Traditional Indian handicrafts reflect the culture and history of the place they come from. One such unique art form is Rogan painting. This rare craft is practised by a lone Muslim family in India, the Khatris, who call the sleepy hamlet of Nirona in Gujarat’s Kutch district their home. This family of traditional artists has steadfastly kept this intriguing craft alive for over three centuries, protecting it from vanishing into the folds of history.
The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, gifted a couple of exquisite handcrafted Rogan paintings to the US president, Barack Obama, during his visit to the US in 2014.
The word rogan means oil in Persian. In this art form, paint made from thick brightly coloured castor seed oil is used to paint on fabric. Castor is a crop commonly grown in the Kutch region of Gujarat and the artists source it from the local farmers.
To prepare the paint, castor oil is heated in a vessel and continuously stirred for more than 12 hours till it catches fire. The paint-maker takes extreme care to ensure it doesn’t get burnt.‘The residue is then mixed with cold water until it thickens into a sticky elastic paste called rogan.
It is mixed with vibrant natural colours and immersed in water, before being stored in earthen pots. This helps the paint retain its malleable texture, which can be used for painting.
Delicate and precisely painted, Rogan paintings are often created from the artist’s own imagination. The artists, who prefer sitting on the floor while working, place a small amount of the paint paste on their palms. Next, they use oversized blunt needles or rods to gently stretch some strands, which they place on the fabric in elaborate patterns. The artists’ fingers under the fabric help the paint spread and shape the design. As the design are mostly created towards one edge of the fabric, the cloth is then folded to create a mirror image on the other side.
An extraordinary aspect about this technique is that during the entire process of the gummy paint being carefully twisted into motifs, the blunt needle never comes into contact with the cloth!
After drying, the rogan painted cloth is used for making sarees, decorative wall hangings, pillow covers, tablecloths, and even file folders. The intricate motifs – geometric flowers, peacocks, the tree of life, etc. – are drawn from the history and folk culture of the Kutch region.
Rogan art was traditionally used to embellish bridal trousseau and was the exclusive preserve of the male members of the Khatri family. Times have changed and, in the last few decades, the Khatris have started teaching this art form to other crafts people, including women.
Gafoorbhai Khatri is the head of the Khatri family and he is keeping the art alive by ensuring his entire family learns and practices it (almost every artist in his family has won a national award). He is also the proud owner of a visitor’s book that is full of testimonials from appreciative people, all the way from Japan and the US to Spain and Australia.
Gafoorbhai is currently in the process of opening a school that teaches Rogan art to children from different families.
Rogan paintings now adorn the walls of the White House but, back home, these artists are finding it difficult to earn livelihoods from just practising the art. Though Gafoorbhai and his one-family-army have held on to Rogan art for eight generations, they lack the human capital and product diversity required to cater to the demands of the modern market.
Artist Papiya Mitra, who is also the founder of the Maker’s Club India, works towards uplifting Indian traditional art forms. In an interview to Sakaal Times, she said:
“Even though there is a huge market for Indian art and crafts abroad, the means to sell them are very limited. The Rogan artists have limited themselves to the Kutch region and the next generation is not willing to carry forward the legacy as there is no future in it. If they travel to different parts of the country and teach the techniques to others or if art enthusiasts go to them and learn it and help spread its richness, only then will the awareness about Rogan art increase.”
To help Rogan art reach more people, the government has started incentivizing Rogan artists. Many startups and NGOs are also helping to create a market for them. Other than preserving traditional designs, the artists are being encouraged to experiment with new motifs and colour combinations. This will create products that have a different appeal, are affordable and have a wider reach.
In an interview to Travel Knots, Gafoorbhai said:
“The Prime Minister buys our works to give them as gifts to dignitaries. Also, we now get a free stall in handicrafts exhibitions all over India to help us showcase our art to the world. Foreigners coming to Kutch today have Nirona on their itineraries and most of them are enchanted by this rare art.”
For a long time, this rare craft was not well known even in India. But with a growing fan following that includes Amitabh Bachchan, Waheeda Rehman, Shabana Azmi and, of course, Narendra Modi, Rogan art is now getting the recognition it deserves.
S : thebetterindia