February 4, 2015
Post lunch we set forth for what was to be the highlight of our holiday – a trip to the Salt Desert of the Great Rann of Kutch. In the Mesozoic era, both the Little and the Great Rann of Kutch were a shallow arm of the Arabian sea. A geological uplift cut it off and created a large lake. As centuries passed, the land turned into a vast saline mudflat due to silting and high annual evaporation.Today the land is pretty much an island, and looks like a tortoise – Katchua or Kachbo in water. During the brief wet season, the mudflat becomes flooded. When the seasons change, it gets parched under the relentless, searing heat of the long dry season, revealing the barren salt desert.
On the way we stopped at the artisan village of Nirona. I understood from *Bharatbhai, our driver that the artisans here made small metal artifacts. He stopped the car outside a narrow alley and told us we would find the craftsman he had told us about down that lane. Sure enough, we saw a house with a board about a national award winning artisan. Naturally we knocked. The door never opened, but a few minutes later a man mysteriously appeared beside us and asked us if we would be interested in taking a look at their work. We followed him into the house across the street. The house belonged to Khatri Ghafoor Bhai and his brood – the only family practicing the little known art of rogan painting. The only family in the world. The master painter drew us chairs and while he sat down on the floor to demonstrate his art. As he demonstrated, he educated us about this 300 year old art form.
The word rogan is derived from the Persian word for oil based.The paints are prepared in advance by heating castor oil for days, continuously stirring it, till it reaches flash point. It is then mixed with appropriate amounts of natural dyes as it cools and it thickens into a sticky elastic residue. The paints are stored in water so that they don’t dry out and harden. We watched as the soft spoken artist used a thin metal rod to scope up some paint and smudged it on to the side of his palm, at the base of his thumb. This was to be his palette. He then used the same metal stylus to deftly draw a small flower on a piece of cloth.”Rogan painting is always done free hand. We never use a sketch or a template.” , he explained.To ensure symmetry, the design is created on one half of the cloth, which is fold and pressed to create an inkblot style mirror image on the opposite side. The catch is once the colours dry, they won’t transfer, so the painter needs to be precise and fast.
Rogan borrows more than just its name from Persian. While geometric prints and floral patterns are popular motifs for stoles, table cloths, wall hangings, curtains, kurtas, saris, dress material and skirts, the Persian Tree of Life is the Khatris’ most intricate design. In more minute and detailed work like the Tree of Life, the inkblot style proves troublesome as the colours tend to overlap and smudge. When such designs are created, only the outline is folded for symmetry. The colours are filled in later. A rogan painter needs to be more than just creative and skilled. Patience is the key to the trade.
When Mr. Narendra Modi, currently Prime Minister of India visited the United States last year, he gifted President Obama a rogan painting of The Tree of Life. Our host and salesman informs us that these painting have been Mr. Modi’s gift of choice for state guests ever since he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, and he takes special efforts to promote it.
In addition to being skilled artisans, the Khatris are also shrewd business folk. After demonstrating how Rogan art is created, we were shown a few samples of the various articles on which it was done. Once we expressed interest in buying, we were shown some more pieces.Since we don’t live in India, I ruefully ruled out buying a skirt or dress material (salwar-kameez/kurta). Then they brought out the stoles. I have more stoles than I use, so they brought out the bags. The bags were beautiful, but still no. Finally they brought out some clutches. Aha!
Although none of the articles they showed us were too expensive, the thing to note here is the way they were presented. The highest priced first, when it was ruled out, you are asked if you would like to look at something in the next price range and so on. You are never told right away that there is something smaller, less expensive available. I’m quite impressed. There is no pressure,ever and you are free to leave without buying.
*bhai – Brother. A respectful way of addressing a man in India.