aspects of life and the beautiful designs
Ajrakh cloth carries many meanings. The popular story amongst local printers is that Ajrakh means “keep it today.” It is also linked to azrakh, the Arabic word for indigo, a blue plant which thrived in the arid ecology of Kachchh until the 1956 earthquake. Ajrakh patterns use complex geometry to create starry constellations in indigo, madder, black, and white across lengths of cloth. The shapes and motifs of Ajrakh echo the architectural forms of Islamic architecture’s intricate jali windows and trefoil arches.
Ajrakh is a time-honored emblem for the local communities of Kachchh. Nomadic pastoralist and agricultural communities like the Rabaris, Maldharis, and Ahirs wear Ajrakh printed cloth as turbans, lungis, or stoles. It was given as a gift for the Muslim festival of Eid, for bridegrooms, and for other special occasions. The colors of a true Ajrakh textile are fast. The cloth is made in a sixteen step process of washing, dyeing, printing, and drying, which requires a high level of skill and concentration in order to keep colors fast and even. Pomegranate seeds, gum, Harde powder, wood, flour of Kachika, flower of Dhavadi, alizarine and locally cultivated Indigo are just some of the natural resources that printers in this craft.
Originally, Batik prints were made by dipping a block into hot piloo seed oil, which was then pressed onto fabric. After dyeing, the oil paste was peeled off to reveal a print. Over time, wax was adopted in the technical process of Batik printing as a more practical alternative to oil, which had to be pressed from thousands of small seeds. The adoption of wax changed the appearance of the textile. In wax printing, thin webs of dye run through the motif creating a beautiful veined appearance. Wax print batik flourished in Kachchh in the 1960’s due to the crafts rising popularity in foreign markets coinciding with the hippie movement and the emergence of chemical dyes, which worked in tandem with wax printing in contrast with vegetable dyes that were unfit for Batik making.
Bela prints are bold and graphic. They grab your attention with a vibrant palette of printed color on a plain white background. Diverse hues are achieved using natural and vegetable dyes. Bagru, Rajasthan, is most famous for producing this type of mordant printed textile. Yet, Kachchh has been a producer district of Bela-style cloth for as long as people can remember. Long ago, East Kachchh produced many mordant resist fabrics commonly referred to as Patthar, which were used in dowry gifts.
Red and black colours are iconic of Bela printing, colors which were used the most for their color fastness. Bagru often features large scale and graphic prints, characterized by strong a strong mordant-printing technique wherein the printer applies vegetable dye directly to a piece of cloth with a hand wood block.
In Kachchh, tie and dye craft is known as “Bandhani.” Bandhani dates back to the Bandhani 12th century, and came to Kachchh when members of the Khatri community migrated from Sindh. Bandhani tie and dye became a staple local source of income with the export of bandhani bandannas to Europe via the English East India Company in the 18th century. Much like the local block printers, bandhani artisans used local, natural resources like madder and pomegranate to dye their cloth in a brilliant range of hues. The technique of tightly winding a thread around a section of cloth, dyeing it, and then removing the thread to reveal a circular resist motif has remained the same since bandhani was first practiced.
After the 1956 earthquake of Kachchh, the introduction of chemical dyes drastically altered the craft. Chemical dyes were cheap and affordable in a time of economic crisis, and the upsurge in their popularity all but erased the original knowledge of using vegetable dyes.
Bandhani has long been culturally important to Kachchhi communities.The most revered type of bandhani is the gharcholu, which is the traditional wedding odhani of Gujarati Hindu and Jain brides. The chandrokhani is worn by Muslim brides.
Today, the Khatri community is the main producer of Bandhani in Gujarat, maintaining a mastery of the craft that has lasted for generations. Khatris in Kachchh are usually Hindu or Muslim. The demand for intricate designs featuring Bandhani is high, and the newest patterns can feature as many as one lakh ties (dots). Bandhani is used for daily attire and for auspicious occasions, like births, weddings, and goddess temple pilgrimage.
