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