The pastoral closet
An exhibition on pastoral life brings indigenous wool, organic Kala cotton and other untold stories to Delhi
Living Lightly: Journeys With Pastoralists, an exhibition in Delhi, showcases the lightly lived lives of nomads. It focuses primarily but not entirely on the Maldharis, a nomadic tribe of herdsmen from the Banni region of Kutch. Through film, music, poetry, photographs, artefacts, textiles and embroideries, it shows culture, crafts, economic exchanges and rituals. Or, to borrow a term from the exhibition note, the “life-world" of pastoralists.
Curator Sushma Iyengar uses juttis, handmade leather shoes worn by herdsmen, and their herding sticks as the two storytellers. The exhibition is about how nomads sustain their pastoral habits while being drawn to modernity. Bata shoes replace juttis, there is the influence of the omnipresent cellphone; goats once reared only for wool are now reared for meat.
It is a fascinating exhibition in the way it makes multiple observations. It is bare like the desert region of Kutch, even frugal yet meaningful like the lives of the pastoralists it narrates. There are brass bells for camels, local wool and leather, embroidered canopies representing 26 Kutchi communities and the poetry of Sufi poet-saint Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai on flowing fabric, among other elements.
Alongside is a thoughtfully curated craft store. It is more like a camp with products from nomadic life. “This bazaar space is the ‘present’, for the consumer to relate to what’s displayed in the exhibition," says its curator, Meera Goradia. The former director of Khamir, a Kutch-based NGO that initiated a timely project on Kala cotton (an organic rain-fed crop) in 2007, Goradia is now the head of cluster development with crafts-based portal Jaypore.
The mud-coloured bazaar has a rustic ambience. There is cattle made of fabric displayed as installations, dried camel dung cakes, charpoys with colourful quilts on them; Mashru and Bandhini fabrics have been used to create a rural shamiana. Among the products on sale are bags made from raw leather, nomadic footwear, terracotta pottery, textiles, embroidery, half-a-dozen varieties of local wool, metal, lacquer and Kala cotton garments.
Goradia says that while Kutch, and more specifically its Banni and Jat communities, are predominantly represented, there is also an emphasis on the pastoral tribes of adjoining Rajasthan. In addition, the store has lifestyle products from the Himalayan ecosystem, the Gaddi tribes of Himachal Pradesh and the Lambanis of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.
The earthy brown tones of the bazaar unify the aesthetic of the merchandise. Even the most colourful Kutchi embroideries have an earthiness about them. In the weave of Ladakhi pashmina shawls, the mud shades of rugs made from Deccani wool, the beautifully textured Kala cotton saris and stoles, the riotously embroidered Rabari costumes, clay artefacts, or jackets made from camel hair and sheep wool with Ajrakh linings by Archana Shah—the founder of the Bandhej stores—lives a robust crafts conversation. If you care to listen, that is.
The exhibition was four years in the making, and work on the store took as long. The format will evolve as it travels to other cities. It will also be instituted as a permanent museum space in Kutch, says Goradia. She admits that while the “crafts intelligentsia" would find an immediate connect with what’s sold here, for the rest, the curious or the “mainstream", it may be a reminder about the existential realities of pastoral life.
This is no ordinary “reminder". Under the rugs, around the charpoys, the village charms, needlework cushions and patchwork jholas is the resonating dichotomy between what’s important and what’s relevant in India now. These products are important to anthropologists to document nomadic lives. Also, to NGOs committed to protecting artisanal livelihoods. But they may not be entirely relevant to modern consumers and may not easily find a ready market.
The “mainstream" that Goradia talks about is certainly impressed by sustainability but only a few really care about the carbon debt we accumulate. So there is a gap between the idea of preserving aspects of pastoral life and the demands of the urban market.
“Fair trade, raising consciousness about agricultural and artisanal livelihoods, the dilemmas in the lives of cotton farmers," are the words Juhi Pandey, the current director of Khamir, uses to point out “important" issues. She is right. Kala cotton, or local wools like the yak wool of Ladakh, the camel hair and sheep wool of Kutch and the Uttaranchal sheep wool, are “important" in the ongoing global dialogue on ecological conservation. But unless they are matched to the tastes of urban, itinerant buyers, they might remain exhibition artefacts.
The new interest around Kala cotton garments through the creations of some mainstream fashion labels may, to some extent, signify a herd mentality rather than an informed understanding of pastoral aesthetics.
Also, while fashion association could bring to this bazaar a wider consumer interest, it is because of the absence of fashion industry influences that the products offered by groups like Kala Raksha, Shrujan, Kasab, Khamir, Peoli: Hues of the Hills, or two master craftsmen, Shamji Vishram Vankar and Murji Hamir Vankar, stand out. This may need a lot of sensitive collaborative work to become symbiotic.
Like the contribution of Shabri Wable. Trained in design and fashion schools in Pune and Mumbai, Wable has worked outside the fashion formula of seasonal forecasts of colours and shapes. She has identified idioms of pastoralism in garments that you won’t find in fashion store in cities. She has brought to the bazaar interpretations of Khesdas (a partly stitched nomadic shawl-like covering with large pockets) in white and black checked cotton instead of wool, Ezars (rural salwars for women that are almost 128 inches at the waist, in local prints and textures), ghaghras and kediyas, the gathered top garb of Kutchi herdsmen. Everything is inspired from local history and made from indigenous material, but has the potential of becoming a globally wearable piece with imaginative styling.
In her dusty brown handloom sari, mismatched Mashru blouse, leather juttis and silver jewellery, with her hair tied back starkly, Wable is a stunning model for the pastoral closet of this crafts store. She articulates with persuasion and wears her wares well.
The “Sindhi Nada", a handmade drawstring in cotton with beaded tassels, is a standout product. It is the result of one of Wable’s many creative idea exchanges with village craftswomen. The story goes that a lady called Fatima Haroon, called “Nani" in Kutch’s Mota Bandha village, who migrated from Pakistan after her wedding, taught this technique to other girls in the village. “Sindhi Nada pre-dates knitting, as the warping of the yarn for this is done on a frame," explains Wable.
One of the highlights of Living Lightly is a documentary that runs on a loop on four different screens, projecting two sets of visuals at the same time. You must sit on revolving chairs to catch the two aspects of pastoral life. Most seats in the auditorium, however, were unoccupied. The bazaar, on the other hand, had casual walk-ins and some informed shoppers but the visitors were few and infrequent.
“Many a flower is born to blush unseen... on the desert air," as the English poet, Thomas Gray, wrote. Alas.
Living Lightly is on at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, Delhi, till 18 December, 11am-8pm.