Threads That Bind
To explore the sequestered regions in Gujarat, I hired a car from Ahmedabad to drive me to the farthest end of the coastline – Rann of Kutch. This four-hour drive to Bhuj was immensely captivating. On reaching my destination, I began exploring the city’s architectural heritage, which includes houses built post the earthquake devastation and cottages set up for artisans. A few kilometres east of Bhuj is Dhamadka, an artistic village known for its traditional textile techniques of ajrakh or vegetable dye block printing. It was here that the artisans’ skills were beautifully presented in a combination of geometrical floral patterns.
What added to my experience was my stay with these artisans. It was an incredible delight to see the involvement of the entire household – with women working on the hand tie-and-dye and the men working with the block prints. Every member played a part in the upholding of this textile technique.
Later, driving through the Kutch district, we reached the coastal town of Mundra, a little further down from Mandvi, the summer retreat of the Maharao of Kutch. Ironically, amidst the aridity of the desert and the lifeless terrain, a riot of colour emerges through the traditional art of bandhani or tie-and-dye. The geography plays an indispensable role in aiding the artisans’ work, with salt water being an essential component of the entire process. Life in a desert can be quite dull, but vibrant shades of oranges, reds, greens and yellows bring much respite. And adding to the spark are mirror-work embroideries of the region. Such positivity behind this beautiful philosophy was truly mesmerising.
Through my entire stay, what I observed about the artisans and the local craftsmen was that they were very calm and patient. Their orientation to detail and fine intricate work is possibly the reason behind the focus and precision they put into every aspect and also why the diverse textile heritage has endured over time.
One can only see endless white sands and white salts across the desert – scenes that I can neither forget nor describe. With the blue sky merging with these shades of white, the colouring was much like nature’s own ombré. What makes it even more interesting is that the craftspeople in this region are, in fact, technical experts in ombré dyeing: proving once more, that it is the landscape that inspires and brings forth the best in art and craft.
Local craftsmen derive their knowledge of different shades from their surroundings, like kesaria (saffron), turmeric (for shades of yellow), mehendi, gulabi, lotus, sand, sky blue, ocean blue, twilight blue; each element of design and craft reflects how well these artisans are in tune with their natural surroundings.
These artists, the real designers, deeply inspired my creations for Ram-Leela. I took forward their philosophies and aesthetic of natural, effortless expression, when creating the pieces for Deepika Padukone. Contemporising and modernising the designs, I used antique fabrics, kimkhab brocades, embroidery and bandhani pieces, sometimes putting them all together.
Later, I stopped at Banni, known for its striking mirror-work technique, where Ridrol, a hamlet of just 100 houses is recognised for their kimkhab brocade weaving. Each design has symbolic referencing – motifs of paisleys, peacocks and elephants signify prosperity. They are most common in wedding ensembles and are beautifully infused in the designs as a way of weaving good wishes into the garment.
A utilitarian nature showed in every cottage I visited. They represented the same spirit of frugality, and the pervasion of this thought through their design is what lends to the multi-coloured pieces. With threads in greens, reds and oranges being used together to avoid waste, the creation of patchwork blouses and the use of every resource to its full capacity, the artisans create pieces that are unique. Numerous accidental designs have come forth because of this pragmatic philosophy.
It was in June, at the peak of summer, when I travelled this stretch, enjoying much respite from the heat with chhachh (buttermilk). Their healthy diet consisting of bajra and khichdi was a refreshing change from the food and cuisine we enjoy in the city. Even the roadside food stalls were probably the cleanest I have seen through my travels across India. The traditional snacks of theplas and khakhras were tasty refreshments.
For one night, I stayed at the Saurashtra Safari Lodge, its thatched roof cottage giving the place an earthy, rustic feel. One side of the lodge was completely barren, with shrubs and a little wilderness; one could also see the horizon most clearly. The tranquillity due to the calm and quiet, speedily brought me into my creative zone, the kind of mind space probably all creators like to be in whilst working on their pieces. This is perhaps also why the creations by artisans in Gujarat are so inspired and beautiful.
By the end of my journey, I felt extremely stimulated with much of my inspiration coming from the bounty of nature – tough weather, rough terrain and beautiful open night skies. It left me feeling that while many designers have explored and taken inspiration from these highly technical and creative artisans, the need of the hour is for designers to contribute to this inherently talented community, which has been upholding and preserving our ancient textile heritage. With more contemporary interpretations, variations and designs, we can most definitely give this endangered art a fresh lease of life.