Khatris are making new versions of Bandhani to fit the demands of modern and more international clientele. They experiment with the size, shape, and placement of each dot on the cloth to offer a whole new range of products. Their patterns reflect an artistic sentiment to explore and play, creating new motifs with an innovative spirit.
Camel Wool Weaving
The Unt Maldharis, or camel herders, of Kachchh tend a total population of over 10,000 camels. For generations their community has worked with camels to sell milk and as transport. Pastoralism accounts for a large percentage of livelihoods in Kachchh. For many years, Maldharis were making camel wool for their own means, as coverings for their camels or for bags to carry their wares.
Camel pastoralists in Kachchh currently face a range of threats. Declining grazing resources has led to a decrease in herd populations, and camels no longer sell as well as they once did. There is an urgent need to enhance these livelihoods and to conserve the local camel populations. Khamir’s Camel Wool Project is one part of a multi-pronged response to these challenges. Though primarily used for milk and transportation, camels produce high quality wool that is very warm, water-resistant and highly durable. It can be used to make textiles, carpets and ropes. Moreoever, there is a great demand for its natural colors. This wool has traditionally seen minimal use by pastoralists, and is a promising avenue by which they may earn additional income.
Camels are sheared once a year, between March and April, just prior to the onset of summer. Camel wool is coarse and has short fibers, which poses challenges to both spinning and the production of soft, clothing appropriate textiles.
Kachchhi weavers traditionally come from the Marwada and Maheswari communities. The Maheshwaris transitioned into the art of mashroo, while the Marwada style is now well known as Kachchhi weaving. This community is versatile, crafting woven textiles, leather and woodwork all over Kachchh.
Weavers are closely linked socioeconomically with their local clients, the Ahirs, Rajputs, and Rabaris. Each weaver was once personally linked with a Rabari family, who would supply yarn from sheep and goats. Farming communities like Ahirs cultivated kala cotton, which produced woven textiles for shoulder cloths and headgear. Sheep and goat wool was used for veils, skirts, shawls and blankets. The designs woven into Kachchhi woven fabrics were inspired by the communities who wore them, replicating the shapes of musical instruments, the footsteps of an animal herd, etc. The names for motifs like vakhiyo, chaumukh, satkani, hathi, or dholki are evocative of the rural images.
Kala Cotton Weaving
Kala Cotton Weaving – From 3000 BC until the 1750’s, only the indigenous arboreum and herbaceum plants were used to grow cotton in India. Samples found from Mohen-jo-daro were made from these plants, which today are known as old world cotton. In the early market systems of Kachchh, farmers and weavers worked together to create rich, organic woven textiles with a soft but durable texture. Creating textiles from local, old world cotton is part of a vibrant national legacy of making cloth from the first to last step on Indian soil. Kala cotton is indigenous to Kachchh and organic, as the farmers do not use any pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. It is a purely rain fed crop that has a high tolerance for both disease and pests, and requires minimal investment. It is resilient and resurgent in the face of difficult land conditions. It forms a strong, coarse, stretchable fiber that is often used in denim. As it is difficult to produce fine quality textiles with it, as its short staple length translates to fewer twists per inch of yarn, over time its use has diminished significantly in mainstream markets.
The natural resources required for Kharad Craft are wool and vegetable colors. Kachchh had a robust tradition of animal husbandry. The pastoral communities maintained large herds of camels and livestock like goats, sheep etc. Originally Kharad carpets were made from goat and camel hair wool. The Maldharis and Rabaris ( pastoral communities ) shear the hair from camels and goats. This was then given to the hand-spinners who specialized in making wool out of goat and camel hair. This wool was then used by the Kharad artisans. The Kharad artisans produced Kharad (used for spreading on the floor), Khurjani (used to keep on the back of a camel to carry heavy items), Rasa (thick cloth used to cover grains). They used to roam the villages of Banni, Pancham and Sindh for selling their products. The village/town called Mugdan at the Indo-Pak border had regular customers of Kharad and Khurjani. Products such as Khurjani were popular in Sindh where these items sold easily as many people owned camels there. The Kharad adorned many palaces in Sindh and Gujarat. The Kings and the ministers were regular patrons of Kharad given their very distinctive look, strength and longevity of Kharad. A kharad can easily last up to 100 years. Presently the Kharad craft is a diminishing craft.
