Exploring the Kutch District of Gujarat, India Through Its Art

Embroidered cloth hanging from a clothesline infront of a decorate straw-roofed house

 Devorah Lev-Tov

My husband and I had been living in the lively and crowded Mumbai for three months when we found ourselves bumping along a dirt road in an autorickshaw driven by a man named Bharat. We were surrounded by castor oil fields, marshes filled with birds, and miles of flat sand. We'd occasionally see clusters of low mud huts and women and girls walking with jugs of water on their heads. At one point, we stopped by a large watering hole where camels and buffalo drank and swam while a couple of shepherds kept watch nearby.

We were in the Kutch district of Gujarat, the Indian state sandwiched between Maharashtra, where Mumbai is located, and the Pakistan border to the north. This was remote and rural India, quite different than the bustling Bombay (the old name for Mumbai that most locals still use) that we were used to. Mumbai is filled with crowds of colorfully dressed people rushing in and around its narrow streets, trying to avoid bicycles and autorickshaws swerving around clunky taxis as horns endlessly honk. A thick, gray fog of pollution hangs over the entire city, personal space is hard to come by, and a cacophony of smells and sounds bombard you nearly everywhere—Mumbai is vibrating with humanity and is, in its own way, beautiful. But also exhausting.

We came to Kutch for an escape, to revel in the wide-open spaces and astounding nature, and to meet the artisans we heard so much about. Our time in India took us all over the vast country, including popular stops across the Golden Triangle and beyond, but we were seeking something different, somewhere less traveled. Friends of ours promised that Kutch was like no other part of India—or the world. And they were right.

Making Our Way to Bhuj

Bhuj, the largest city in Kutch, is only about 3 hours from the Pakistan border. To get there, we had to fly from Mumbai to Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat, and then taken an eight-hour train west. (Though flying to Bhuj is indeed an option.)

Bhuj is somewhat of a faded glory. The walled old city was founded back in the 1500s and was ruled by the Jadeja dynasty of Rajputs, one of the oldest Hindu dynasties, for hundreds of years until India established a republic in 1947. There's a large hilltop fort in Bhuj that was the site of many battles, including attacks from Mughals, Muslims, and the British. The city has also suffered many earthquakes, most recently in 2001, which resulted in devastating destruction of ancient buildings and many lives lost. While some improvements have been made in the years since we still saw many half-demolished buildings and ruined roads.

When we finally got to Buhj, our first stop was the Aina Mahal, a palace dating back to the 18th century that is now a museum. We were looking for Pramod Jethi, the man who (literally) wrote the book on Kutch, its history, tribes, and tribal handicrafts. As the former curator of the Aina Mahal Museum and the resident expert on Kutch’s 875 villages and inhabitants, there's no better guide to the area than Mr. Jethi.

We found him sitting outside Aina Mahal and after discussing what we wanted to see, he created an itinerary for us and connected us with a driver and guide—Bharat. The next morning, Baharat picked us up in his autorickshaw and we were on our way, leaving the city behind us.

colorful hut ceiling with teal, red, yellow, and purple squares and pink support beams. Each square hass a small round mirror in ir
 Devorah Lev-Tov
white was wall with clay decorations embellised with small mirrors
Devorah Lev-Tov
decorated wall of a house with small mirrows arranged artistically on a faded mint green wall
 Devorah Lev-Tov
Close up of a mirror work wall design with a floral motif in Kutch india
 Devorah Lev-Tov

The Villages of Kutch

The next three days were a whirlwind of exploring villages, learning about various tribes and their incredible handicrafts, and meeting so many generous people who invited us into their homes. And what homes these were! Though small (only one room), it was easy to tell how important artistry is to the people of Kutch. These were not just simple mud huts: many were covered inside and out with intricate mirrorwork stuck into sculpted mud so that they glittered in the sun, while others were painted in bright colors. The elaborate mirrorwork continued inside, sometimes acting as furniture, holding televisions and dishes, and sometimes acting as pure decoration.

During the three days, we met people from several different tribes (Dhanetah Jat, Gharacia Jat, Harijan, and Rabari) who lived among the villages of Ludiya, Dhordo, Khodai, Bhirendiara, Khavda, and Hodka. Almost no one spoke English (which most urban Indians do), instead speaking a local dialect and some Hindi. With a language barrier, and a considerable distance between villages we quickly saw how essential it is to have a knowledgeable guide in Kutch. Without Bharat, we wouldn't have been able to see or experience nearly as much.

