Rogan: Gum embroidery of Nirona

traditional craft

exquisite The intricate art of Rogan from Gujarat.  PHOTO BY AUTHORS

We had to swallow that treacly, distasteful fluid because it was “Good for you!”, no questions asked.Sometimes it was followed by a spoonful of honey “to make the medicine go down” as they sang in The Sound of Music. Ever since then, whenever we saw castor plants growing at the side of the many roads we have travelled on, the terrible, gluey taste of that obnoxious oil would well up in our throats.

Until, that is, we met the Khatris of Gujarat’s Nirona Village.

Not that the village was very appealing. In fact, its narrow lanes were among the most noisome we’ve encountered in that largely efficient state. Hopefully, things will change if Narendra Bhai chooses it for one of his high-profile fasts. But, grimy or not, we are very glad that we visited the home of Khatri Sumar Daud in Nirona.

According to him, he and his family are the only people in the whole world who have preserved and developed the intricate art of Rogan. The intricacy was clear at first sight.
Sumar brought our lengths of black silk and cotton with panels of stylised trees that resembled the illuminated capitals of ancient manuscripts. Teams of artist-monks often spent lifetimes sitting in silent scriptoriums, grinding minerals, boiling flowers, melting resins, collecting soot from oil lamps, laying paper-thin gold and silver leaf, burnishing it with a tiger’s claw, creating letters that glowed, for centuries, like the stained-glass windows of cathedrals. These fabric panels looked like stained glass glowing against their dark background. At first we were convinced that they were embroidered and when we reached out and touched them, the designs had a raised texture. But that was almost imperceptible. The patterns had certainly not been created by coloured threads. Also, they had definitely not been printed or even painted as batiks are.

“How have they been made?” we asked. “What is Rogan?” “It’s made from castor oil!” Sumar said.

Our initial reaction was that nothing so beautiful could have been created out of something so distasteful. But, as we listened, we grew more and more fascinated.
“We boil castor oil for two or three days,” the National Award winner continued. “It has to be watched very carefully to make sure that it does not catch fire.” Too great a heat, we gathered, would make it flame; too little and it would not be reduced to the right consistency. We were reminded of a Swiss friend hovering over fondue cheese simmering on a spirit lamp, ensuring that its tackiness was just right.

Another member of the Khatri family entered with a bowl of the heated oil and a palette of coloured powders in little bowls on a tray. He held a tiny metal stylus, sat on the floor and spread a cotton cloth over his lap. The tacky substance in the bowl wafted faintly resinous odour into the room, pleasant and oddly familiar. We knew that it was reduced castor oil but it didn’t trigger any of the revolting reactions of our childhood. Clearly, the hours of boiling had exorcised the devils in it! “We have made those powders from natural substances,” Sumar explained. The black was soot, the other colours were ground-down minerals and semi-precious stones. We thought of the old monks in their scriptoriums labouring away at their ancient art.

The burly young artist with the black beard tested the consistency of the gummy reduced castor oil, rolled the stylus in it, picking up a blob. He then dipped the blob into one of the powders and spread it on the palm of his hand. From there he drew out a thin strand of the coloured substance and began to lay it in a small floral design on the cloth. It was slow, painstaking, freehand work and if his hand had shaken while he was doing it, the pattern would have blurred. But it did not shake and the design stood out clearly: a red pattern against the dark cloth. So did the next and the next and the next. Then, since only a single colour was required, he folded the other half of the cloth over the design while it was still wet so that the pattern was replicated on it. If multi-coloured designs are needed, however, each one has to be created separately. Once again, its similarity to an illuminated manuscript struck us. There, too, each stroke in every illuminated letter had to be calligraphed separately as every piece of coloured glass had to be inserted separately in a stained glass window. We were looking at an art-form that must have had its genesis in medieval times when life had a much, much slower cadence and such hand-wrought creations could ransom a king.

As if he had sensed our thoughts, Sumar said, “Our art nearly died out because, in the old days, it was meant for saris like this one.” He held out an understated, old-gold sari embellished with delicate Rogan patterns. “We could not compete with machine-made stuff. We abandoned our art and went to work in restaurants as labourers. Then...” he smiled at the recollection, “our father decided that since ours was an art, we should re-position it as an art, not as saris for everyday use but as panels to be framed and as unique walls hangings to be admired and sought after.”

He looked at some of their creations with pride. “Every piece is unique because every line, every single pattern has been hand-crafted and, therefore, no two designs can ever be the same.” He looked up at us. “Besides, every Rogan piece has to be bought from this house... it is not sold anywhere else.”

We thanked the Khatris, wished them goodbye, and stepped into the street. Outside, the village of Nirona was still grimy. But the castor plants, growing against stone walls, seemed to hold their heads up with great, and justifiable, pride.
And the memory of castor oil did not seem to be so yucky anymore.

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