The Mashroo textile was woven for Muslim communities, who believed that silk should not touch a person’s skin. Crafting a solution that enabled people to honor this belief while still appearing dressed in the finest clothing, weavers mixed silk and cotton threads to create a textile that was simple cotton on one side and rich silk on the other. The meaning of Mashroo is “this is allowed.” The port town of Mandvi is at the center of Mashroo legacy in Kachchh, historically creating luxurious bolts of the fabric that Muslims and Hindus enjoyed. In the regions of Saurashtra and Kachchh , women stitch mashroo kanjari (backless blouses), skirts, and cholis. Mashroo helped weave communities together. The Ahir Patels (farmers) produced cotton, which was handspun and then given the the weavers. Rabari and Ahir women did embroidery and mirror work to create even more distinctive versions of mashroo. Mashroo was a royal craft, produced in large quantities until the 1900’s for local elite and export markets. Till recently, the Maheshwari weavers practiced the craft. Today, traditional mashroo weaving is on the brink of extinction.
Recycled Plastic Weaving
Plastic takes thousands of years to degrade, preventing soil from being used productively and leaching its way into groundwater. One method of plastic waste disposal that has been common to Kachchh is burning large piles of plastic. Studies have shown that burning plastic may release carcinogenic toxins into the air. Littering is a common problem, and trash in Bhuj rarely makes it to a landfill. Recognizing the issue of waste disposal as a global problem, it is necessary to create new, lasting solutions. Cleaned plastic is cut into long strips by women. The plastic strips of different colors are woven into durable textiles. Nylon is used for the warp, and plastic forms the weft, creating a thick dense material useful for mats, backpacks, or cushions. Weaving is a skill intrinsic to the Kachchh, and the recycled plastic is woven using a technology ancient to Kachchh – the pit loom.
Six generations of metal knife makers have sustained this Kachchh craft in Nani Reha and Mota Reha villages. There are two types of knife-making tradition in Kachchh. The chari has a steel or iron blade known as a fur and a handle made from wood, plastic, or brass. The chappu is composed of the same parts with an added spring that allows it to fold. Some artisans specialize in crafting the blade, some in casting the handles, and others in polishing the final product. In this system, each knife is the result of many artisans’ collaborative work. A collaborative spirit strengthens the sector and together artisans meet the needs of a consistent demand.
Lac, a material taken from insect resin, has been used in Indian craft for centuries. Coloured lacquer is applied to wood by heat through turning with a hand lathe. In the process, the artisan maneuvers the lacquered colors to create patterns by hand in kaleidoscopic designs. This form of lacquered patterning is found only in Kachchh. The Vadhas are a nomadic community that moved throughout Kachchh through villages like Nirona and Jura. They collected natural stones and colors from forests, created lacquer goods, and bartered them with the Maldhari community, who they had close ties with.
The Dalit Meghwals of Rajasthan migrated to Kachchh, bringing an artful leather craft with them. The trade was kept alive by a partnership with nomadic pastoralist Maldharis. When a Maldhari cattle died, the Meghwals converted the raw hides into leather. The work was tough, taking eighteen labor intensive days to treat and wash the hide. By recycling the dead cattle, the Meghwals gave new life to waste, transforming it into a product of utility. The Meghwals’ close relationship with the Maldharis resulted in a remarkable fusion of cultural customs which can be seen in the shared styles of dress and embroidery traditions of the various communities in the region. Kachchhi leather was so well treated and durable that it could hold water. As such, it was made into long-lasting items like shoes, water bottles, horse saddles and water jugs. It is said that artisans once used real silver thread to bind pieces of leather together.
