Just 8 km from the city of Bhuj in Gujarat is a textile hub called Bhujodi, whose artisans weave a 500-year-old story into every product that comes off their looms. Each handspun shawl, each blanket and every ghagra and lungi woven here is a beauty crafted by the Vankars of Bhujodi.
The signature element of these Vankars (weavers) is how simple, usually geometric motifs are arranged aesthetically and then woven into the fabric using a special technique. The yarn, whether cotton or woollen, is dyed in rich shades of natural colours, providing an earthy look and feel. Sometimes, there’s a bit of magic too – the woollen weave does not only offer warmth in winter, it also keeps one cool in summer, when loosely woven.
It is said that the Vankars of Bhujodi in the Kutch region of Gujarat were originally the Marwada weavers of the Meghwal community in Rajasthan who migrated to Kutch more than 500 years ago. Their distinct weaving tradition in Bhujodi goes back to their connection with the Rabari tribe, who are pastoralists or shepherd communities believed to have travelled across the rugged mountains of Afghanistan and settled in Rajasthan about a thousand years ago.
Legend has it that a Rabari girl once married into a family in Kutch and she was gifted a weaver in dowry, to weave clothes for her whenever she needed. According to another tale, when the Hindu folk deity of Rajasthan, Ramdev Peer, came to the Narayan Sarovar in Kutch on a pilgrimage from Rajasthan, he was requested to bring his troop from Marwar, who were weavers, to take care of a temple made in his honour. This is believed to be the first weaver settlement in Kutch. Mythically, the Vankars are portrayed as being sent by Lord Shiva to tend to camels owned by Parvati.
The weavers of Bhujodi made handspun blankets and traditional wear like skirts (ghagra) and wedding dresses for the Rabari community, in exchange for handspun wool from their sheep and camels. Blankets were worn by the Rabaris, either over the shoulder or around the waist, over the lungi known as pachedi. Apart from wool, the Rabaris provided the Vankar families with milk products and grain in barter for their weaves.
Vankar Hitesh Dayalal, a Bhujodi weaver, has been practising his craft for almost 13 years. He carries forward a family legacy passed on through generations.
Talking about the weaving links of the community with the Rabari tribe, he says that traditionally, shawls made for the Rabaris were called ‘Dhabada’ in the local language. These were woven in two parts and sewn together. They would protect the wandering Rabaris in the cold winters. Later, shawls were made with a variety of motifs used in traditional bandhanis and weaving styles in Gujarat.
Earlier, the weavers of Bhujodi also made traditional headgear, a style of turban (paghadi) known as Dhotali. These were traditionally maroon and green, and later white. Weavers from other villages in Kutch wove these paghadis too, but those woven by the Bhujodi weavers were distinctive and the Rabari men wore them after marriage as a part of their traditional attire. The paghadi is sometimes still woven in the villages, but it is hard to achieve the accuracy and authenticity of the traditional pieces.
The Vankar community of Bhujodi was at its peak when cotton production was thriving in the 18th century CE. Later, the cotton and cloth trade was controlled by the colonial British, who levied high tariffs on Indian cloth and began exporting cheap mill-made yarn and cloth to India. The weavers of Kutch were badly impacted as this reduced the demand for handspun yarn and caused mass unemployment. The Khadi movement of the 1920s initiated by Mahatma Gandhi encouraged hand spinning and weaving of Khadi. Organisations like the Weavers Sammelan led by an eminent Gandhian, Ravishankar Mharaj brought more than 5000 weavers together. This improved the prospects of livelihood for the Vankar community economically and culturally, and by the 1970s, weavers in Kutch began getting recognition and were awarded for their work.
Today, the Vankars of Bhujodi have become entrepreneurs in their work, recognised internationally as well.
The Process of Bhujodi Weaving
Traditionally, Kutchi weaving was carried out on a panja or a vertical frame loom. Later, pit looms were used. Bhujodi weaving too is done on traditional pit looms in the weavers’ homes. A traditional charkha is used for spinning of the yarn. The weavers usually dye their yarn with natural dyes like indigo, alizarin and iron rust, in varying shades. The traditional colours seen in Bhujodi weaving are usually white, indigo, maroon, green and black, and shades of these colours, like grey and pink depending on the intensity of the natural dyes.
The wool yarn is made stronger by dyeing into a paste of wheat flour before it is transferred to the loom. Most of these processes before the warp is set up on the loom for weaving are carried out by women.
