Weaving a successful yarn

The humble handloom weaves of Bhujodi sustain many artisans who live and breathe their craft. Gajanan Khergamker lays threadbare a story that’s awe-inspiring...

Siju Naran Mandan working on a loom in Bhujodi. PHOTOS BY AUTHOR

The story of Bhujodi is as legendary as that of the mythical bird phoenix. The Kutch village and its weavers prospered for a good 500 years before losing it all, in a jiffy, and bounced back with a vengeance and how.

The weavers of the 500-year-old village that lies barely eight km from Bhuj were visionary, even created the first-ever weavers’ cooperative of Kutch in particular and Gujarat, in general, the Shree Bhujodi Cotton and Wool Handloom Cooperative Ltd on March 25, 1954. They, collectively, rose in fame and began supplying their trademark ‘Bhujodi shawl’ to metros across India and over the world even receiving national and state awards.

And then, on January 26, 2001, the Gujarat earthquake shattered the village, destroying their worksheds and even the cooperative which, as an institution, could not sustain itself. “The weavers lost their livelihoods and began seeking employment from neighbouring factories and industries developed to avail tax benefits. And, just when the tradition looked like it was about to die down, a handful of weavers from Bhujodi took it upon themselves to revive the cooperative which, through a registrar’s order from Gandhinagar, found a fresh lease of life,” recalls Shri Bhujodi Cotton Wool Handloom Cooperative Ltd president Premji Mangaria. It came into operation on September 1, 2016…and back to life.

A loom inside a house in Bhujodi
A loom inside a house in Bhujodi

Closely-knit

Today, Bhujodi, built around a central road that branches off from the Bhuj-Anjar highway, has mostly one-storey structures lining both sides of the road with a loom almost in each house. So, until a few decades ago, the Vankar weavers would sell their wares only to the herding community, the Rabaris, who would prefer black and white undyed yarn fabric and the farming community, the Ahirs who would opt for bright colours. Then, the linen would be heavy and a large shawl - the Bhujodi speciality - which weighed more than three kg - unlike today’s shawls that weigh about a kilogram. The Bhujodi shawls could be used daily as well as for formal occasions like weddings.

The Vankar weavers have been closely associated with their clients - the Ahirs and Rabaris. At the onset, each weaver was personally linked with a Rabari family, who would supply yarn from sheep and goats while the farmer Ahirs would cultivate kala cotton that was used to be worn over the shoulder and as headgear. Animal wool would otherwise be used for veils, skirts, shawls and blankets. The designs of animal footsteps and shapes of musical instruments would be woven into fabrics, inspired by the communities who wore them.

After the earthquake, the Central and state governments made extensive attempts to boost the crafts industry in the region. Exhibitions and fairs were arranged for the weavers to participate as well as collaborate with prominent designers such as Anita Dongre, Jaypore and others, who ensured that the Bhujodi weavers’ customer base grew beyond the local Rabari and Ahir buyer to cities across India.

“Participation in international exhibitions has also helped attract the international markets. Today, foreigners frequent Bhujodi regularly during the season between November and March to buy the wares directly from the weavers,” says Shri Bhujodi Cotton Wool Handloom Cooperative Ltd Secretary Devji Mangaria.

Shawls and stoles are available from Rs 500 onwards and can go upto Rs 20,000. Similarly, sarees cost anywhere between Rs 4,000 and Rs 25,000 when purchased at Bhujodi. Needless to say, the same, purchased from a metro in India, will cost a lot more and, much more when purchased from an overseas outlet.

Dyeing in progress
Dyeing in progress

Deft handiwork

For an indication of the potential that Bhujodi offers to its artisans, all you need to do is drop by any of the village’s karkhanas, like Nilesh Bhimji’s for instance. The 29-year-old son of handicrafts artisan Bhimji Shivji is a resident of Kumka, that lies five km from Bhujodi. For a decade and half, he worked for many people and outlets, even at Kutch Kutir that lies 12 km from Bhuj. Till he set up his own handicraft shop in Bhujodi four years ago. Today, Nilesh creates handicraft items that include bags, kurtis, bedsheets, razais, chaniya cholis, shawls, skirts and blouses along with six workers, all relatives, at his karkhana in Bhujodi.

After his marriage to Naina in 2014 and the birth of daughter Maahi three years ago, Nilesh looks back at his decision to start his own shop with a distinct pride. “How long could I have worked for someone else? I had to have my own karkhana some day,” he says. And where has he learned his skills from? “Family of course, he says. Everyone in Bhujodi has been doing this for years down generations. I learnt the work from my father,” he says.

So, the kurtis and bedsheets are mostly made of cotton while the shawls are made of wool. That apart, a lot of kurtis, shawls and chaniya cholis are made from mushroom fabric. “We get the cotton and mushroom fabric from Ajrakhpur in Bhuj and, if not available, then from Ahmedabad. Wool is procured from Ahmedabad and Ludhiana in Punjab,” says Nilesh.

Challenges galore

There are a host of challenges though. The customers who throng Bhujodi demand new designs and want the goods delivered at short notice. It’s the e-commerce trend that has led to the speedy demand for goods. That the goods manufactured at Bhujodi are highly labour-intensive is often lost to some buyers. Also, a surge in the need for newer designs tends to exasperate the weaver. The patterns weaved have been passed down generations and will take some time to change and evolve. That said, the demands are swiftly surpassing the supply, particularly that of the intellectual property owned by the Vankar weaver.

Demands for products during the monsoon period get hit drastically owing to weather conditions. During the humid season, dyeing takes longer than in others.