Metal Ball Works
Like any other craft, the craft of copper coated bells evolved from the need of the time and region. In earlier times, before the division of India and Pakistan, there used to be constant movement of people between these regions. Live-stock was a major occupation in Kachchh. The Lohar community from Sindh, (now in Pakistan) saw the potential for their craft and brought the craft to the land of Kachchh.
Ancestors of copper bell makers sold their products to the local communities. Maldharis Bharvads and Rabaris (pastoral communities) were their major clientele and shared a very close relationship with the bell artisans. The Bharvads and Rabaris would sit with the bell makers describing the sound that their cattle recognize. The bell makers set the sound and tone till his client felt convinced of the sound. The bells come at a very high price and carry a life-time warranty. If there is any change in sound or the shining fades, then the copper bell artisans refurbish it free of cost. Almost all the live-stock was adorned with their bells thus providing a very good market.
Old timers often refer to the bells by their original names such as chota paila, paila dingla, do dingla rather than the sizes. These names are the local currency equivalents for which bells could be bought at the time.
Traditionally, potters shared a very close relationship with different communities in the villages as the communities were totally dependent on the potters to supply the earthenware to not only run the kitchens but also to observe various rituals associated with festivals and related occasions of birth, marriage and death. The potters work very closely with their surrounding environment. Natural resources such as clay, water, leaves of plant called ‘Jaru’ (local name), thorns and tender stems of ‘Prosopis Julifera’, ‘white clay’ and black stone is required by the potters for activities related to the craft. Clay is used to make pottery items, water is used to prepare the dough of the clay, leaves of ‘jaru’, thorns and stems of ‘Prosopis Julifera’ are used to cover the kiln during firing the vessles, ‘white clay’ and ‘black stone’ are used for decorating the vessels. All these used to be available to the potters very easily and free of cost.
Silver Smith Work
Traditional silver tribal jewellery remains an integral part of village dress. Each silversmith specializes in a particular tribal jewellery tradition, creating an array of products from bangles to earrings to anklets. The jewellers and the communities where they work have strong relationships since they have lived and worked together for generations. During the 19th century, Kachchhi silver was made famous by colonialists who featured silverworks in some of the Great Exhibitions in France and England. Kachchh silver is known for its white quality which resists tarnish. Artisans use brightly coloured glass called meena to accentuate traditional designs.
Wood carving of Kachchh is part of a larger, confluence of cultures linked across the Thar Desert. The Desert encompasses a unique cultural complex, inclusive of Sindh in Pakistan, Barmer and Jaisalmer in Rajasthan and the Rann of Kachchh in Gujarat. The area has creative unity partly due to a common physical environment and partly because of the collective ethnic fabric of the area. Traditional carved wood can be found in all of these areas, and is linked by common design though each region brings a unique flavor and attitude to their motifs. The carved designs in wood are evocative of the motifs found in the embroidery styles of the region. They are also embellished with mirrors which further simulates the embroideries. The Raos (kings) of Kachchh patronized craftsmanship from far and wide, and wood carving was no exception. They commissioned beautiful carved works, like the inlaid door in at Aina Mahal. The migrations of the Bhatias and Jains brought new tastes and designs to Kachchh from far-flung parts of India. For the execution of woodwork, in these imported styles, Gurjar carpenters from Gujarat and Maru carpenters from Rajasthan were brought to Kachchh. The Hindu Suthar mainly worked under the patronage of communities such as Rajputs, Brahmins, Bhatias, Lohanas or Jain and Hindu Banias, fashioning intricately carved wooden columns, pillars, balconies, ceilings, pigeon-houses, doors and windows with ornate floral motifs, birds, animals and human figures.