The process of Bhujodi weaving uses a special technique of extra-weft. It is a tedious process, where the motif is crafted by carefully picking up threads and adding extra weft by hand. The uniqueness of this technique is that the motifs woven are very explicit and they create a bold texture on the background-plain fabric, making it look like embroidery.
The base of a Bhujodi shawl or a saree is usually plain or with stripes or a chequered pattern with a range of colours seen on the extra-weft motifs. The weavers mostly source their wool from Ludhiana, while some local goat wool, camel wool and black-and-white sheep wool is still used. Silk is sourced from Bengaluru, acrylic from Ludhiana and cotton from West Bengal.
Bhujodi weaves boast a range of geometric motifs. Artisans tell us that these motifs are inspired by the architectural elements of the forts and other structures like the famous Rani ki Vav in Patan, Gujarat.
The patterns are distinctive and original to the Kutch style and formed by repeating specific motifs in various ways.
Popati: The simple motif of a triangle, known as Popati is most commonly used and has been repeated in various ways to develop complex motifs.
Chaumukh: Four triangles of the Popati motif joined together form the Chaumukh.
Panchko: Two opposite triangles joined in the middle create a motif known as Panchko.
Other motifs are Vakhiyo, Satkani, Macchhar, Lath, Hathi and Dholki, which are inspired by rural scenes. The Shree Bhujodi Cotton and Wool Handloom Cooperative Ltd, established on 25th March 1954, began supplying their trademark 'Bhujodi shawl' across India and then overseas, even receiving national and state awards. The Bhujodi weavers expanded their skills to make unique, one-of-a-kind weaves. As weavers started experimenting with motifs and designs in 1961, the weavers of Kutch began to mix local coarse wool with Merino wool introduced by the Rajasthan Khadi Board, which was importing Merino wool from Australia and New Zealand.
This introduced changes into weaving techniques and eventually the texture of the woven fabrics. Acrylic wool was introduced by the 1980s and products with Merino and acrylic blend, with a little cotton mixed in, were sold in the markets. By the early 2000s, Bhujodi village became famous among tourists and in retail markets.
Setback & Revival
In 2001, Kutch was devastated by a massive earthquake and weaving in Bhujodi and other places in Kutch was severely hit. Old bonds between landowners, sheep herders, weavers, dyers and the Rabari women were broken. As a result, the Shree Bhujodi Cotton and Wool Handloom Cooperative Ltd was shut.
Weaving was revived by 2005 by institutions like the Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya, a design institute that launched year-long courses for the artisans of Bhujodi. It coaxed young minds to come up with innovative interpretations in motifs, with symmetry and rhythm in the design language. Kala cotton was an indigenous, rain-fed variety of cotton initiated by Khamir, a registered Society and Public Trust established in 2005, who also contributed to the revival of hand-weaving in Kutch.
The Shree Bhujodi Cotton and Wool Handloom Cooperative Ltd was revived by the Bhujodi weavers and came back to life on 1st September 2016. Entrepreneurs in Bhujodi soon created demand for Bhujodi sarees and dupattas. As part of the rehabilitation effort, designers through various aid agencies and government organizations came up with woven stoles and scarves to attract the young generation.
After the earthquake, the central and state governments made extensive attempts to boost the crafts industry in Bhujodi. Exhibitions and fairs were arranged for weavers to participate and collaborate with prominent designers.
The old village of Bhujodi has as many as 200 weavers today. Carpets, shawls and stoles and even placemats are made in contemporary styles. Tussar silk and cotton are also used along with traditional wool.
Times are changing and, as the traditional vocabulary is being replaced with newer interpretations, Bhujodi’s weavers are called ‘designers’ today. Also, traditional patterns are fused with simplicity so that they find a place in modern wardrobes. Another step forward is expanding the product line to newer applications, from bedsheets, to cushion covers, to curtains. Contemporary designs are attracting international markets through exhibitions, fairs and design collaborations, although, ironically, they are struggling to maintain a foothold in local markets.
Today, it is platforms like Peepul Tree that are injecting new life into the craft of Bhujodi. Peepul Tree features lightweight stoles in a range of colours that come from artisan Vankar Hitesh Dayalal.
While Bhujodi weaving has struggled over the decades, it has evolved over time, from the trunks of the nomadic Rabaris to the wardrobes and homes of a hip and happening clientele.