A Special Place in Kachchh

The end of January gave me a fabulous and enjoyable experience. Khamir is a very special organization in Kachchh near the major city of Bhuj. You can read more about their activities at: https://khamircraftroutes.wordpress.com/tag/khamir/.

For the moment I just want to share my own experience.


My Visit to Khamir: Pleasant Learning with Pleasant People

The campus is off away from settled areas 15 kilometers from Bhuj, the last stretch a really barely constructed road. Once there, you see a good administration building. Open spaces are dotted with seating areas and workshop buildings. Flagstone flooring and built up planting areas keep the whole place fairly effectively dust free. Warm welcoming, very relaxed environment. A meeting place is a set of benches around a covered square gazebo for introductions, team meetings, and presentations. A little ways away, another building housing the kitchen and possibly some rooms upstairs with an open area for mingling, sitting on stone benches, and eating breakfast. The meals were all delicious. Breakfasts specially outstanding: methi thepla and dahi with khakhra and tea, on day one. Day two, batata powa and khakhra. Day three, idli sambhar, coconut chutney. Juma masi, the chef told me, she can’t serve the same food every day! Everyone washed their own plates and cups.

The workshops are spacious and well organized. An open courtyard surrounded by some rooms where they store equipment, display finished pieces and do administration. The staff identified themselves with yellow tags, participants were given purple, teachers’ tags were all white. It is very much an equality and merit-based society. Everyone is spoken to with profound respect, warm behavior from the staff, and totally egalitarian working environment. Trees and bushes dot different open spaces so that it feels very much like an ideal rural setting.

We toured the different craft areas and then visited the special bandhani exhibition, old collection, and room of special auction sale items. Getting acquainted was part of the fun. The organizers talked about their goals and ideals. They set up a great atmosphere of openness to offering what they had available and an eagerness to learn from the visitors.

After the tour and a kite-making workshop, it was time for lunch. So we gathered in another open area set with tables and by now the ubiquitous stone parapets that made ideal seating around the planted areas with shade. A sink with push button faucet and disinfectant hand soap and near it a table of bottled water and chhash and cups. Dal, rotli, two sabjis, shiro, bhaat, cucumber and tomato kachumbar served buffet style with servers to fill your platter and bowls. Lunch the following day was kadhi, bajri rotla, gajjar halwa, shaak, etc. People ate cafetaria/European style, coming to join wherever there was a seat available. During the afternoons, folks came around offering little cups of tea. They were also good about making a cup extra if you went and asked nicely.

The pottery section had a work shed behind, an electric wheel, tables for hand building with clay, and a full-size gas kiln near by. The resident potter was accompanied by a visiting potter from Orissa who has travelled for a couple of months to Japan and has exhibitions in many places. Since I sort of knew the craft and there was quite a push for the single wheel, I played a little but spent most of my time elsewhere.

The tie and dye workshop had a very good display of all the different vegetable dye sources and mixing ingredients like caustic soda, alum, etc. Their leader patiently went through all the details. Then we sat down to learn the tying method. Each of us got our own cotton stole/dupatta. Often the fabric has already been washed and treated to accept more color. I got the sense it was a little bit like gesso for the canvas. Depending on the eventual color, they may skip a sizing or treatment step. Clearly the most minute work could be done on more delicate fabrics, very thin soft cotton or silk, crepe, georgette. They showed a current silk sari with printed motifs that they were working on and invited us to draw our own. Then they showed the special technique for pinching the fabric. Push up with your ring finger, grab the little section with the other thumb and forefinger, pinch with the remaining fingers of the first hand, hold the thread with the same hand, manipulate the little plastic straw that helps feed the thread, wind round tight till the pinched cloth is completely covered, pull and move on to do the same a little way down the line. Whew! Difficult to describe, intensely difficult to do with any thing like steadiness or consistency! Gender divided skills and responsibilities seemed to be the norm though they were encouraging cross training too. So the women tied and the men dyed. These artisans can space the little hills of fabrics tightly wound, nearly as close as three or four to a quarter inch. It reminded me of the fine work of rug making where they measure the number of knots per square inch in multiple digits. Automation has helped us out in this area but something does get lost from the actual human hand-made process.

The weavers’ area had a broader shaded but open work area housing three to five different kind of looms, two or three different thread winding mechanisms for setting the length of the fabric, warp I think. Then these were used on the looms to weave the weft. In one area a craftsman was spinning camel hair into fairly thin threads, a large double wheel moved with a turning handle and a long spindle needle at the other end. Camel hair being short, this is very demanding and rough work. They have also developed a special technique to turn the flimsy plastic shopping bags into strings. These are then woven into shopping bags, and other useful artifacts with motifs using the colored and white plastic strings imaginatively.

In another area, leather crafters set out their materials and tools, for stitching, pasting, stamping, and winding leather and leather strips into footwear, purses, mobile holders, belts, bracelets, toe rings. They had materials for staining the leather into bright neon colors too. They had developed a special stitching method to create a colorful tufted strip from cotton yarns on the leather. These made outlines and then there were pieces also enhanced with mirror work.

A craft only practiced by one particular family involved rolling wool threads into progressively thicker cords in white and black. They wove these into long strip wall hangings or wider wall pieces. The craftsmen create the various motifs, animals, and sacred symbols, natural elements entirely during the weaving process. Even the larger commissioned pieces, often detailing local history or legend with characters and scenes are begun without a reference sketch. These narrative wall hangings perform the same function as European tapestries did in the early and middle ages in terms of recording stories but while the European craftspeople typically worked from a designer’s sketches to meet a monarch’s desires, the craftsmen were just telling their own life stories.

A special event was the kite-making workshop on the first morning. A Canadian folklorist and sometime instructor at CEPT introduced herself as “Patangwali,” that is, “Kite Woman.” She demonstrated the basics of kite structure and shared materials to make two, “one for the maker and one to give to a friend.” Rather than splices of bamboo or other wooden framing material, she gave us stiffened fishing wire, paper squares, tape, glue, tinsel strips, and sewing thread and we all produced two miniature kites that actually flew. Everyone took part and then despite the instructor’s caution, “these are for flying not fighting,” the younger participants, volunteers, craftspeoples’ kids got into fights with yard long sewing thread kites. She is a formidable scholar of day-to-day structures in people’s lives and showed us a book on normal home buildings of a region of the Himalayan foothills. Her co-author’s photography only partly captures her detailed attention to people, their lives, their design sense etc.

Our activities included videos of these and other people and various crafts, trips to a nearby weavers’ village, with a music concert by Rajasthani artists, another concert held at the Hamirsar Lake at the heart of the city of Bhuj, and a field-trip to an organic farm training and demonstration center.

For the three-day event, among the participants, we had an Australian group of art and design students touring with their instructor who believed they needed to experience along with theory. There were a number of volunteers from different organizations, young people on fellowships from US and Europe, one filming some of the crafts events, one committed to a near-by Hunnar Shaala (Design School) and also several young US-based, Indian origin people who have chosen to work for this NGO. Then there was a young US woman based in Ahmedabad who was responsible for looking for ways to help existing NGOs, a Canadian who was here for his third visit to enjoy his passion for weaving, a musician and plantation owner from the north-east, a mother retired in Poona come to settle her US-educated daughter into her new job. Each of them brought their knowledge and life experience and enthusiasm.

Finally, a dedicated group of local Kachchh people who enable this place to be a wonderful center of creativity made the entire event a great success. Truth to tell, I have provided a mere glimpse of a rich experience.


About meenapoetartisan

word lover, meaning maniac, bilingual with metalingual interests, sometimes potter, poet, playwright, writer, mover to music, always a pontificator.
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