India Interior

Young ambassadors of Kutchi craft

N Shiva Kumar | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on April 22, 2016

Hand in hand Resplendent in traditional attire, seven-year-old Kavita assists her grandfather in making and selling a range of handicrafts at Hodka village, near the Indo-Pak border in Kutch, Gujarat N SHIVA KUMAR

Master craftsman Sumar Bhai was taken to Germany by a visiting foreigner to demonstrate the making of an earthquake proof Bhunga hut.

The desert village of Hodka thrives on its sewing tradition and other handicrafts

Sisters Kavita and Veena are literally walking-talking mannequins for the traditional artefacts of their hometown. As members of the Village Tourism Committee of Hodka, near the Indo-Pak border, in the desert province of Kutch, Gujarat, the girls not only help sell local handicrafts but also make many of them. Petite in a graceful blue Lehnga, seven-year-old Kavita is as proud of her sewing skills as she is of her selling skills.

Watching the haggling in silence is her 11-year-old older sister, Veena, attired in a traditional dress, her earlobes pierced with exquisitely crafted rings and her dainty arms adorned by bangles.

The earrings are never taken off, even at night. Their doting grandfather, 67-year-old Sumar Bhura Khoyla, explained, “They are used to wearing them from a very young age and become habituated to any discomfort they may experience.”

Assisted by the girls, Khoyla, an experienced artist in Banni embroidery, sells a range of handcrafted items — from bed sheets and pillow covers to handbags, wafer-thin stoles, armlets, appliqué patchwork cloth, trinkets and rustic junk-jewellery.

Tourists flock to Kutch in droves, captivated by its stark landscape of rolling treeless countryside and its bounty of handicrafts. At the desert village of Hodka, 65km north of Buhl, they get a chance to indulge in rustic life, says Jugal Kishore Tiwari, an ecologist familiar with this region. He however cautions that rampant tourism can harm the delicate ecosystem of this far-flung locale.

“Potable water is a rare commodity in these parts. Once a year, the area gets flooded both by rain and ingress of seawater, hence the earth retains immense salinity, discouraging even a blade of grass from sprouting,” explains Tiwari.

Time and tide seem to stand still in this endlessly white desert. Like an oasis, Hodka emerges on the hazy horizon.

Historically, the villagers of Kutch have been skilled cattle-herders. The Banni savannah, abutting Hodka, has the largest seasonal grassland in India, making it an ecologically unique area. The 3,847 sqkm Banni grasslands is actually a dry scrubland and has a 500-year-old history of migratory pastoralism. Hodka is one of its 46 hamlets.

Hodka village has eighty houses; each unit is called a Bhunga, a centuries-old construction style in harmony with the environment and marked by mud floors and walls, and tapering thatch roofs that keep the interior cool during the hot season and warm in cold season.

Samar Bhai, a local master craftsman, owns six Bhungas, of which five serve as living quarters for his family of twelve and the sixth is rented to tourists. The mud-caked Bhungas adorned with rustic wall art never fail to delight the swarm of visitors.

The traditional Bhunga is considered an engineering marvel as it can withstand severe winds, dust storms and seismic activity. During the massive earthquake in Kutch on January 26, 2001, which killed 20,000 and destroyed four lakh homes, the Bhungas proved to be lifesavers. “Not a single person was killed in Hodka then,” says Samar Bhai.

After the devastating earthquake, there were efforts to revive the fortunes of Hodka under the Endogenous Tourism Project of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India. This transformative tourism initiative was aimed at empowering local communities.

“During the season, we earn about ₹5000 a month by selling handicrafts, many of which are the traditional apparel worn by our women and exchanged during marriages,” says Samar Bhai.

The writer is a photographer and wildlife enthusiast based in Noida

Published on April 22, 2016
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