Beyond Calico

Iram Ahmed Collection no 100 exploring crafts Gujarat

Beyond Calico lay serene and welcoming Bhuj. It is located in Kachchh (in Gujarat), said to be one of the richest crafts regions of India.

The All India Co visits crafts mecca Bhuj

The popularity this region enjoys among design, arts and crafts enthusiasts and experts all over the world, thankfully has no ill-effects on its people. 

TAIC visiting crafts centers around bhuj

The weather warm and the people warmer, Bhuj instantly felt like a book I couldn't wait to read.

The Fall

I stood (and still do) in awe of Bhuj. 

It was my privilege to be in this phoenix city that was completely wiped out in a devastating earthquake in 2001. Those of us that bothered to watch India's Republic Day celebrations on TV were marred by the breaking news on 26th January, 2001. The heartbreaking loss of life, property, heritage monuments and much, much more that day are a stark reminder of life's fickle nature.

After effects of Bhuj earthquake 2001IMAGE SOURCE: KALI DAS

So severe was this earthquake in Bhuj that it left an indelible mark on both, the lives of the survivors and the geography of the area. The literally earth-shattering changes (notice the vein-like structures in the after photo) can be observed even from space, as seen in the satellite images below.

After effects of Bhuj earthquake 2001IMAGE SOURCE: NASA

But just how life is uncertain, it is also like the show that must go on.  What must be one of the rare examples in the annals of human resilience, the determined and skilled people of Bhuj built that city all over again. And how!

The Rise

Talented master artisans built that city on ancestral arts and crafts practiced as part of their daily lives. Making iron bells with sounds specific to herds, weaving cloth, embroidering pieces of textiles, making clay or wooden wares elaborately embellished with locally sourced natural materials, whatever they crafted with their hands encapsulated their story and caught the attention of the world. 

Craftspeople of Bhuj- master craftsman Luhar Sidhik

Their lives, with all the dreams, challenges and even banality, encoded in the motifs that cover every available surface. The weather conditions captured in the availability and the intensity of natural dyes that came from local fruits, roots, flowers, herbs, insects and metals. The materials they used sometimes dictated by religion but always governed by what we may call principles of sustainability - local, available and able to replenish itself without threatening the local ecosystem - because they understood that what is good for the hive, is good for the bees.

Handcrafted Nirona copper bells famous among craft lovers

On my visit there, I noticed what I didn't notice in other cities famous for their craft. An enthusiasm among the younger generation to continue what their ancestors started. A sense of pride, a belief in the fact that the future lies in inherently sustainable ancient methods of crafting things by hand, which takes time, and that is okay.  

Not only is the region up and running, it is thriving as far as being an important center of crafts and design goes. 

And it hasn't done that alone. Many kind-hearted, enterprising women and men, quite a few from other parts of the world, have stood on the side of Bhuj and its neighbours. Take Kala Raksha for example. 

It is a unique institution, now run by 20- and 30-somethings. It manages and continues to build an archive of traditional arts and crafts of the area, some of it displayed in a small onsite museum.

It also runs a design school for local artisans, which may sound like teaching the tadpole how to swim, but it is more like teaching a tadpole born in a small Indian pond how to own the Pacific.

Safe to say, that the design intervention by Kala Raksha is highly nuanced. 

They sell products under their own label. You can purchase these either on site in Kachchh, where Kala Raksha is located, or in a few select retail stores in India. 

Khamir, is another organization, in the area supporting local crafts communities in a myriad ways. From acting as a community center for local artisans to providing training in lost skills and workshops for enthusiasts, as well as bringing market access, Khamir is a resource center for everyone. 

Khamir's beautiful campus is a photographer's haven, not that I claim to be one. 

Among its several ongoing projects in collaboration with local artisans, the ones that my caught my eyes were projects focused on recycling plastic waste and weaving with Kala Cotton

While Kala Raksha and Khamir were on my list to visit, I stumbled upon Shrujan - a not-for-profit focused on reviving the myriad thread embroideries found among different Kachchhi tribes.

To give visitors an idea of what it is trying to revive, Shrujan runs a museum in what seems like the middle of nowhere. Don't be surprised if you run into world-class photographers and Vogue editors in this immaculately operated, cutting-edge creative space.

A Royal Surprise

When I wouldn't budge even after the closing hours of a palace-museum, Aina Mahal, in Bhuj, the curator got me a cup of chai instead of a stick. He was pleased with my genuine (almost obsessive) interest in the crafts of the region, the best of which majestically adorned the walls of the museum, and decided that I qualified to meet the royalty.

Turned out that his ancestors had been serving the royal family since time immemorial, and that the nephew of the erstwhile Maharao inhabited the top floor of a nearby hotel, after the 2001 earthquake damaged the wing of Aina Mahal, his ancestral home.  

Aina Mahal Bhuj Gujarat TAIC The All India Co

Raghuraj Singh J. Jadeja, the nephew of the Maharao of Kachchh, is one of those people who earn people's respect. I'd expect any royalty to be well-spoken, well-read and well-traveled, which he was, but to be so humble, approachable and in touch with modernity and all forms of reality was something that I thought was reserved only for PR. Was I ever wrong! 

He shared stories from his childhood, the wholesome schooling system to which he attributed many of his habits and compared the differences between the times he has seen over decades. 

With much encouragement and blessings from him to keep forging ahead with The All India Co., I took his leave and boarded my trusty little desert rick. 

The All India Co. returns to Bhuj

Ruins of once elaborately maintained palaces gave way to dusty roads and paths to remote villages.

At dusk, I rode back to Bhuj's train tracks, my home in Bhuj, feeling more content and determined than I had ever felt before. 

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