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Mandvi or “Mandavie” as it was known to the British, was a principle sea-port town in Southern-Kachchh. It was intimately connected with the ports of the Red Sea as well as Zanzibar on the African Coast through maritime commerce. Many people travelled through the sea to reach Kachchh from Afghanistan and beyond after the borders were closed on the western frontier due to the India-Pakistan war. Today Mandvi is a melting pot of people and old businesses of much diversity.
Spared from several earthquakes that have hit the Kachchh region over centuries, the town of Mandvi is full of quaint buildings, narrow winding streets, a charming old market and a people who are kind, curious and enviably talented.
Here is a photographic tour of the people I crossed in this beautiful town.

In the book called “Random Sketches of Western India”, Marianna Postans, a british traveller to the region in 1839 writes about the people of Mandavie; “The inhabitants seem busy, cheerful and industrious. They are a peculiarly handsome race, and much more indebted to nature on this account than the inhabitants of the interior (Bhooj). I think climate must produce this enviable distinction, the air is agreeably soft and cool. Another material advantage to the health of the people of Mandavie is a change in their diet : Fish of good quality!”

Maritime trade and commerce flourished for centuries in Mandvi. The exports consisted principally of cotton cloth and spices; and in return it received dates, coffee, dried grapes, antimony, senna and colored mats from ports of the Red sea, and from Zanzibar; elephant’s teeth and rhinoceros horn.

Today, the town is no longer an active port, but stories and remnants of a once thriving business in trade can be felt when one visits the old market and through conversations with the spice merchants.

The town of Mandvi has a 400-year old ship-building industry and craftsmen who continue to use traditional techniques to build ships for domestic and international clients. A creek from the sea, which runs skirting one side of the town for about a mile inland, has its mouth filled with ships, building, mending. These enormous wooden ships are a remarkable sight! They look quite primitive in nature but the ship-builders will swear by their strength and stability and they continue to believe in their building techniques as their forefathers did.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise in Mandvi is the palace. It was also used as a traveller’s bungalow. It is double storied and is built of white stone with a wonderful terraced roof having an extensive view of the surrounding land. The architecture is curious and beautiful; seems to be a mixture of the east as well as european influence.

It is not surprising then to hear of the legend that the architect, RamSingh, having been as a child stolen from the coast of Kutch by pirates, was taken by them to Holland, where he became initiated into the knowledge of the fine arts, and returned to decorate his native land. He was the servant of one of the early and most wealthy princes of Kutch (Rao Lacca), and at whose command he ornamented the province with many specimens of architectural beauty.

The people of Mandvi are very skilled. From ship-building to cloth weaving, several hand-made crafts continue to exist. Amongst them, one of the most popular ones is the art of “Bandhani”. Bandhani, or tie and dye, is a technique by which fabric, either cotton, silk or wool is decorated with tiny dots by simply tying a small portion of it in a tight knot, so that once the cloth is dyed, the tied portion retains the original colour of the cloth. Mandvi has a rich Bandhani market.

Bandhani is worn by women as sarees and dupattas, while men usually wear turbans made of Bandhani cloth. It is almost always the “wedding dress” of the Indian bride from this region.

Bandhani is everywhere in the town of Mandvi.

The artisans who practice this craft have settled in this town, whose communities can be traced back to have originated from Sindh, Pakistan. The community is called “Khatri” and includes both Hindus and Muslims, the latter are larger in number. Mandvi is well known for tie and dye owing to the commonly known fact that the water in this town brings forth the brightest colours!

Cloth dyers from Mandvi work with chemical dyes that have largely replaced natural colours due to the huge demand from the market.

Mandvi is known for its serene stretch of beaches and blue waters. Camels are a common scene on the beach, painfully pulled around by little boys and slowly tagging the people for a couple a metres along the stretch of the Main beach (it is a difficult sight).

I met Veer, the camel, and I introduce him to you here.

I will leave you in the end with a panorama of the Mandvi vegetable market, full of people and shopkeepers that love to be photographed!

