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Thursday
Nov062008

Kutch, Gujarat

Kutchis are a hard working people. They're craftspeople. Embroidery, hand weaving, block printing to name just a few of the textile crafts. The artisans that we met were as beautiful and textured as their work. The work reflects, in narrative form or motif form, their shared existence in what is essentially a harsh desert environment. The work is extremely colorful, compositionally dense and patterning is a traditional device to preserve revered designs.

The craft world in Kutch is a difficult place to be right now. Depending on who you ask, it's either dying or going through a renaissance. It used to be that women would embroider garments and quilts as dowry gifts and they would do it in their spare time often taking 6 months or more to complete one piece. Over generations these hand work crafts stopped being made primarily as gifts between families and started to be semi-mass produced for commercial interests inside India and beyond. Today, a lot of Kutch crafts are recognized as styles such as Rabari or Ahir, which are actually the names of the tribes/communities that practice these types of embroidery. Accordingly, the quality of work has seen a decline in recent years as artisans are being asked to produce more and more. When we looked at old embroidery (say 80 years old) we saw what our friend described as the 'joy' because nothing was perfect and the design happened during the process rather than before. The designs were often made up as they went along resulting in really cool and, to my eye, really bizarre colors and compositions. The aesthetic is entirely unique to this region.

It may be for this reason that, aside from the rapidly growing domestic market for Kutch craft work, there is increased export market interest in recontextualizing these crafts into new products. Which means that there are lots of different organizations in Kutch trying to simultaneously preserve and grow the craft capabilities in the various villages in a sustainable and responsible way. But many villagers are disconnected from the end consumers of their work and we couldn't tell if any of the artisans wages had gone up proportionally with the demand. We did see, in some cases, artisans now being able to do craft work as their job, rather than fitting it in between their other daily work.

Ultimately I found myself drawn to the individuals we met. Their faces and hands spelled it all out. Their bungas were incredibly designed and lovingly maintained and there was a spirit that poured out of every inch of every place. I couldn't help but think that this way of life is slowly disappearing because of, and in spite of, the work still being done by many in these villages.

Like everything else, it comes down to design. Today's craft work does seem to have lost some of that joy and experimentation in design, and this seems to be the biggest conundrum for anyone involved in Kutch craft, especially those trying to help the artisans create value for themselves.

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