The Kutch Renaissance

#1 Jan 21st, 2017, 16:50
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It’s been 16 years since the Bhuj earthquake wiped out lives, livelihoods and villages. A journey through the region now reveals how it has found new life through crafts, and how tradition has become its route to modernity

When a natural calamity destroys lives and livelihoods, assets and resources, human capital and wealth, the survivors and state stare at a difficult question: What should be restored and what should be allowed to pass? Kutch in Gujarat faced this question after 26 January 2001. Kutch lives by its crafts and textiles, and with its diverse yet syncretic religious communities. A drought-prone region dotted with Jain temples, shrines and mosques, bounded by the sea on one side, and sharing the White Rann with Sindh in Pakistan on the other, it is a land where pastoral Maldharis are craftsmen by day and Sufi singers by night.

In 2001, a violent earthquake measuring 7.7 on the Richter scale, its epicentre 20km from Bhuj, the district capital, left more than 22,000 people dead, destroyed close to 400,000 houses, rendered more than 600,000 people homeless, and razed entire villages and towns like Anjar, Bhachau and Rapar.

That fateful morning of the 52nd Republic Day followed a ravaging cyclone in 1998 and two years of drought in Kutch. Did these calamities force the people of Kutch to look at the other side of the philosophical riddle—the new and the untapped? Yes, say many survivors of the Bhuj earthquake, as well as the region’s civil society foot soldiers and saviours, welfare workers and resurrection architects who galvanized into a collective force.

The earthquake became the trigger to value what was intrinsically local and unique. As Sushma Iyengar, co-founder and president of Khamir, a non-governmental organization that sustains the value chain of Kutchi crafts and their creators, says, “The earthquake triggered the reconciliation of nature with culture that had already begun, it forced communities to reflect urgently on their situation, it articulated directions for community and crafts empowerment, brought a surge of collective energy to disparate movements preceding it.” No one had anticipated the digital revolution or the economic boom that added to the motivation of rebuilding Kutch, says Iyengar.

Her observation resonates with that of Pankaj Shah’s. This development activist and founder of Qasab, an artisanal embroidery brand that grew out of the Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan, a trust and society, says, “The earthquake gave an exponential push to the work of arts and crafts organizations which had been working in the region. It brought aid and the attention of the world to Kutch, raising funds as well as awareness for local arts. Government awards, income-generation programmes, crafts enterprises, design boutiques, tourism—all these surged after the earthquake.

The stories of Zakiya and Adil Khatri in Bhuj and Khatri Aslam A. Karim in Ajrakhpur, both students of Judy Frater, a co-founder of Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya, the region’s first design school, and now the founder-director of Somaiya Kala Vidya, represent this 21st century renaissance.

Twenty-two-year-old Zakiya, a newly-married, pretty and cheerful young woman, is one of Kutch’s few female Bandhini designers. She was 6 at the time of the earthquake. Dressed in fancy clothes for her school’s Republic Day parade in her hometown of Mundra, where she lived in a 66-member joint family of batik block printers, she was eating breakfast when the earth began to convulse violently. She believes that even if it didn’t leave physical scars, the earthquake left many Kutchis more possessive of what defined them.


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