A furry business

A furry business

A furry business

Meet one of the last few members of Kutch community, who turns the hair of sheared sheep, camel and goat into beautiful and eclectic ‘kharad’ rugs.Preeti Verma Lal shares the story of an ingenious craft that has survived extinction and found partons abroad.

If you give me a shearing machine, I’ll totter at its sight. Call it ‘shear fear’. And mock your heart out at it. Forget shearing a sheep, goat or a camel, I won’t even shear a mouse.
But ask Tejsi Dhana, a Kutchi kharad rug weaver, and he’d explain almost poetically the art of shearing a camel. Of holding a young camel and snipping off its soft hair.

Perhaps the camel squeals, but when the snipped hair tumbles on desert sand, Dhana knows it is perfect to weave a kharad rug, a technique so moribund that there are barely five to six families still practising the ancient art of kharad-weaving. Tejsi Dhana is one of them.

An art so moribund, yet so ancient. An art that can be traced back to Kutch region of what is now Pakistan, when pastoral tribes were adept at weaving rugs. Weaving, then, was almost a community effort — one tribe sheared the sheet/goat/camel, another spun the hair into yarn, the third used handloom to weave and another yielded pankar (wooden beater) to create the rug that always found moneyed patrons. So close-knit was the weaving and buying chain that the kharad weaver invariably knew who the rug was being woven for.

Mysterious origin

The designs and patterns were area specific — a motif merrily revealed its geographical identity. Wool was never dyed. That explains why kharad rugs are essentially black, white and brown. However, no one really knows the name of the first kharad weaver who settled in Kutch. Was it Daya Sumer, a migrant from Pakistan? Most hazard the Sumer name as a wild guess.

In the days of yore, patrons were munificent, weavers sedulous and livestock aplenty. There nary was a dearth of goat, camel or sheep hair. For an 80x180-inch rug, the weaver needs 3.20 kgs of goat hair, 300-400 grams of cotton for the warp. The nomadic tribes happily sheared their livestock for the wool (one camel can yield 400 gms of hair annually). Soon, the nomadic tribes dwindled, so did the rich patrons, the nifty weavers and the art of kharad-weaving all but died a sad death.

It took the rumble of an earthquake to alter the fate of this art. The 2001 Bhuj earthquake not only toppled buildings and cracked the earth’s skin; it also wolfed down the livelihood of a million Kutchis. Tejsi Dhana was one of them.

The son of a camel herder who wove udder bags, he watched helplessly as his dreams reduced to rubble in a split second. He left behind his ancestral home in Kuran and trudged to Kukma village. All he carried along was hope in his heart and the optimism that his cragged yet nimble fingers could weave the magic of kharad on a loom that’s traditionally made of tree branches. Kharad runs in Dhana’s blood — he is an eighth-generation kharad weaver.

A tale of toil

“Kharad is a very difficult weaving technique. Goat hair is hand spun and plied using a method that is so specific that it is essential to pass it on, or the knowledge of this technique will die completely.

The weavers use a very basic loom equipment, which is often handed down through the generations along with the weaving skills,” says Satish Reddy of Khamir, a joint initiative of Kutch Navnirman Abhiyan, Nehru Foundation for Development and the Confederation of Indian Industry, which has been set up as an education, training, interpretation facility in the areas of art, environment and heritage conservation of Kutch.

Khamir is encouraging kharad weavers to continue with the traditional art, it has set up a raw material depot (they have tied up with 6,000 camel herders) and is building a marketing chain.

They certainly have had commendable success with kharad — Tikau, a Finland-based company, which combines Scandinavian design and Indian handicraft traditions with the vision of employing and empowering the artisans of rural India, is a regular buyer. Thanks to Tikau, three Kutchi kharad weavers can keep their hearth warm.

In the beginning, kharad was simple in its soul — black, brown and white. Themed. But nothing ornate. No clutter of a narrative.

To survive, however, kharad is getting a makeover. Camel wool and goat hair is now being soaked in beautiful dye baths, and Dhana is experimenting with stories on the rug — from wedding to wheat, from social issues to organic farming.

As long as kharad does not die, no one is complaining about the makeover.

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