Thursday, 19 March 2015

Kutch Travelogue - Part 1

Since September 2014, Kutch had been calling out to me. Whichever travel magazine I flipped through listed Kutch as the ‘must-visit’ place; whichever arts and crafts exhibition I visited had stalls and artisans from Kutch displaying such beautiful, handcrafted wares. Then in December a friend whatsappd me a picture of himself on the white Rann on full moon night. And I screamed to my husband, “I have to go to Kutch”. My husband asked me, “Why do you want to go to Kutch? “. I said “To watch the full moon”. He said “Why can’t you view it from our balcony? “. And I burst out laughing.
After a few weeks, another friend put up her picture in traditional Kutchi attire posing in front of a ‘Bhunga’, which is what mud houses are called. And that was the limit. I couldn’t go earlier due to health reasons and work commitments and though winter was fading, something in me couldn’t wait for the next winter to visit Kutch.

I right away called the second friend and asked her where she had taken the picture and she connected me to someone in Kutch saying “Once you reach Kutch, everything would be taken care of, don’t worry”. I took it quite literally and did not plan much, only booked my train tickets. But I generally had 3 things in mind, to visit the Rann of Kutch, Dholavira and do some wall-art somewhere. When I called up the lady in Kutch, she said that Prof.R.S. Bisht, who led the excavation at Dholavira, of the Indus Valley civilization, would be conducting a tour of the ruins on the 8th and 9th. When she said that I immediately cancelled my tickets which was on 23rd Feb and postponed it to the 2nd of March. That ways I would get the full moon view on 5th March, as well as a visit to Dholavira with none other than Prof. Bisht with exclusive views to excavated items that is not for public viewing. The plan couldn’t be more perfect I thought. But Kutch had other things planned for me. Little did I know then that my trip would be more Arty rather than touristy.

It was after a long time that I was travelling by train and luckily I got an elderly couple as co-passengers, who were visiting their village near Bhuj. I expected them to carry a whole lot more of food stuff than they were carrying. Anyways they offered me everything they ate and I partook only of the buttermilk, which they had carried in a 2 litres bottle and water, because they insisted I don’t buy from outside.

On the way from Bhuj to Khamir
Once I arrived in Bhuj, I hopped into a rickshaw and went straight to Khamir. Met with the Director of Khamir briefly and told her I’d like to do some art work somewhere. She put me in touch with a person at Bhujodi, who has opened a facility 2 months back to promote Kutchi food, art and music. And within half hour of arriving at Khamir, without unpacking or even a shower, I hopped into another rickshaw and off I went to Bhujodi. The man, Chaman Bhai, asked me how I plan to go about the art stuff. I said I’m here to volunteer and that I have carried my own paints and brushes. Suddenly a smile broke out on his face and he seemed more enthusiastic after that. He took me around his facility and showed me a small wall which could be painted. The other walls were made of mud and would have to be reinforced time and again so painting would not be possible on those surfaces. I didn’t seem excited at the idea of painting a small wall and told him so. He then took me around the village, showed me many houses, many walls, but I warmed up to one which is what I eventually painted on. It was 21 x 12 feet in height and had an advertisement of J.K Cement painted on it.

Chaman bhai's facility, Doran-n-mani

He consulted the other important and elderly people of the village and said that they would want these elements to be part of the concept. The first one was Sant Kabir with the loom, because Kabir himself was a weaver and the entire village of Bhujodi was a community of weavers. The second was the motifs and patterns used in weaving, which are geometric, angular patterns. The third element they wanted was the tanpura next to the image of Kabir because most people in the village sang Kabir bhajans.


The next day I browsed through some books in the library at Khamir and copied some Kutchi motifs in my sketchbook and drew some sample designs. The wall was primed before I went and I completed the mural in about 3 and a half days. The entire experience of doing street art in a village is quite different compared to doing one in a city. In Pune where I’ve done street art, people are often hesitant to come up and ask what is being done. Towards the end when most of the mural is done, they warm and come, chat up and some give unasked for advice. But in the village there was never a moment when I wasn’t surrounded by a swarm of kids and at a distance in the shop opposite the wall, by a group of men who had nothing else to do. I’m usually very shy and would have felt terribly awkward with a group of men just sitting for long hours and staring, but once I start my work I’ve seen that everything pretty much fades into oblivion. Regarding the staring part, it’s quite common to come across men who just stare when I’m travelling alone. But I believe, that most times the staring is out of curiosity for a solo woman traveler and is harmless, unless my internal antennae warns me otherwise.

