Amid the remote tribal villages of northwestern Gujarat, ancient craft traditions- particularly textiles- are slowly being revived.

 

 

It’s just after 6 p.m. in the Great Rann of Kutch, and a handful of tourists have navigated the bumpy desert roads from Bhuj, the district capital, to witness the evening spectacle: a sky flushed a thousand shades of pink as the sun sinks over a vast salt plain. They pose for photos on camelback or beside a wind-scoured statue of a mother and baby—a relic left over from some religious festival held here a few years ago—and cartwheel on the salt that cracks underfoot like icing on a lemon cake. When darkness descends, they pile back into their cars and leave the desert’s eerie silence to the night.

A vast flood plain in the borderlands of Gujarat that is seasonally inundated by the Arabian Sea, the Great Rann of Kutch is one of India’s most magnificent sights come the dry season, when the waters evaporate and leave behind a snow-white crust of salt that stretches for thousands of square kilometers between the Gulf of Kutch and the Indus River delta in Pakistan. But that’s not the main reason for my venturing to the edge of this desert wilderness. Rather, I’m here to explore Gujarat’s other prized attraction: textiles.

Forced to abandon agriculture during the summer monsoons, the Hindu and Muslim tribes of the Kutch district developed a rich artisanal tradition that spans leatherwork, earthenware, jewelry, block printing, and embroidered textiles. This region was once part of the Indus Valley trade route linking India with ancient Mesopotamia, and Kutch’s fabrics and pottery were deemed among the finest in Asia. Used as currency and exchanged for gold and copper, ancient Gujarati textiles have been found as far away as Egypt, where they were held in such high regard as to be used as burial treasure. But that was then. Kutchi craftsmanship has been in decline for generations now, with changing lifestyles and an influx of cheap manufactured goods and materials undermining the fabric of tribal society. Another blow came in the form of the 2001 Gujarat earthquake, which flattened Bhuj and devastated thousands of villages.

Says Meera Goradia, the director of a textile cooperative called Khamir that works with 750 craftspeople across Kutch, “When we started in 2005 after the earthquake, the majority of artisans had already switched to cheap chemical dyes to churn out second-rate products for the tourist markets in Rajasthan and Delhi. We’re trying to bring them back to their roots, to return to traditional applications and techniques.”

Among Khamir’s initiatives is an effort to revive heirloom cotton varieties like kala, a herbaceum cotton that has been grown in Gujarat since the third century B.C. A rustic short-staple fiber with a lovely charcoal hue, kala all but disappeared under the Raj, which introduced foreign high-yielding cottons with longer threads that were more compatible with British cotton mills. Genetically adapted to Gujarat’s dry climate, kala plants, unlike their transplanted counterparts, require no insecticides or synthetic fertilizers and very little water, making them an admirably sustainable crop.

Khamir has already introduced a smart line of hand-woven kala shirts and shawls for the upmarket fashion boutiques in Delhi and Mumbai. “For artisans living in remote areas in India, finding markets for their product is the most difficult thing,” Goradia says. “Enterprises like Khamir aim to create a more level playing field.”

While craftsmanship in Kutch involves both genders, it’s the nimble-fingered work of the district’s female embroiderers that is regarded above all else. But as I learn on a tour of handicraft villages with a guide from Shaam-e-Sarhad, a community-run resort on the outskirts of Hodka village, rarely do the best pieces reach the market. Instead, women save their finest work for dowries, or sell them directly to museums.

We have spent the morning visiting villages north of Bhuj, a flat and seemingly never ending landscape of thorny bushes and parched earth. We meet with Muslim potters painting little cups and saucers; Muslim tanners busy on a range of leather holders for tableware and smartphones; and the Meghwal tribal women—once classified as untouchables under the Hindu caste system—responsible for Gujarat’s exquisitely fine embroidery, who defy the desert’s drabness with their kaleidoscopic dresses, hand-beaten silver jewelry, and intricate tattoos. The villages themselves are clusters of conical thatch-roofed bhunga huts decorated with tiny mirrors and murals of camels and village life, and for now have been spared the influx of tourism that throngs neighboring Rajasthan. Though not entirely: there’s a tour bus parked outside one house that we visit, and the woman inside is as brusque as they come, slamming the door behind us before launching into a grueling sales pitch for mostly mediocre pieces of embroidery made from fluorescent chemical dyes. None tickle my fancy, but the woman is blocking the entrance, so I hand over a fistful of rupees for the best work and make a beeline for the door.

The next day I stop by the Bhuj showroom of Qasab, a cooperative of 1,200 women from dozens of villages across Kutch that predominately deals with embroidery. It’s designed to “basically cut out the middleman and foster quality over quantity,” says the manager, explaining that the embroiderers set their own prices for their work, and that a portion of the sales goes back into a fund for training other female artisans. While the pieces on display at Qasab are all beautiful, the one that really catches my eye—a two-meter wall hanging with 15 squares of embroidery, each from a different village—sadly isn’t for sale. Appreciating my taste for the finer things, the manager tells somebody to “bring the box.” A plain cardboard carton, the box is filled with dowry-quality pieces wrapped carefully in tissue—tapestries with stitches so tight I can barely see them, pieces that have taken the embroiderer months, if not years, to produce, each one more exquisite and flawless than the last. It’s an astonishing trove.

The next morning I rise early for the long drive back to Ahmedabad—Gujarat’s largest city—and what promises to be another highlight of my trip: a tour of the Calico Museum, regarded as one of the finest textile museums in the world. A visit requires determination, however: there’s only one tour a day for a maximum of 20 people, and booking well in advance is expected. As my five telephone calls and three e-mails have all gone unanswered, I show up ahead of opening hours and hope for the best. I’m in luck.

Founded by cotton industrialist Gautam Sarabhai in 1949, the museum is divided between a villa built by Swiss architect Le Corbusier and an intricately carved wooden and rammed-earth haveli. Forbidding cameras, phones, shoes, bags, and anything else that might be considered a nuisance and overseen by a petulant woman with the strident voice of a sergeant major, this dictatorial little museum is nonetheless the holy grail of Indian textiles. Spanning half a millennium, the extensive collection includes tapestries once owned by Mughal rulers, Kashmiri shawls that took three years to weave, 15th-century block prints. There are also several rooms devoted to the fabrics of Kutch, including 18th-century garments with aari embroidery produced specifically for the courts and a wall-size piece of embroidered peacocks threaded with gold. It is the finest collection of Kutch textiles I have seen in my travels, and absolutely worth the fuss of getting in the front door.

The Details

Getting There

The only air service to Bhuj is a daily flight from Mumbai operated by Jet Airways. Another option is to fly into Ahmedabad- Singapore Airlines flies there thrice weekly- and hire a car and driver for the 330 km journey west to Bhuj; Gujarat Tour and Travels can organize the latter. Traveling via Ahmedabad also provides the ideal opportunity to visit the Calico Museum.

When to Go

The salt plains covering the Great Rann of Kutch are best viewed from November to February.

Where to Stay

Only open from October to March, community-owned Shaam-e-Sarhad Village Resort (doubles from US$50, full-board) offers a range of tents and rammed-earth bhungas on the edge of Hodka village, 65 km north of Bhuj. Closer to town, Devpur Homestay (doubles from US$48) had friendly family hosts and spacious rooms set in a century-old palace.

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2015 print issue of DestinAsian magazine.