Khatri Abdul Gafur is a busy man. Based in village Nirona of Kutch district in Gujarat, Gafur, otherwise known as "Gafur Bhai," is a master rogan artist with over 40 years of experience.
"This art requires extreme concentration, dedication, and patience," Gafur said while describing the challenges of being a rogan artist. The 57-year-old says that he and nine other family members have been practising the art for eight generations. "Many families in Gujarat practised rogan art in the past. In Nirona itself, four families were in this profession. But its orthodox requirements and low income made it difficult to pursue it as a full-time profession."
It is widely believed that rogan art originated in Persia before ending up in India. A method of cloth painting exclusively practised in the Kutch region of Gujarat, rogan art gets its name from castor, the main ingredient of the paint it requires.
"The fabric painting we do is created through a taxing process," Gafur explained. "The first step is to extract the oil from castor seeds by simmering them periodically for 12-14 hours, which goes on for two days. The heated castor oil is mixed with cold water, thickening it and turning it into a slimy substance, i.e., rogan."
Gafur added that after the rogan is made, it is blended with paints of different colours and water with the help of a pestle. Following this, a fabric, usually dark-coloured, is laid out. The artist takes some paint and starts winding it in his palm with "kalam" (a six-inch iron stick), giving it the required consistency. The heat from the palm eases the dense paint for the artist to create a thread. By moving the rod above the fabric, in the form of thin lines, the artist lays the paint on the cloth.
Death And Revival
In the 1980s, when machine-made textiles, which were cheaper, began circulating in the market, those who practised rogan art started finding it difficult to make ends meet. This led to them looking for jobs in other cities. Gafur was one of them.
"After having witnessed the financial struggles of my father and grandfather, I decided not to follow the profession. I went to Mumbai to work," he said. "But fate had other plans for me. I received a letter from my grandfather in 1984 asking me to come back since there wasn't anyone in the family to carry on our legacy."
After returning to Nirona, Gafur realised how important it was for him to ensure that rogan art didn't go extinct. For decades, he held on, sustaining the art and struggling with poverty.
"I would like to thank PM Narendra Modi, who helped me and many other artists continue their art when he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat. He even gifted a rogan art piece made by me depicting the tree of life to former US President Barack Obama in 2014," Gafur mentioned.
Covid And Tourism
"Since our main source of income is tourism, the pandemic affected our business pretty badly," says Gafur. "However, soon we started utilising online platforms to showcase our work to the world."
Gafur also reinvented himself during the pandemic and began painting different items like masks, accessories, and home decorations. His family is also working on improving their designs to stay relevant. "We hope to have a good business season, which usually starts in September and ends in March."
Nirona features several distinctive crafts like lacquerwork, bell-making, and rogan painting. One can find several designs on different clothes in the many small workshops around the village.
Nirona is accessible via Bhuj Airport, approximately 54 kilometres away. Alternatively, travellers can reach Bhuj Railway Station by train and continue their journey to Nirona by road.