The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, September 1, 2002

Rogan artists abandoning their art
Priya Pandey

Unless new artists are trained in rogan painting, this art will vanish forever
Unless new artists are trained in rogan painting, this art will vanish forever.

TILL about 40 years ago, the Kutch region of Gujarat was known as the centre of rogan painting in India. The fine art of decorating fabrics with organic dyes using a castor oil base was unique to the region and thrived mainly in three villages — Nirona, Khavada and Chaubari.

Today, not a single rogan painter is left in Khavada and Chaubari. The few who were in Nirona are fast moving out of the village to take up more lucrative professions in cities, or else turning into construction and agricultural labour in adjoining villages.

"Khavada and Chaubari had some of the best rogan artists in India," informs Abdul Ghafoor of Nirona village. "Some of them had received awards from the British rulers in the past. Over the years, old artists died and the younger generation is no longer interested in keeping the art alive.

" Rogan painting is a ‘seasonal art’. It generates employment for three to four months in the year when weddings are held among the Dalits and other backward communities. Tradition demands that the bridal trousseau and gift items like bed sheets, pillow cases and quilt covers are decorated with rogan motifs.


"Unlike other art traditions, rogan painting never enjoyed the patronage of the rich and the royalty," Hamid Ali, another painter points out. "Our clients were women from the lower castes who could not pay much. They came to us to get clothes painted for weddings. And once the weddings were over, the rogan artisans switched to working as agricultural labour."

Another reason for the demise of this art is the social stigma attached to the painters. As Muslims in a predominantly Hindu area, they have been treated as outcasts by the upper caste, moneyed sections. The recent communal clashes in Gujarat have further decimated this minority community to virtual oblivion.

Yet, the likes of Abdul and Hamid have survived purely on the strength of tourists who have been picking up their tablecloths, wall hangings, file folders and skirts as collector’s items. For them, these are the closest samples to an almost similar art form practiced in Iran to this day.

"The world ‘rogan’ is of Persian origin and means ‘oil-based,’ says Hashim Daud, Abdul’s father. "We believe that the art originated in Persia and was imported to India about 200 years ago. If you see some of the original motifs and patterns in rogan painting, the Persian influence is unmistakable."

The technique of painting is also similar. The dyes are of vegetable extracts and the medium is castor oil. A six-inch wooden stick serves both as a brush and stylus and more often than not, a dark cloth (usually black) becomes the canvas for painting.

"The more intricate the work, the higher the price," explains Abdul. "My national award winning saree, which took eight months to paint, was valued at Rs 60,000. One American tourist offered me Rs 100,000 for the same saree, but I did not part with it for emotional reasons."

Significantly, Abdul had given up rogan painting and like many others in his village, had moved to Ahmedabad, and then to Mumbai, in search of a steady job. He was gone for two years when in 1983, his grandfather wrote to him, requesting him to return home.

The old man had received an order for a fancy design, which he could not execute, because of his failing health and poor eyesight. "I want you, our seventh generation, to continue our legacy and keep our family art alive as our forefather did amidst the odds," the grandfather had written.

By then, Abdul had found a well-paying job in Mumbai, but he was so moved by his grandfather’s appeal that he resigned and returned to Nirona. Little did he realise then that by going back, his life and fortunes would change dramatically and one day, he would be invited to Delhi to receive the national award from the President of India.

Hamid too had been tempted several times to abandon rogan painting, but it is the pride he derives from his work that keeps him going. "The creative satisfaction I get from here is without match," he emphasises. "I enjoy inventing new designs and letting my imagination run wild."

But then, like all other artists in the village, he is worried about mass-produced prints, which have taken the place of original paintings in the market. "The reason is that there are not enough rogan artists around to meet the demands of the tourist traffic," explains Hashim. "People make do with prints. Unless something concrete is done to train new artisans, this art will vanish forever." MF