The wall I painted at Bhujodi

Regarding the kids, initially they just swarmed around me and tailed me at every step I took, in whichever direction. Some kids were really sweet and helped with shifting the ladder and drum to where I wanted. On the last day, I decided to give the background of the mural, a shade of ice cream yellow, so that the white primed background didn’t reflect light. So I decided to rope in the kids to help me out to color broad patches. There were 15 kids, and I simply at random, handed over 3 brushes to the kids standing closest to me. Little did I know that that would create mayhem. Instantly there was cacophony, as each girl demanded that she be given the brush and how the other girl would mess up the job. A couple of girls even ran back to their homes, got their school drawing books to show me their skill level. I was already battling against time to finish the mural and here I had to deal with this unexpected scenario. “Each girl gets ten minutes with the brush and then it has to be passed on to your friend”, I announced pretending to be stern, hoping to settle the matter. Apparently, it didn’t, because each girl had her own favorite friends who she would favor above the rest and some girls were left out.  Each one came to me complaining about the other, and though initially I tried to sort out the matter unsuccessfully, eventually I decided to turn a deaf ear and focus on my job.

On the last day, as evening drew, with my muscles and finger crying out for rest, and the mural still with some work pending, I became more focused, rather more taut in my demeanor. I was standing on the drum working on the upper part of the mural, when I suddenly felt my floaters become very tight. I looked down to see a very little girl, tightening the Velcro on my floaters and giggling away. I too burst out laughing at her innocent and mischievous act and it helped me relax.

Some of the kids who helped me playing Holi
For most part of my time at Bhujodi, it was these kids who provided entertainment. From some kids who took pleasure in tickling my toes while I stood on the drum, to them practicing English so that they could talk to me, it was all a comic relief. I remember, once while I was painting, all focused on the wall, on the periphery, I kept hearing “ You are from which country”. I thought the group of girls are just practicing English and the same sentence went on for a while. After some time, one of the girls tapped me and they all, almost in chorus asked me, “ You are from which country? “. I burst out laughing and replied in Hindi “ Mein Pune se hoon” meaning “I’m from Pune”. There was another instance which left me laughing and close to getting embarrassed. An Indian tourist couple were walking past and the lady was dressed in some teeny weeny shorts and a tank top. These kids again drew my attention to her and remarked quite loudly, laughing at the same time, “kitne chote chote kapde pehenke aate hain”. I quickly averted my gaze to the wall, lest the lady, who was within ear shot think that I’m also party to this teasing!!


One noteworthy thing about the festival of Holi at Bhujodi was that no one applied colour on you if you didn't want to. They would apply and play Holi only with known people and only if they too enjoyed it. And that applied to even children. On Holi, I was working on the wall, and no one bothered me. A little girl too came by to help me, and when I asked why there was no colour on her, she said she doesn't like it and that was respected by her friends to were playing amongst themselves. This was a huge contrast to what I've experienced in the cities, with people aiming water filled balloons at unsuspecting people and throwing colours on complete strangers.


The wall at 21 x 12 feet has been my biggest so far and it did test my stamina. There was a time crunch because I had to finish this and start another one at Khamir too. So I worked for as long as 10 hours each day with just a 15 minute break for lunch at one of the homes in the village itself. People would come and tell me to take some rest and that they were feeling tired just seeing me work for so long. But I guess I just pushed my body to its limits, that too working in the relentlessly harsh Kutchi afternoons.  But once it was over, it was all worth it. You may view the pictures of the wall-art here.

The wall was the fa├žade of a the house of a Sant Kabir awardee (a national award that given to the best artisans of the country),  Vankar Dayabhai Ala, who sings Kabir Bhajans too. When the mural was complete he remarked “Mere shaadi mein bhi itna painting nahi hua mere ghar ka”, meaning “Even during my wedding, my house didn’t have such a celebratory look”.

