I love taking detours into villages and on the way from Bhuj to The White Rann my driver is taking me to visit Nirona to see some very special craftwork: the very rare to the point of being endangered, Rogan work.
But first breakfast! We had left Bhuj early and now I was looking forward to some good village food. And I found it in the corner shop selling namkeen (savoury snacks) and samosas. I ordered masala chai kam chini (spiced teas with less suger) from a nearby chai stall and a samosa with chatney: both so delicious I repeated the orders. Without a doubt that was the best samosa I have ever tasted. Mostly they are filled with potato and peas, but these ones, freshly skimmed from the boiling oil, were filled with a savoury but slightly sweet minced vegetable, which I was informed on asking, was onion. I would not have guessed. So tasty, and thin crispy pastry! My mouth wanted more, but my stomach said no, so reluctantly I left the little shop, but not before capturing some great shots of my breakfast to remember the place by. The friendly owner and visitors were happy to be photographed too.
Fortified by the great breakfast, it was time to find the maker of Rogan. Following my driver through the narrow dusty lanes, with curious locals greeting us with smiles, and cows and dogs mooching along we eventually came to the residence of the Khatri family who make the Rogan work. Here, one family, headed by Gafoorbhai Khatri, keep the craft alive: this is the only place in the world it can be found.
Rogan craft began as a poor man’s alternative to embroidery to embellish clothing and household decorations. Over three hundred years old, the traditional Rogan flower motifs and designs speak of a Persian influence and the word Rogan itself means ‘oil-based’ in Persian.
It is an ingenious technique of painting on textiles using the most abundant raw material in the area: the castor oil plant. I had seen massive wild forests of the plant all around the area, and the practitioners of this technique make good use of it. First, oil is extracted from the plant. Then it is boiled for more than twelve hours and cast into cold water producing a thick residue called Rogan, which is then coloured with crushed minerals. The resulting gum is kept stored in earthen pots under water until time to use it.
To make an artwork, the artisan takes a small lump of Rogan and ‘warms’ it by working it with his metal stylus against the side of his hand, making it malleable. When it is the right consistency, the stylus is used to draw out a fine thread to create intricate freehand patterns directly onto the fabric without preliminary drawings. Half of the background image is drawn out in this manner, and before the resin hardens, the Rogan artist folds the fabric on itself and presses the halves together to create a perfect mirror image. Clever! Then the artwork is embellished with more and more detail in various colours until the work is finished. When all the colours have been applied, the artwork is placed in the sun for some hours to set, after which, the design is permanent and cannot be washed out.
Contemporary Rogan work is so fine and detailed and rare that it is now much more valuable than the embroidery it was invented to replace. When Prime Minister Modi made a state visit to America, it was a piece of Gafoorbhai’s Rogan work that he took as a gift for President Barak Obama. I purchased one of his pieces as well as one made by his grandfather in a more primitive design.
Whilst other Khatri families have lost the skills, Gafoorbhai has encouraged his entire family to learn and practice the endangered craft and is currently in the process of opening a school that teaches Rogan art to children from different families and from various castes and faiths. Marking a departure from the age-old tradition, women are also beginning to learn Rogan in what was traditionally the reserve of the men folk. Recently the Khatri family, with the support of an organisation, trained 60 women some of whom are now employed with the Khatris. In the hands of this family, it looks as though Rogan work will have a future.