What Are You Hiding, Kutch?

 

A treasure of textiles, tradition and thread, collected and preserved by the Wazirs of Bhuj. 

Anandi Paliwal 

Crafts, geometry’s beautiful dance in threads and stitches, stories said and retold on textiles, and artisans preserving history and detail. Kutch is always busy with colours. Kutch, the jewel of western India. The marvellous piece of embroidery featured above is one of the many precious stories of craftsmanship and design in textile enthusiast Salim Wazir’s collection. It is Asta Mangal, the eight signs of good luck, embroidered by Jain nuns. Asta Mangal, worshiped by the Jain community during auspicious occasions for good luck and blessings. On this piece, chain stitch is done with floss silk and cotton on felted woollen fabric. It belongs to Kutch, Gujarat, and could be 80-90 years old.  Salim and his family preserve many such beautiful narratives.

Salim, from Bhuj, Gujarat, takes pride in preparing unconventional itineraries for visitors. People wanting to know the region, local food, architecture and arts and crafts take his help. When not playing that role, Salim documents Kutch with his camera. Salim and I begin talking.

He draws my attention to the horses and bullocks elaborately-decorated with traditional embroideries during festivals and auspicious occasions. His family owns some marvelous works that can infuse life into any living space. They are finely hand-embroidered torans (front door hangings), welcoming guests into the house. Nearly 40-50 years old, but in extremely good condition, these are taken out only on auspicious occasions.

 

toran-1
A toran

 

Salim’s father, A A Wazir, left his job as a miniature painting restorer at The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly Prince of Wales Museum), to return to his village in Kutch. He began collecting textiles in 1971. Being collectors of antique Indian textiles and embroideries for over 45 years, the Wazir have worked closely with international museums, collectors and designers, sharing the extensive textile narratives.

Recently, the Wazirs made it to a coveted list compiled by Architectural Digest India, featuring 25 stores and dealers of heritage pieces in India. With over 3000 period embroideries from all communities of Kutch, Phulkari shawls from Punjab, vintage Kantha from Bangladesh and West Bengal, and textiles of South Indian Banjara-Lambadi tribe, the Wazirs are an authority on design for students and connoisseurs alike.

 

 

Above is the unusual Kantha from Bangladesh. This work belongs to the late 19th century. A boat with several fisherman, a church, a horse cart, two English ladies travelling and guarded by two British soldiers. Another corner depicts water carriers and cleaners working in front of Gateway of India; one officer on horse back and workers; a lady being carried in a palanquin.

The Wazirs face some difficulties in sourcing priceless pieces as, over the decades, machine-made pieces have taken over handcrafted. Earlier, artworks were collected and given away as ‘streedhan’ or dowry. In fact, the maiden was considered marriageable only when a certain number of embroideries was complete. This custom helped the young brides find solace in their new homes, the pieces serving as gentle reminders of the parents’ home. This practice too was broken three decades ago by the Dhebaria Rabaris. They banned embroidery within their community since the girls took too long to finish the embroidery work, delaying their marriage. Their works have become rare.

Now, only a handful of people are left with that skill-set. Embroidery was earlier taken up by women as a form of entertainment. Today, natural dying, traditional weaving and hand embroidery are considered expensive and time-consuming activities. Salim says, “The silver lining — more than half of the traditional block printers have gone back to their vocation. This area survives on Ajrakh, cotton, sheep wool weaving, metallurgy and leather cottage industires.”

Salim shares a family secret — of opening a private textile museum in the near future, or possibly starting a clothing line that will incorporate the regional crafts.

 

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