Dayabhai on his loom
On the last day at Bhujodi, after winding up, as I waited for dinner at Dayabhai’s house, along with the other family members, I finally had the time to ask him about his life. He had learnt to work on the loom from his father, at the age of 10. In those days, there wasn’t much demand for traditional shawls which were rough in texture. There was no support from the government either and life was tough with little to eat and no proper house to live in. He has studied upto class 3 in a Gujarati medium school and had to leave school to support his father. He had got married at the age of 17 to a girl of 16. Sometime during the late 70’s, when it was difficult to make both ends meet, he went to Kuwait for around 14 years. What did he do there, I asked. “Majdoori karta tha”, meaning, “I worked as a laborer”, came the reply. There was a lump in my throat when I heard this. For an artisan, to abandon what he is good at and what he loves, to take up a job of a labourer in an alien land, was heartbreaking to me.  

He used to visit home once in 2 years during that time. In 1990, after his father’s death, he decided to not go back and revive the loom industry. He had some savings by then, so he invested in a few more looms, hired people, trained them and soon in a few years, he won the Sant Kabir award and soon after the Shilp guru award. He showed me a room with shelves all lined up with other trophies, awards and certificates that he has won for his work. Earlier that day and also the previous days, I had the opportunity to see him at work. Seeing him on his traditional pit loom, his hands weaving dexterously, with the rhythm of the loom in the background, his kind eyes focused and his lips breaking into a Kabir doha now and then, I felt grateful that he came back to do what he loves. He also told me the exact amount of cash award the government gave him. Such naivety and simplicity I thought. Would we city bred folks ever divulge such details to a stranger?

He also said with pride in his voice and eyes that his son, Ashok bhai, who, although has studied till post-graduation, has not taken up a regular job and is continuing their tradition of weaving.

Ashokbhai preparing the thread for weaving


I found Ashok bhai to be a very kind soul and a gentleman. Every half hour, he would come and enquire if I needed anything and would offer some lemonade or buttermilk, to keep me hydrated in the arid, dry weather. He has 3 kids, the youngest of which is a 7 months old. I saw a tube fit to the baby’s nose and asked what the problem was. He said, ever since the baby was born, it has been in a state of coma, neither crying, nor responding to anything, nor being able to swallow anything at all. So everything has to be fed through the nose to keep the body alive. One day, while dropping me back to Khamir, Ashok bhai said that he hasn’t told anybody else but feels like sharing it with me, that doctors have said that there is no hope for the baby and he may not live long. But in spite of that he and his wife decided that whether the baby stays with them for a week or a year, they will shower him with love and are grateful that he chose them as parents. This is what is called being broad-minded, I thought. And whenever I sat inside their house for breakfast, lunch or dinner, I did see that each family member took turns to hold the baby, sing to it, talk to it and love it, as if it was normal. That was a first hand lesson of love-in-action that I got to witness.

Dayabhai tuning his tanpura before a satsang


Reactions of people during this trip, to my married status, made me wonder if I have started regressing age wise. Right from people at Khamir to people in the village, no one guessed that I was married. May be that’s because they didn’t expect married women to travel solo. In the village, people kept asking me, where and what my father worked as and if I had siblings, etc. On the last day, while having dinner, Ashok bhai asked “Priya, aapki shaadi honi baaki hai…toh, aapke parents dhoondne lage hai”, meaning “ Have your parents started looking for a groom for you, since you have to get married now”, I said “I’m married already”, and the elders around almost unanimously stopped chewing on their food for a few moments. It was hilarious to note that while they had all been addressing me as Priya, after the knowledge of my married status, from the very next sentence onwards, I had become ‘Priyaji’. So Ashok bhai said, “Priyaji, aap kam umar ke lagte ho, is liye humne nahi socha ke aapki shaadi hui hai”, meaning, ‘you look so young, that’s why we didn’t think that you are married”. I was confused, am I looking THAT young or what???? . I need to examine in the mirror!. They asked me for how many years I’ve been married and that I lied to them, saying “2 years”, or else it would have been too much for them to handle. Even, on my return journey in the train, one Aunty enquired about what I do, what my parents do and remarked rather sympathetically that due to my work, I have to live alone in Pune. When I told her I live with my husband, she was very surprised!