About a decade and a half back, a delegation of rural artisans was invited to the Ashapura guesthouse to demonstrate their art and artefacts and led to the creation of the Hiralaxmi Craft Park, a corporate venture to help “preserve, restore and promote the arts of Kutch and make them accessible to the masses.”

Spread over 10 acres of land, Hiralaxmi Craft Park in Bhujodi is accessible to all for free since its opening on December 18, 2005. Here, besides a well-organised platform to display and sell their wares, artisans are provided with meals, boarding, lodging for free and given a daily stipend during their stay at Craft Park.

The surge in artisans, as expected, to display their works before an average 4,000 visitors every week and sell them at competitive rates has led to the formation of a time-table ensuring monthly rotation of artisans of all forms providing exhibition and display opportunity.

Over the last decade, the response has been phenomenal and the Craft Park has grown into a learning centre and hub for NGOs.

And then, next to the Hiralaxmi Craft Park, to immortalise the most important period in India’s freedom struggle from the British rule is the Vande Mataram Memorial built also by the Ashapura Foundation. The non-profit initiative has the museum structured in the likeness of Sansad Bhavan, the Indian Parliament building and constructed with inputs from prominent historians, architects, sculptors and artists.

The memorial uses a combination of art, architecture and technology to help users experience and literally re-live the journey to independence for themselves. The orientation ceremony of Vande Mataram Memorial was held at Ravindra Natya Mandir in Mumbai on February 20, 2017.

The museum, modelled on the Indian Parliament, admeasures about 1,00,000 sq ft, and a secondary structure of 50,000 sq ft modelled on the Red Fort houses the Gandhi Ashram, an auditorium, a gallery, a library and a food court.

Besides true-scale models, life-size mannequins, paintings & 4D audio visual special effects, it’s the exhaustive research that makes the memorial so exquisite. Why, to complement the likeness, even the stones used in constructing the building of the memorial were sourced from the same quarry from where India’s Sansad Bhavan was built.

The Vande Mataram Memorial is a symbol of India’s resolute faith and belief in one’s innate strength. And, the Vankar’s return to his familial strength - weaving - despite the earthquake and the ripples of industrialisation, only underlines the similarity.

Dyeing in progress
Nilesh Bhimji at his workshop

Promoting the art

In the direction, a joint initiative of Kachchh Nav Nirman Abhiyan and the Nehru Foundation For Development in 2005, was Khamir, formally registered under the Societies and Trust Acts. Over the years, it has grown into a dependable platform for “promotion of traditional handicrafts and allied cultural practices, the processes involved in their creation, and the preservation of culture, community and local environments.”

Working to strengthen and promote the rich traditions of Kutch district, Khamir - an acronym for Kutch Heritage, Art, Music, Information and Resources also means ‘intrinsic pride’ in Kutchchi while, in Hindi it means ‘to ferment’.

Khamir has encouraged innovation and helped create new markets for the artisans. Working with kala cotton, an indigenous variety ideally suited to Kutch’s aridity, even grown organically, Khamir has created a robust demand for the stakeholders, right from cultivation to the marketing of cloth.

Working with kala cotton, the Vankar does his bit for the earth. Kala Cotton is said to have only half the total ecological ‘footprint’ (in terms of carbon emissions and water use) as compared to Bt cotton which is otherwise hugely popular.

What has worked for Bhujodi is that, much like Khamir, a range of institutions have helped the Vankar diversify his wares from the staple carpets and shawls to spanking new designs and more.

The gradual yet significant revival of Bhujodi and its inmate Vankars has led to strategic social changes in their lot too. Having faced untouchability and the aftermath of the caste system, their financial transformation, exposure to the world, access to education and the availability of new opportunities for the youth has hugely alleviated their social conditions.

“Pehle aurat sab taiyyari karti thi…ab sab badal gaya hai,” says Rajkot-based social worker and activist Rakesh Chandelia. Earlier, women in Bhujodi would do all the pre-loom work such as getting the yarn ready, while men did the weaving. Today, women sit at the loom too and demonstrate their share of creativity.

In 2012, the Kutchchi shawl was granted the Geographical Indication (GI) tag that has greatly benefited the hereditary weavers of the region. Since then, the tag has boosted marketting of the product and helped check cheap imitations done in other parts of India.

Nilesh Bhimji's relatives pitch in with work at his workshop
Nilesh Bhimji's relatives pitch in with work at his workshop

Sadly, till 2012, when the GI was granted, a host of cheap industrial imitations of the designs were being mass produced by factories in Ludhiana. This came to an end after the GI was granted and action taken in the regard.

Interestingly, there are two legends regarding the migration of the weavers to Kutch - Kutch distinctly not being their place of origin. According to the first, a weaver was included in the dowry of a very rich Rabari girl when she was married into a family in Kutch to weave her clothes as and when she may need them. This was considered the origin of the weavers in Kutchch.

In the second, when Ramdev Peer came to Narayan Sarovar in Kutch on a pilgrimage from Rajasthan, he brought his kin from Marwar for the upkeep of a temple made by his followers. Of these, started the settlement of weavers in Kutc.

The mystique, behind the Kutchch weaver’s product makes, lies in the fact that the loosely-woven cloth provide the wearer much-needed warmth in the biting cold while, at the same time, a cooling effect during the harsh summers.

The journey has been long and eventful for the Bhujodi Vankar. From using animal wool for shirts, shawls and blankets to, over the years, working with various types of cottons, rayons and acrylic yarn, the products may have changed in shape and structure but their identity remains unchanged. And, why would they. After all, the Bhujodi weaver continues to use classic motifs and cherish connections with his land, his art and God. A GI tag guarantees the legal exclusivity of his creation. The weavers are back in business and here to stay.

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