Rafoogari: Art of darning

Last Updated : 13 April 2013, 15:48 IST
Last Updated : 13 April 2013, 15:48 IST

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“A rafoogar (darner) is a healer of damaged cloth,” reflects Delhi-based textile artist, designer and researcher Priya Ravish Mehra, as we sit in her backyard, soaking in the warm sun, discussing her current project.

“Rafoogari is more than mere restoring a cloth. It happens because of some historical or emotional association with the cloth. It is akin to mending relationships, to connecting the past with the present.”

This centuries’ old skill is magical, Priya tells me. “The darning has to be so beautiful that it has to merge with the cloth, the damage becoming invisible.” It is perfection not visible, she says, which makes the work itself invisible. “Besides, darning is like magic. It makes a flaw disappear. So this magical act is a best kept secret; if the worker revealed how this magic happened, the magic would go.” All of this, Priya says, over centuries, has contributed to making rafoogari and the rafoogar invisible.

Shame is another element that she considers. “Nobody likes to talk about wearing a mended piece of cloth. It is shame that has also kept the rafoogars and their work hidden.” But that doesn’t mean that their work is not important. “A Kashmiri Pashmina shawl is a status symbol. There is a sense of pride in possessing it, so no one minds wearing a mended one, or buying a restored one. Rafoogari has rescued priceless Pashmina shawls from destruction. Yet there has not been much documentation of rafoogari or the rafoogars; though there has been some mention for them in the Mughal texts.”

Talking to Priya, I realise just how blind we are to darning. Cloth correction, she tells me, starts right from the loom. Then off the loom, the cloth undergoes some more correction; and even before and after it reaches the market, the cloth goes through more rafoogari. “It is high time recognition came to the darners. They should be brought out of their isolated work spaces and connected at a larger level.

Some mend silk cloth, some woollen, some cotton, etc. They should be connected to each other (so that an exchange of skills can take place) and to institutions that restore and conserve.” And to this she adds, “It is also important for the darners to value their own skills and work. That is how the art will survive.” This dual motive is what Priya has been working on through her project, Making the Invisible Visible.

Priya’s current project has stemmed from a life-long connection with rafoogars and their work. “Growing up in the 1960s, summer vacations were spent at our ancestral home in Najibabad (Uttar Pradesh) — a hub of the Kani shawl trade and highly skilled rafoogars — where we would spend our time looking at exquisite shawls brought in by the rafoogars. My parents were graduates from Shantineketan, where art, craft and appreciating heritage is a part of living. This got reflected in our homes too.” Later, Priya herself went on to graduate in Textiles from Shantineketan, before pursuing further courses at the Royal College of Arts, London and the West Dean College, Sussex.

The best darners in India are the Kashmiris, she tells me, though they have passed on their skills to artisans in other parts of the country. This is a skill that has been traditionally practiced by a few families. But over the years, Priya has observed how the social fabric of the darners is changing. “I started working with a family associated with us from our grandfather’s days. Earlier, they were happy to call themselves rafoogars, but now they prefer being called shawlwallahs or shawl merchants.”

The art form is fast losing its sheen as youngsters are moving into other professions. But not all is lost as, Priya says, many from non-traditional background are now getting into this skill.

Sharing her thoughts, Priya raises a very pertinent question: Do people of a town really know the value of rafoogars or any other artisan community living with them in the same town? She had conducted a workshop at Najibabad with Khoj International, where she made the rafoogars of the town make a naksha of the town through rafoogari. “The idea was to make the town dwellers and the rafoogars aware of the cultural history of Najibabad, and in the process, highlight the historical significance of the darning community for all to acknowledge.”

Having worked with darners from North India, Priya now wants to expand her initiative to the South. “I would like to explore the meaning of darning there and bring it to a public forum.” Priya believes that reaching out to people can make the art of restoring a piece of cloth visible.

“In my presentations abroad, I have had positive feedback about rafoogari. The task now is to empower them as a community here in India.” She dreams of a time, not far ahead in the future, when the rafoogars of India will be mending textiles from all over the world.

Published 13 April 2013, 15:35 IST

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