The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, August 5, 2001

Salvaging past for posterity
Ratan Patel

NATURE has been cruel on Gujarat. The unending cycle of cyclones, droughts and quakes has ravaged the land, making it virtually uninhabitable for most parts. Anywhere else in the world, a mass exodus would have followed every calamity, leading to the decimation of population and in effect, a culture.

Yet it is also an irony of nature that makes Gujarat the most colourful and culturally vibrant region of the Indian subcontinent. The legendary hardiness of Gujaratis has always enabled them to rise above catastrophes and convert adversity to advantage.

In that sense, every Gujarati considers himself or herself blessed. "God has been kind to us," asserts Lakhibehn Rana, a Rabari embroider, who recently held an exhibition in Bombay. "Unlike the ajrekh printers of Dhamadka, the batik makers of Mundra or the dyers of Khavda, our houses are still standing."

"We are indeed blessed that we have survived so many tragedies," says Meerabehn, a weaver. "God has been testing us and at the same time, gives us the courage and strength to fight the odds. Why else do you think that nobody had thought of leaving after the earthquake destroyed everything in our village?"


Helping these crafts people rebuild their lives are a number of cultural organisations like Kala Raksha Paramparik Parivar and Dastakar which are providing platforms in urban centres for the commercial exploitation of the traditional arts of the region.

“We are indeed blessed that we have survived so many tragedies”.
“We are indeed blessed that we have survived so many tragedies”.

The focus though, is on promoting embroidery forms like suf khareek and paako, for which Gujaratis are well known. The varying styles of stitches and patterns have crystallised over time with influences from Kutch, Rajasthan and Sind embroidery traditions.

Weaving and printmaking have also received an impetus, thanks primarily to the demand for Gujarati textiles by fashion designers in Ahmedabad, Bombay and Delhi. More than 600 weavers in the Bhuj-Bhanni area depend upon these city-based designers for their livelihood.

A folk art museum has also come up in Sumrasar Sheikh (in Kutch district) under the patronage of the Gujarati-speaking U.S. anthropologist, Judy Fletcher. This museum is one of the biggest repositories of the ancient craft and textiles traditions of the region.

"The Rabari textiles on display are originals," informs Prakash Bhanani, who runs the museum. "With the winds of change changing the landscape and lifestyles, Rabari youngsters are losing touch with the treads of their tradition. The museum is the only place where they can see the work of their ancestors."

Musicians have however, not been as fortunate as the other artisans. Over the past few decades, a large number of musical instruments have been lost to natural calamities or else, gone out of use because there is nobody to play them.

"Earlier, folk artistes could earn money playing at village melas, weddings and religious festivals," says Umesh Jadia, a researcher with the Kutch Museum. "Today, everybody wants to hear film songs. So many musicians have given up their art and turned into menial workers."

Added to this, is the devastation caused by the last earthquake. And nobody has suffered more than Jadia himself, who once boasted of a collection of 1,100 traditional instruments like morchang, kanis, bharrindonarr and jodia pawas. He lost 850 of them in the quake.

Every other week, he rummages through the rubble of what used to be his home in Bhuj, hoping to salvage a lost flute or harp. His parents and neighbours have advised him to forget the loss and he too has almost given up. But what hurts him most is that even those who could play the instruments are no more.

"Do you know that Siddique Mitha Jat, the best known player of the Surando (a peacock-shaped string instrument) works as a security guard in Ahmedabad?" asks Jadia. "He is the only man who could make this instrument today and even BBC made a film on him. But the government gave him no recognition."

"Then there is the kani, a long flute made of bamboo (played by Sufi musicians) which has vanished from Gujarat in the last ten years. That is because there are no sponsors for kani recitals and farmers in Banni do not grow the variety of bamboo any longer. They are switching to cultivating wheat instead."

Jadia had three kanis - all of them lost to the quake.

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