One day, before dinner while chatting with Dayabhai, he was lamenting about how these days there is no ‘maryada”, meaning respect, as was in the days gone by. He said in earlier days, a daughter-in-law would never be seen walking past the father-in-law and other elders, and if at all, the full ghunghat (veil) would be drawn. But now-a-days, daughter-in-laws, walk past freely in front of elders and cover only their heads and not faces too. It was almost on the tip of my tongue to question the necessity of the ghunghat and say that respect does not necessarily mean wearing a ghunghat, it could mean other things too. But I thought it better to shout my mouth and keep these opinions to myself.
They also asked me whether my husband gives me permission to travel. I said we are like friends and there is no permission required. We do what we like. They gasped with a “acchhaa???? “ and I realized that these concepts would be alien to them.

Here a moo, there a moo, everywhere a moo moo
Other observations about village life matched a lot with what I’ve seen on TV. Groups of old men sitting and chatting for long hours, not many women seen on the roads, kids frolicking and playing, and I must mention, many many many cows with huge horns rightfully walking on the narrow roads. The cows have a right to road in the village more than people do, and I saw that these huge bovines would just walk and people would give way. Once I had kept my paints outside and there came a huge cow and picked up my box of paints. I panicked as there was no shop nearby where I could buy paints from. But the kids shooed it away. But a couple of days later , as I took a break to take a phone call, another cow sauntered and picked up the box of paints and when I screamed, another man shooed it away. I thought it's going to eat the paints but the man said the cow had come for the cardboard box in which the paints were kept. It did tear away the flap of the box and went away merrily chewing on it.


Dinner was usually khichhdi, kadhi, and rotis
Copious quantities of buttermilk 
I had the opportunity to dine with 2 families in Bhujodi. Their food was simple and tasty, usually comprising rotla (thick flatbread) made of bajra, and one subji and a bowl of ghee and jaggery. Dinner was usually khichhdi with kadhi. There was a surplus of buttermilk always. Breakfast was soft rotis with milk. Each family had their own cows and all the milk products were fresh and unadulterated and it really showed in the taste. The lady of the house would make around 7 litres of buttermilk in the morning and the same would be had by family members and guests through the day. I was told even the wheat and bajra came from their relatives fields and wasn’t store bought.


Well, I’ve written a lot about Bhujodi, for, that is where I spent most of waking hours at. I used to wake up at 6.30 am, go for a walk and talk to the birds, watch the sunrise at Khamir , shower , have breakfast if it’s ready and then leave for Bhujodi and return at 10 in the night. So what happened to the full moon on the Rann or Dholavira? For the visit to the Rann, I couldn’t find company, and I was looking for company only to share the cab charges, which were prohibitively expensive for a matter of 4 hours. I remember trying to find company till the afternoon of 5th March, which was full moon, but in vain. While returning to Khamir at night, riding pillion with Chaman bhai, I remember, giving such angry looks to the moon, as if the Moon cared. 


The full moon that evaded me on the Rann


Nature fairies have always been kind and compliant with me and I couldn’t believe that the Moon fairy was letting me down this time. Next morning before I left Khamir, the person in charge of logistics informed me that the Dholavira trip is cancelled because Prof. Bisht is not feeling upto it. That was the last straw. The 2 things which I was so looking forward to, were both not happening. I called my husband in a fit disappointment and sadness and told him I’m coming back. He tried to calm me down and said I could do whatever I wanted. In the room I sat for half hour , with tears rolling down my eyes, and decided that this situation notwithstanding, I have the opportunity to still convert the trip into a beautiful experience by being open and seeing what the trip offers me. And in hindsight I think I made a good decision to stay back and experience whatever I did. That’s a lesson for life in general as well, not to be fixated over something, but to be open to whatever life has to offer and appreciate the same.









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