“I am going with you”, I blurted out when my friend Doreen said she was thinking of traveling to Bhuj, in India’s westernmost state, Gujarat, a region celebrated for its rich tradition of textile arts. I did not realize, until I got there, how exciting it would be to capture the artisans at work, and Doreen interacting with them, with her endearing charm and sense of humor, making immediate contact with everyone.
We visited at least 20 different workshops, homes, crafts stores and exhibition spaces with our marvelous guide Kuldip Gadhvi of Kutch Adventures India. Starting out with a visit to the home of a collector from the Rabari tribe, we learned about the signature embroidery styles from different ethnic groups. Embroidery, an art done by women, allows for personal expression within the traditional language of stitches, color and motifs. Often incorporating tiny mirrors within the work, embroidery serves as embellishment of the body, home and pack animals, as an integral part of weddings and other ceremonies and as portable wealth among semi-nomadic peoples. Plaster reliefs, incorporating little mirrors, similar to the patterns in embroidery, also decorate the walls of their mud-hut homes.
In the village of Sumrasar, we visited the high quality shop, museum and archive of Kala Raksha, an impressive nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the traditional arts of embroidery, while at the same time, guiding traditional artists to adapt their designs to the contemporary market.
Weaving, as well as block printing and the dyeing of textiles, is done by men in Gujarat - though women are the ones who tie the minute knots on silk in the tie-dyeing process (bandani) and who wind the threads for the weavers. We saw various kinds of weaving, from the simpler cotton looms, to the complex technique of silk and cotton mushru weaving with eleven pedals to lift different threads of the warp separately– as if playing an organ.
The crown of the art is the even more intricate silk Patola in the town of Patan, the double ikat weaving technique, where the pattern is tie-dyed on both the warp and waft, and the threads magically come together to form the design.
Block printing is done with carved wooden blocks dipped in varying color dyes and stamped by hand onto the cotton cloth. One such technique in Gujarat is ajrak printing, using traditional patterns and natural dyes.
Batik block printing is found in Mundra, on the Gujarat coast, with the stamps immersed into molten wax in a heated bin, carefully pressed onto the same patterns already printed in one color, in order to resist the dye applied to the remaining cloth.