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Malakaka leaves behind a question for us ponder. Did we do enough? More importantly, did we do right?
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Wadha Mala Khamisa, or Malakaka as we all know him, passed away on 12th June, 2013. Most of us, the craft lovers, have either worked with him or met him at some point. We all feel a deep sense of loss at his death. His is a story about lost opportunities;  it is perhaps the story of the majority of our gifted and talented artisans.

01malakaka-001He was one of the first from his community to have stepped into the world outside his village and Kachchh. I look at his passport – made many many years ago, when he was a young man with long hair and bright eyes. Born into a community that was essentially free and nomadic, he had a fierce independence and pride about him. His community was no longer nomadic though they continued to exist on the edge. They lived in binaries – being in the middle of the village but out of it, being Hindu but considered Muslim, being poor but extremely rich in craft skills (the only type practised in India), being uneducated but highly intelligent, receiving much but retaining nothing.

Malakaka lived and breathed his craft. He despaired when his children did not pursue it as seriously as he did. He travelled to cities for exhibitions. It had made him confident and open to new ideas. He was the first to support new initiatives. He was the most reasonable when it came to sticky issues but never compromised on price or quality. Everyone who came to Kutch searching for crafts ended up meeting him. Even the people in the Government bodies of handicrafts all knew him.

03malakaka-001Despite a life that feels quite full, he remained a worried, unhappy man. His worries only increased with time. Like many members of his community, he had a long tryst with illness and doctors. One assumes a major part of what he earned went towards medical expenses. Life became an unending cycle of work-money-crisis-debt-work.  He was heartbroken by the waywardness of his children and gradually began losing hope. The last time he came to our office, three days before his death, he had cried, saying he was tired of life.

04malakaka-001Long back when we had visited him with a group of foreigners who couldn’t stop praising his skills, he turned to me and said, “We have the talent, but not the luck. Our karma holds us back.” It was as if he knew that no matter what, his community would take a long time to overcome the burden of history.

Malakaka leaves behind a question for us ponder. Did we do enough? More importantly, did we do right? Speaking for ourselves, we were unable to strike the balance between welfare, charity and enablement of the community. This conflicting approach must have confused even Malakaka. In the end, it was easier for them to fall back on the few things that were certain – the seasonal tourists, advances against orders, and the occasional charity support from organisations and individuals. We were unable to create the possibilities for a different future during his time.

02malakaka-001As we said our last good bye to Malakaka that afternoon, he looked like a defeated man who had left the world worrying for his family. His body was being taken for burial though technically the Wadhas are Hindus. Twelve days later, there would be a feast for the community in keeping with tradition.

By Meera Goradia, Khamir
Guest writer on MadeInKachchh
To know more about Malakaka read our previous post – Meet Malakaka

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After photography was introduced into India in the 1840s it rapidly grew in popularity, particularly as a means to record the vast diversity of people and their dress, manners, trades, customs and religions.
This is a continuation of a series called The Wonderful Artisan, a set of photographs contributed by Shivashankar Narayen in 1870 to the book – “People of India”.
You can see Part 1 here.

09 Women preparing cowdung cakes for fuel, Ahmadabad
Cow dung is collected and made into flat round ‘patties’ which are dried on walls and roofs and then sold as fuel and used extensively on cooking fires and for heating. It has many other uses, including fertiliser and as a flooring material when mixed with mud and water.

09 Women preparing cowdung cakes for fuel, Ahmadabad
10 Gold and silver wire and thread drawers at work

10 gold and silver wire and thread drawers at work - 1873
11 A goldsmith’s shop, Bombay
This is one of a series of photographs commissioned by the Government of India in the 19th century, in order to gather information about the different racial groups on the sub-continent. Photograph of a group of goldsmiths (Sonars) seated round a low work table at Bombay in Maharashtra. John Forbes Watson writes: “The Sonar or gold and silversmith is an indispensable member of the Indian social condition of life; and he is to be found in every village, almost in every hamlet, as well as in all towns and cities.

11 A goldsmith's shop, Bombay
12 Cloth stamper, Western India
Photograph of a cloth stamper seated at a low table on the verandah of a house in Western India. The craft of block printing cotton fabrics is particularly associated with Gujarat. The motifs include flowers, animals, people and abstract designs. The wooden blocks, carved with the design to be printed, have a handle on the back. They are made from woods that are light in weight, gurjun (Dipterocarpus Turbinatus-Gaert) or seasoned teak (Tectona Grandis-Linn); the former wears better when used as a block. Fabrics are still printed this way in India to this day.

12 Cloth stamper, Western India

13 Preparing sheepskins for tanning, Ahmadabad
A description in John Forbes Watson states, “The process of tanning consists in soaking the skins in lime water for some days to loosen the hair and surface of the skin; the hide is then scraped, and after washing is sewn up in the form of a sack, which is filled with babool bark (Acacia arabica); it is then exposed to a constant stream of water, which forces the astringent matter into the pores of the hide very rapidly; but to make the process still more rapid the hide is taken out, wrung, and refilled every four or five days. While still damp the skins are spread on the ground and rubbed on both sides with a wooden block or mallet furnished with a handle.”

13 sheep skin

14 Lacquer worker, Western India
The object to be lacquered is turned from hard wood, usually shisham [Dalbergia]or box. After being smoothed and cleaned it is again fixed in the turners’ frame (a kind of lathe worked by hand), and made to rotate. The sticks of lacquer colour (“batti”) consisting of a mixture of lac, resin, colouring matter, and, it is said, a certain proportion of sulphur and bees’-wax, are then applied to the rotating object; the heat produced by friction is sufficient to soften the lacquer composition, which attaches itself to the wood, producing however, a dull and streaky appearance. When sufficient colour has been applied, the surface of the article is skilfully rubbed with a piece of bamboo having a fine edge, by which the colour is evenly distributed, and a polish produced, which is finally completed with oiled rags.

15 Lacquer

15 Work-box makers, Bombay
The three box makers are shown with examples of their trade, including carved and inlaid boxes and an album cover. A certificate of honorable mention awarded to Framjee Heerjeebhoy at the Paris Exhibition of 1867 is placed in the centre of the photograph. This photograph was probably shown at the Vienna Exhibition of 1873 where Framjee Heerjeebhoy sent many examples of his work. The work exhibited included ivory inlaid inkstands, portfolios, cribbage boards, pocket books and watch cases. He also sent carved sandalwood and ebony work as well as album covers and glove boxes adorned with Delhi pictures, pocket books, paper cutters and watch stands.

16 workbox makers

And finally an interesting photograph, taken around the same period by Photographer Michie and Company, showing carpet weavers from Karachi jail in Sindh.

17 Carpet Weavers in Karachi Jail in Sindh - 1873

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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