In the 11th century, during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, a man named Nubi innovatively created a felted covering for the king’s ill horse. Ever since, people have been making felted cloth from the wool of sheep. The craft is primarily practiced by the Pinjara and Mansuri communities, Sama Muslims native to Kachchh. Namda is a craft made for all types of climates. There are Namda artisans throughout India, working in Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. In Kachchh, the Pinjara and Mansuri communities create felted namda from indigenous sheep wool. After the wool is collected, cleaned, dyed, and compressed into sheets, artisans create colorful and intricate designs which are often embroidered. Namda is still used to create saddle blankets for horses and camels in local nomadic communities. Prayer mats for Muslims also can be found felted from the course, earthy fabric
Rogan is the technique of painting on fabric, crafted from thick brightly coloured paint made with castor seed oil. Castor is a local crop grown in Kachchh, and artists most likely sourced it from farmers originally. Artisans place a small amount of this paint paste into their palm. At room temperature, the paint is carefully twisted into motifs and images using a metal rod that never comes in contact with the fabric. Next, the artisan folds his designs into a blank fabric, thereby printing its mirror image. In effect it is a very basic form of printing. While designed used to be more rustic, over time the craft has become more stylized and now is almost a high art.
Mud and Mirror Work (also known as Lippan Kaam) is a traditional mural craft of Kachchh, Gujarat, India. Lippan or mud-washing using materials locally available in the region like mixture of clay and camel dung keeps the interiors of the houses cool. These scintillating murals bring life, gaiety, and beauty to generally harsh life of people of Kachchh.
Mud and Mirror Work is mainly done by the women of the Rabari community. This art form has a hoary past as no records are available to trace its origin. Various communities in Kachchh do mud-washing in their own distinct style. Artisans of the Muslim community practicing this art form stick to graphic and eye-catching geometric patterns of lippan kaam, as depicting the human or animal form is considered deeply un-Islamic.
Mud mirror work gathered attention of the modern world for its intricate pattern and aesthetic perfection and has made a full transition from its unknown modest stature to the mainstream art world, decorating the walls of urban homes.
Attractive wall pieces with small mirrors are made in Kachchh and Kheda districts of Gujarat. Traditional clay utensils like pots, Tawadi, Plates, Bowls etc.,with hand paintings are made in Kachchh district.
Sea Shell Products
Kachchh has a long coastline and thus making use of the sea shells have much been in demand for among all products that is been designed by the localites, like using shells and conches for the clothing to make is heavy and unique. Also some colorful shells ae made use in toys as it makes it porcelain finished with more captivating look. Seashell is the outer case of soft bodied animals called molluscs. After the animals living inside have dried up, the shells are collected and graded according to colour and shape and used in decorative items. Birds, animals, plants, agarbati stand and figures of Gods & Goddesses are prepared by joining the appropriate coloured shells with an adhesive. Later eyes, nose, ears, garments etc are painted with oil paints.
From anklets to earrings, armbands to chokers, Jewellery is not just a means for embellishment, but more ofan investment. It is a mark of identity, a display of wealth and therefore, a symbol of pride. Sheets of white metal, each manually pressed into moulds to duplicate the Kachchhi silver designs, make the base to which more decorative elements will be added. A coat of oxidizing polish powder mixed with a oil based binder and applied to the pieces, and then polished off with a soft cloth for a quick,“antique” finish. What tricks the city has learnt, to imitate the beautiful, rustic look of well worn silver! The white metal jewellers co-exist with silversmiths in the same marketplace; there is a customer for everything. Pure silver is popular in the form of delicate pieces of jewellery, or for religious articles, while white metal in its unrestrained flamboyance and affordability has a mass appeal.
Bells are hand cast in a variety of shapes and sizes displayed singularly or in a group to perform musical functions. The sound of each bell is set with an instrument called ekal. The tonal quality and the resonating sound are dependent on three factors inherent to the making. The shape and size of the bell, along with the wooden thong sourced from the local Khirad tree determines the sound it imparts.
The structure and curvature of the bottom which is delicately beaten into shape using a harmonic hammer resonates the sound deepening its after glow.
Bells chimed their way into Kachchh from Sindh centuries ago, tied to the necks of migrating cattle.