Hira the Elder, Rogan Art, and a Harijan Wedding

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Along with Alison and Nico, a Finn working an IT job in India, I drove north from Bhuj and visited many of of Kutch's small craft villages with our guide Parbat Rabari, a member of the Rabari tribe of herdsmen. Alison, doing her tattoo research, asked one younger woman about a small blue dot on her wrist: "One is enough," said one girl from Sumbrasa village, wincing at the thought of the painful needles.

The older women, by contrast, were covered with tatoos. Back then women were tougher in Kutch, just like our relatives walked to and from school both ways uphill in the driving snow. We found the oldest woman in Kutch, Hira of the Ahir people, descendents of Krishna, who was either 95 or 96 years old, she wasn't sure. Her arms, legs and neck were covered with once-painful tatooes.
Traditionally, the tatoos were art performed for beauty, for friendship, a rite of passage.

Hira had eight grandsons and seventeen granddaughters. She knew the land: what to grow when, when to plow, how to survive in an arid landscape. "People thought I was a god because my sons had no bad habits, no one drinks alcohol or tea or smokes tobacco," she said.

At Kutch the people are naturally tied to their arid unforgiving land. They know--especially with their history of earthquakes, submerged ancient cities, and seasonal wetlands that ebb and flow--the laws of nature. They show this connection in their work and craft.

The Kutchi people are nomadic herders, gypsys, traders, and craftspeople, descendents of Krishna or migrants from the Thar Desert. The life of the crafts begins in the fields, semi-arid pasturelands, and hills--with cotton, sheep, castor oil, minerals. The wool and cotton from the black silts of the plains are handspun into thread, then dyed with indigo, tumeric, and other colors. The men weave the thread using looms, a tradition passed from father to son. The women learn needlework from their mothers, generation after generation. Patterns and styles vary between villages and tribes but are typically colorful, sometimes with mirrors imbedded in the work, for added effect.

In Narona village, north of Bhuj, we met Khatri Daud, one of the last men making Rogan art. Deftly controlling a small glob of boiled castor oil jelly mixed with mineral pigments on the tip of a metal applicator in his right hand and cotton cloth in his left hand, he stretched, turned, and applied the colorful jelly over and across the cloth. He folded the fabric to stunningly vivid symmetrical images of floral and Islamic motifs. Drought-resistent rows of castor plants in the nearby fields and colorful mineral rock outcrops showed a direct connection between arid land and art.

We ended the day in a Meghwal Harijan village, Zura. They invited us back to a wedding the next evening. "I've been told never to pass up an invitation to an Indian wedding," I said. Nico and I accepted graciously (Alison had to catch a train), arriving back at Zura as the sun set. The Harijan people are untouchables, outcastes, yet the name Harijan means "Children of God" as coined by Mahatma Gandhi.

The men dressed in white or simply. The women dressed in the most ornate of costumes, with brilliant colors, bangles, earrings, nose rings, and mirrors adorning them. Young girls also wore their best clothing, enjoying the moment. For most of the wedding, men and women were separated, with the groomsmen from another town eating, and sleeping just outside the village--a few round impeccably clean traditional huts colored and decorated.

Before the wedding, the families arranged the marriage, with the bride and groom not allowed to see each other. Astrology, family income, and caste all played an important role in the selection process. Henna was applied to the bride's hands and feet and rituals prepared the bride and groom, cleansing them.

The wedding began, with Nico and I as the wedding photographers. The groom thus became an emanation of Vishnu and the bride transformed into an incarnation of Lakshmi, his consort, Goddess of Wealth. Both of their faces were veiled for the event. After an offering to Ganesh, the elder priest, dressed in white, built a holy fire, representing Agni, the fire god, with his attendants.

Flower girls threw petals around the small fire and the priest made more offerings of milk. The bride and groom, tied together with a knot of fabric, then encircled the holy fire. First, the groom followed the bride. Next the bride followed the groom. The wedding was over. For the rest of their lives, they would be together, without seeing each other beforehand. Needless to say, this sacred style of wedding was very different from a traditional Western wedding.

I asked one man what happens to them next, as they mysteriously disappeared. "They go to separate places and don't see each other until tomorrow," he said. I assumed that there wasn't a honeymoon to Hawaii.

The dancing continued until dawn with the women dancing and sitting separately from the men. When the women chanted together around the drummer, their emotions changed depending on the song, from sadness to happiness, seemingly sharing their feelings of marriage with the gods. The men danced more vigorously, with the drum beats quickened.

In the morning, Nico and I thanked everyone and returned to Bhuj, where we developed the wedding pictures to send back to Zura village.
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