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Monthly Archives: April 2012

In the aftermath of the 2001 earthquake, remarkable as it may seem, there emerged a stronger will and a deeper engagement into Craft practices in Kutch. Besides the immense loss of life and infrastructure, the earthquake upset the entire ecosystem, like the village of Dhamadka whose underground water reserves reduced to nothing overnight.

The Khatri community, whose name means “one who fills or changes colours,” practised the art of textile block-printing with the locally available natural dyes and water from the Dhamadka, the river that gave their village its name. This craft consumes a lot of water; as a result of the earthquake, the residents of Dhamadka therefore not only lost their source of water but their source of income as well.

Craft is the second largest livelihood of this region. Rehabilitation work started immediately during which, dozens of families from Dhamadka, with the help of the local government and various NGOs, decided to simply “move” the village to continue to practice this art of the block-printing called ‘Ajrakh’. Thus was born the village of Ajrakhpur.

When we visited, we were received by Abdul, who hails from a Muslim family that has been practicing block-printing for centuries. He is in his thirties, with a jovial smile and speaks English! Along with his brother, he left Dhamadka a few years ago to settle down in Ajrakhpur and continue to practice the craft.

Abdul mostly uses natural pigments: indigo, henna, turmeric, pomegranate, iron oxide …This is a work of a true chemist. With patience and precision, each piece of tissue goes through an average of fifteen steps before arriving at the finished product: printing blocks, boiling, washing, soaking, new printing..

The printing is done by hand with hand carved wooden blocks. Several different blocks are used to give the characteristic repeated patterning.

Block-printing for Abdul is not only a source of income but a passion as well. He continues to explore the possibility of natural pigments by experimenting with several different dyes and processes. He employs a dozen people from surrounding villages and sells these tissues all over India and even abroad. Water is always a problem for this technique but the craftsmen of the village are working with a local NGO to establish a system for treating and recycling the colored water.

It is by this “mélange” of ancestral know-how and innovation in the design and coloring techniques that the beauty of tissues from Ajrakhpur is now recognized internationally!

I have worn so much block-print through my life but a visit to Kutch opens whole knew perspectives on the skill and craftsmenship ; it does not take long to realise how little we knew of this region, or of the treasures it holds.

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“I am sorry for asking so many questions Norabhai, you must think I am quite silly” I said. “I like your questions” said Norabhai, “it broadens my mind”.

We were sitting outside in the courtyard of his home in Bhagadia, a Banni village in northern kutch. It was almost 6 in the evening and the cool breeze had just started to embrace us. Why do we have so many questions, so much noise inside of us and this need to know, I thought. And almost like if he read my mind, Norabhai continued to say “what one is asking are just queries, real questions can never be asked, they can only be observed.”

Bhagadia is a remote village located in the Banni grasslands, where the pastoral community of Norabhai live for most part of the year. Come monsoon, they pack their valuables and follow their cattle to a higher ground. Norabhai has built a “pucca” house for his family, but they continue to live in their shacks that they giggle and call “love boxes”. ” It is just easier to pack up and move” his wife added. The concrete house is used to receive their guests and store all their valuables.

Norabhai is a veterinarian and how he became one is an incredible story! A few years back, a “cow doctor” came to live and work with the cluster of villages in Banni. Inquisitive as he is by nature, Norabhai often tagged along while the doctor was “on duty”. He soon became the official driver and his motorcycle, “the ambulance”. They would be ready to go anytime, anywhere in the region. Norabhai learnt a lot by observing the cow doctor.

Kutch however, is a tough place to live in the summers, and it took the doctor not more than 2 months to “run away”! The second one who was appointed in replacement left in less than a month! In the meantime, Norabhai started filling in on “emergency calls”, he copied down the names and dosages written on the medicines and stored them neatly in his house. He later contacted an NGO, Sahjeevan in Bhuj where he expressed his desire to learn. With the help of the NGO, he soon established a veterinary unit and became the village’s official “cow doctor”!

Sahjeevan continues to assist him today with medical supplies and training programmes.

On that evening, before we sat down for tea, he took us on a visit to show his veterinary unit. Curious to see what he had set up, we followed him into his pucca house, and into a room where his motorbike stood proudly beside a 2-foot tall double door almirah, the sticker on it proudly announced ” The Veterinary Unit, Bhagadia, Kutch”.

How does one explain the concept of empowerment?

Is it the act of taking control over your future, accepting responsibilities, finding the strength to undertake initiatives or simply to become an actor of one’s own life?

Here is a little story, a strong illustration of this idea called “empowerment”. It takes place in Bhuj, but it could be applied anywhere where fear has often taken over our personal choices and desires to become an entrepreneur.

While we are visiting a wonderful NGO campus called “Hunnarshala”, we are distracted by giggles from a building under construction before which we stand.
It is the laughter of kutchi women working on the roof structure of the new meeting room on campus.
They are watching us from up there, bright-eyed and smiling. It is unclear whether this is mockery, shyness or simple curiousity about the motley group of visitors that we are.

Siddarth, our friend from hunnarshala, explains that these women are actually “building contractors”. They started their company called Mathachhaj, five years ago after being trained to implement rice hay roofs by Hunnarshala. This traditional indian technique called “Thatch roof” is accompanied by another technique used in Bali, Indonesia. This combination allows for insulating roofs using only local materials, which in this case are rice straw and bamboo.
In addition to technical training, some women are also trained in accounting and administrative management of the company. (You can visit their website: http://mathachhaj.com)

Mathachhaj in the local Kuchi dialect means “a roof above your head”, a beautiful metaphor for the wisdom that they are unknowingly passing on to us this friday afternoon.

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