Update : We just came across a beautiful photo essay on the shipyard in Dhaka by Pavel Gospodinov, Check it out – http://pavelgospodinov.com/dhaka-shipyard-dhaka-bangladesh/

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There is a neem tree at the far end of a cluster of houses in the village of Nirona where Mala Kaka sits with wooden instruments at his feet, a cigarette in one hand, and a plate of tea in another. This morning he is watching his son working, (beside him) while he himself is eager to meet us and tell us a story.The story of Noorie Wadha.
(Subtitles included)

 

This story led to a lot of research and plenty of questions about Noori and the wadha community. Here are some links that we found:

Muse India – Noori Jam Tamachi
The gentleman angler
and wikipedia as well.

So are Noori and Jam Thamachi truely the ancestors of Mala kaka? Why did they come to Kutch and how? What happened to the royal bloodline? Why did they start living in the forest? Why did they start practicing the craft of Lacquer-turned wood? Or is this simply a story of love and humility that has been inspiring people for ages?

Thank you Mala Kaka.
You are indeed a wonderful story-teller.
(Read more about Mala kaka here)

Mala Kaka was a master story-teller and a great craftsman. He was such an inspiration for me to start this blog and share stories about Craft and Kachchh and People. I will always remember what he said to me the first time I met him, “Stay here as long as you want my child. We have chai and we have chutney. And that is all you need in Kachchh.”
Will miss you Mala Kaka. May your soul rest in peace.
12th June 2013
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Mala kaka belongs to the Wadha community. The Wadha community of Nirona are a group of 5 families that have settled in the village. The name Wadha means “one who works with wood”. Carving and colouring wood to make household articles and furniture is their principle livelihood which they exchange with other communities for food and clothing. Traditionally nomadic in nature, they lived in forests. They moved and worked, where needed, throughout villages bordering the Great Rann of Kachchh. “I don’t really have a fixed time of work”, says Mala kaka. “Sometimes we start at 6, sometimes at 9 or 11. We used to live in a jungle. What meaning does time have to a man in a jungle?”.

Their craft is called Lac-turned wood. Lac turned wood is practiced using simple tools, a self-made lathe, a string attached to a bow, and sticks of coloured lac. Wood is collected from the trees in the forest and chiseled to make household articles.

The Certeria lacta, an insect indigenous to Kachchh as well as other parts of India, secretes a protective resin around herself and her eggs.  This resin, called lac, is collected from Babul trees, heated, and mixed with groundnut oil and colour to form a thick, opaque paste. When cooled down, this paste turns into a solid bar of color,  much like a crayon and is used to decorate the wood. This colour coating is known as lacquer.

“It is an instinctive craft.” says Malakaka. “It is not something I saw in the cities, or from some textbook, it is the work of one’s mind.”

He first prepares the article by turning the lathe and chiseling the wooden piece into the desired shape.  He then returns to his lathe with a piece of colored lacquer in place of his chisel. Once again, he turns the carved wood. The friction created by this turning causes the lac to melt against the wood, coating it in colour. The first colour is a base upon which the artisan adds layers of colours to achieve various designs and effects. “If we are more hungry we work more. If not, then we work less”.

The descendants of this Wadha community are today settled in various villages of Kachchh, Nirona being one of them. Due to the fact that their craft lacks stable markets and is dependent only on the tourist season, most of the Wadha families are unable to sustian their livelihood. They have discontinued their craft-making and work as labourers in farms or coal-making. They get their lacquer today from Bhuj city, even the natural dyes used in their craft is now largely replaced by chemical dyes. Perhaps the greatest challenges facing the Wadhas are related to their quality of life.  Because of their current socio-economic situation and basic living conditions, artisans and their families are challenged by health, nutrition, hygiene, and addiction issues.  These challenges not only affect their community’s quality of life, but also thwart their ability to create and produce their craft.

Mala kaka is one of the few remaining lacquer artisans in Kachchh. “Today i have an illness.” he says “What I say today, I may not remember tomorrow. It is affecting my memory. And physically it is painful. It is difficult today to even cook. My thoughts itself seem to end. I just forget things.”

“But my craft, I remember. It is in my heart. It is in my habit.”

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References : Shaina Shealy, Studio firefly, Khamir Craft Resource Centre (Kutch), Shristi School of Design (Bangalore)

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