Through Bharat, we learned that for the most part men worked in the fields, grazing cows and sheep, while women took care of the home. Some tribes are nomadic or semi-nomadic and they ended up in Kutch from places like Jaisalmer, Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. Each tribe has a specific type of clothing, embroidery, and jewelry. For example, Jat women sew complex square embroidery onto neckpieces and wear them over red dresses, while the men wear all white garb with ties instead of buttons and white turbans. When they get married, Rabari women are given a special gold necklace adorned with what looks like charms. Upon closer inspection (and with an explanation), it was revealed that each of these charms is actually a tool: a toothpick, earpick, and nail file, all made out of solid gold. Rabari women also wear intricate earrings in multiple ear piercings that stretch their lobes and some men have large ear holes as well. Harijan women wear large disc-shaped nose rings, brightly colored and heavily embroidered tunics, and stacks of white bracelets on their upper arms and colored ones going up from their wrists.

elaborate gold earrings on an Indian woman with stretched earlobes
Devorah Lev-Tov 

Bharat took us to various homes to meet with villagers. Everyone was extremely welcoming and friendly, which struck me. In the United States, where I’m from, it would be odd to bring a visitor to a stranger’s home, just to see how they live. But in Kutch, we were welcomed with open arms. We experienced this kind of hospitality in other parts of India as well, especially with people who were quite poor and had very little. No matter how humble their living situation, they would invite us inside and offer us some tea. It was a common courtesy and it created the unmistakable feeling of warmth and generosity that can sometimes be hard to come by as a traveler.

Close up of hands embroidering a scarf in Kutch
Devorah Lev-Tov 
a terracotta dish and lid on a stool. The dish is decorated with blakck and white paint
 Devorah Lev-Tov
mand useing a lathe to apply color to a piece of wood in Kutch
Devorah Lev-Tov 
Man painting a yellow design on a piece of red cloth
Devorah Lev-Tov

Kutch's Tribal Handicrafts

As we traveled around Kutch, some people tried to sell us some of their handicrafts and encouraged me to try on thick silver bracelets, while others allowed us to observe them while they worked. Several offered us food and tea, and we occasionally had lunch, offering to pay a few rupees for a simple meal of chapatti flatbread and vegetable curry. The crafts vary from village to village but all were impressive.

The village of Khavda has a unique style of decorated terracotta pottery. The men are responsible for the throwing and shaping on the wheel, while the women paint the simple line and dot decorations using clay-based paint. We watched a woman place a plate on a turning stand that spun slowly as she held a thin brush in place to create perfectly uniform lines. After decoration, the pottery dries in the sun before baking in an oven powered by dry wood and cow dung then it's coated in geru, a type of soil, to give it the iconic red color.

In the village of Nirona, where hundreds of years ago many Hindu migrants came from Pakistan, we saw three ancient artforms in action: handmade copper bells, lacquerware, and rogan panting. The people of Kutch use the copper bells around the necks of camels and buffalo to keep track of the animals. We met Husen Sidhik Luhar and watched him hammer out copper bells from recycled metal scraps and shape them using interconnected notches instead of welding. The bells come in 13 different sizes, from very small to very large. We bought several because they, of course, also make beautiful outdoor chimes and decoration.

Nirona's complex lacquerwork is made by a crafter who operates the lathe with his feet, spinning the item he wants to lacquer back and forth. First, he cut grooves into the wood, then applied the lacquer by taking a colored resin stub and holding it against the rotating object. The friction creates enough heat to melt the waxy substance onto the object, coloring it.

Then we met Abdul Gafur Kahtri, an eighth-generation member of a family that has created rogan art for more than 300 years. The family is the last remaining one still creating rogan painting and Abdul has dedicated his life to saving the dying art by sharing it with the world and teaching it to the rest of his family to ensure the bloodline continues. He and his son Jumma demonstrated the ancient art of rogan painting for us, first by boiling castor oil into a gooey paste and adding various colored powders. Then, Jumma used a thin iron rod to stretch the paste into designs that painted onto one half of a piece of fabric. Finally, he folded the fabric in half, transferring the design to the other side. The completed piece was an intricate symmetrical pattern mimicking a burst of very precisely placed colors. I had never seen this method of painting before, from the ingredients down to the technique.

Multicolored sunset landscape silhouette of the Great Rann of Kutch, Gujarat
KS-Art / Getty Images

Aside from all the incredible human-made art, we also got to see one of Mother Nature’s greatest creations. One afternoon, Bharat took us to the Great Rann, reputed to be the largest salt desert in the world. It takes up a large portion of the Thar Desert and goes straight across the border to Pakistan. Bharat told us the only way to traverse the white desert is via camel and after seeing it—and walking on it—I believe him. Some of the salt is dry and hard but the further in you go, the more marshy it becomes and soon you find yourself sinking into the brackish water.

During our three days of village exploration, we spent one night at a hotel that had seen better days in Bhuj and one night at the Shaam-E-Sarhad Village Resort in Hodka, a village with a tribal-owned and operated hotel. The rooms are actually traditional mud huts and “eco-tents” that have been updated with modern amenities, including en-suite bathrooms. The huts and tents feature the detailed mirrorwork we saw in people’s homes, as well as bright textiles and Khavda pottery.

On our last evening in Hodka, after eating a buffet dinner of local cuisine in the hotel's open-air dining tent, we gathered with a few other guests around a bonfire as some musicians played local music. Thinking about all the art we had seen, it occurred to me that none of this stuff was likely to make it into a museum. But that didn’t make it any less beautiful, any less impressive, any less authentic, or any less worthy of being called art. It can be easy to relegate our art viewing to museums and galleries and to look down on things merely labeled "crafts." But rarely do we get to see true art being made with such simple materials, using methods passed down for hundreds of years between family members, creating things that are just as beautiful as anything hanging on a gallery wall.