My friend Umesh is a gifted mirror work artisan. Son of Shri Damji bhai from a quaint village near Bhuj, Umesh’s family has been in the mirror work trade for nearly 40 years now. Like anybody else, even Umesh couldn’t have foreseen what was going to hit them. But now, nearly two months into the lockdown Umesh can clearly see what lies ahead.
The roots of Kutchi embroidery go back to 13th century Persia. Some feel the mirrors represent water or maybe the lack of it, while some believe the mirrors reflect away bad luck & evil spirits. Strangely, history traces back its origins to ‘Mochis’ – yes, cobblers, who first started to work on royal clothing in India. But ultimately the vibrant colors, the intricate work & the boundless effort unfailingly captures one’s attention. Hence just like the Rasgulla or Darjeeling tea, Umesh’s embroidery is also registered for protection under the List of Geographical indication (GI).
Umesh’s Mother & Aunt
Kutchi embroidery is easily recognized, but the effort that goes behind crafting it, is certainly not. Thus, many artisans are readily switching to better paying jobs. Until a few years ago, Umesh used to coordinate with artisans in as many as 5-6 nearby villages, now its only one. Generally, the village women are the ones who are involved in this craft, but instead of embroidering for 6-8 hours a day, they now prefer 4 hours of working in field & also earning more in the process. According to Umesh, this form of art was never pursued for economic reasons, whereas it was passed down from a mother to her daughter. Her embroidery skill could really help her in finding a good match!
Wearing a traditional Bandhni dress & making a traditional mirrorwork border
The pandemic has surely affected livelihoods, but so far it is only marginal feels Umesh. The ladies involved, are switching to farming & for traders, April & May is not the season. For the celebration crazed state of Gujarat - Navratri, Diwali & Wedding season followed by 3 months of Rann Utsav (specific to Kutch) is the life line of trade & businesses. The over arching sense of fear is, even if the lockdown is lifted, what is the future of celebrations. Such intricate & elaborate work needs an equally important occasion to be showcased, but how easily people embrace celebrations is keeping Umesh awake at nights. Unable to plan, he is holding off on creating inventory & so are many others.
Rann Utsav happens every year from December to February
Every year, Umesh showcases his products in 20-25 exhibitions across the country & finally tops it off during the 3-month long Rann Utsav. Just like cinema halls & malls, exhibitions, that attract thousands of buyers will be the last ones to restart feels Umesh. While organised retailers can take necessary precautions & restart stores, organizing exhibitions may not be easy anymore.
The Rann Utsav is frequented by many tourists, of whom the best buyers are the ones who come from outside India. In the current situation, expecting foreign tourists is also a bit too much says Umesh. While he was contacted by a couple of government agencies like Garvi Gurjari & Indext-C assuring him support during the lockdown period, he just can’t help but wonder what is he going to do this Navratri.
His house in kutch
Sujatra team with Umesh at Kalo Dungar near Bhuj
Our saree using mirror work embroidery sourced from Umesh