Rann of Kutch, White desert, Kutch handicrafts

Rann of Kutch

When you step into the Rann, the first thing that strikes you is the expanse. The white desert that extends in each direction as far as the eye can see. Mirages, white sand, crystal salt and a little water on the surface is all that’s visible. No human, no animal, no life at all. It is a sort of catharsis, purging all the crowded thoughts. Suddenly, the mind’s lens refocuses into the most important thing in your life. In a short span of time, your mind is all cleared out and formatted.

Kutch, Rann of Kutch

Clothes worn by Kutch people

This land of whiteness is a backdrop to a million colours. The brightly dressed women gleam with their little mirrors all over. Kutch is a melting pot of various cultures. The blend of the local Gujarati culture with the adjacent land of Sindh is vivid in every aspect- food, language, cultural practices. I had a whirlwind tour of Kutch a couple of months ago. In an effort to cover the whole of the region in 4 days, we relentlessly travelled across the largest district in the country. Bhuj has a local airport with flights from Mumbai and Ahmedabad. Or you could take a night train/bus to Bhuj from Ahmedabad (about 7 hours away)

 Day 1: We landed in Bhuj at 7 am. Bhuj is a quiet little town that shoulders it’s responsibility of being the gateway to one of the best tourist attractions very well. A motley of new budget friendly hotels have sprung up all over the place to accommodate tourists with all kinds of pockets.

Bhujodi, durrie, woolen kutch shawls

Bhujodi durrie weaving

After breakfast, we headed out to the local Bhujodi, a local market with a host of shawl weavers. Make sure you pick up a warm shawl for the cold winter nights here. On the way to this place, make sure you check out Shrujan. This beautifully done up craft centre is the place of work for women embroiders from various communities of Kutch. These women interact with designers here creating masterpieces. Prices are certainly on the higher side, but owning such an impeccably crafted piece is definitely worth it. The plan was to head to Ajrakhpur next. But we had spent too much oogling at the beauty of these fabrics.

Hunnarshala, Vernacular architecture, craft based architecture

Hunnarshala, vernacular architecture

We headed to Hunnarshala, the mecca of eco-friendly and vernacular architecture research. Hunnarshala is a heavily guarded secret. One look at the place and you will desist coming back to your steel and glass home. You will crave for the practicality and earthiness of the vernacular architecture in your home. They are now training the local craftspeople/youth in carpentry and masonry techniques. So next time, you are looking to redo/built your home, please look them up.

The evening was spent strolling along the local market. We tasted some roadside samosas (hot pockets filled with potato/lentils and deep-fried), khakra and various pedas (milk-sweets). The market is also home to a variety of silver jewellers. But we were too exhausted to explore any further.

Stay tuned for more and do check out my co-traveller’s blog for an indepth exploration on Gujarati food all over the state.

 

 

My wooden chest was made using leftover plyboards. It was one of my first ‘recycle’ projects. Though the final output was quite flawed in terms of proportions, the chest has been invaluable in our household. We have a rule at home, ‘If you can’t something, then it is definitely inside the chest!’

This useful piece of furniture has now become centrepiece at home. It has moved from its place in the corner to the middle of our drawing room. All thanks to Laltu Chitrakar who decorated the chest with his beautiful art- Pattachitra from West Bengal.

Unlike it’s Orissa counterpart, the one in West Bengal is characterised by big motifs, distinct characters and cover a wider range of themes. A marriage of two fishes is an interesting theme that is depicted in these paintings.

Each painting is conceptualized as a song. So the painting’s story is sung by the painters. Radha Chitrakar is one of the last in her community to follow this trend. Her daughter and her son (Laltu) have learnt this art from their mother, but are unable to conceptualise the songs behind them.

Another reason to visit West Bengal, the land of the Sundarbans :)

 

How to order Athangudi Tiles?

  1. There are various designs. You can choose a design and colour of your choice. Click here for a catalog of designs.
  2. You can also custom make designs. In this case, you need to pay the cost of the mould.
  3. Once the order is placed, the tiles are produced. The tiles cannot be stocked for a long time as the ends are porous and discolouration is bound to occur at the corners.
  4. Only about 75 sq ft can be produced each day.
  5. The tiles are about an inch in thickness. Three size options are available- 6 by 6 inches, 8 by 8 inches and 10 by 10 inches.

How are Athangudi tiles laid?

  1. The laying process is different from the regular tile laying process. Masons from Karaikudi should be employed as they understand the process better.
  2. For a minimum of 600 sq ft, the local masons are willing to travel anywhere in India for the laying process. Depending on the quantum of work, one or two helpers need to be provided for the masons. Please note that the mason speaks only Tamizh. A better idea would be to source low cost labour from Karaikudi itself.
  3. Rice husk is used for polishing, which is also sourced from Karaikudi.
  4. About 100 sq ft can be laid in a day.  Post laying, 2-3 days are required for polishing. The polished tile reflects light like a mirror.

How are Athangudi Tiles maintained?

  1. The tile responds well to use. The more you walk on it, the shinier it gets. Non usage may dull the tile. Hence, it is not advisable to use as wall tiles.
  2. Regular cleaning should do. You can even wash the floors. Once a week, mop the floor with a mixture of water and 10-15 drops of coconut oil. It keeps the sheen intact.

What areas are best suited to Athangudi tiles?

  1. It is best suited to porches, verandahs and living rooms where traffic is quite high.
  2. Not advisable for kitchens and open to sunlight areas.
  3. For smaller size rooms, use smaller and less intricate designs. The more intricate ones look dramatic in larger areas.

 

Athangudi tile designs from Karaikudi

Athangudi tile designs from Karaikudi

It’s been 2 years since I set my eyes on Athangudi tiles. I saw it on a blog that I frequent and it was love at first sight. I’ve spent all these months planning for a trip to Karaikudi. I travel quite a bit, but this trip wasn’t just coming through. When I finally managed to get here, the trip was just perfect. Two really close people, one a friend with whom I’ve spent the dreamy years of college giggling, shopping and forging a friendship for the rest of our lives. The other one is an interesting story, I’ve hardly met him thrice in the ten odd years that I’ve known him and we get along very well.

In the coming weeks, I will write about all the wonderful sights and people we met in this packed four day trip. For now, let me start with my first love.

Athangudi tiles in Chettiar mansions

Athangudi tiles in Chettiar mansions

Athangudi is a relatively new craft. The region is dominated by Chettiars, a community of rich traders. The Chettairs built fabulous mansions with wooden pillars, Belgian and Japanese tiles, Italian marbles and imported stained glass. But over time, they realized that repairs were expensive due to the non availability of spares. So the inherently enterprising community set up an industry that made replicas of the imported tiles. The sand from Athangudi suited this procedure the best and this village became the hub of tile production.

Adding colours to Athangudi tiles

Adding colours to Athangudi tiles

(Photo courtesy: S. A. Girish) Made with white cement, sand and pigments, the tiles are entirely hand-made. Colors mixed with white cement are poured using a mould on a glass base. The glass helps in giving the tile a smooth, polished surface.

Athangudi tiles blue and red

Athangudi tiles blue and red

(Photo courtesy: S. A. Girish) The design is packed with cement on top and left to dry in the sun.

Athangudi tiles out to dry

Athangudi tiles out to dry

It is later cured in water for a couple of days and again dried in the sun.

The laying process involves the use of sand, cement, lime and the top is polished with rice husk.

There are about 60 designs, will try to put it up on Flickr with product codes. Here are some of them.

Athangudi tiles contemporary design

Athangudi tiles contemporary design

 

Athangudi tiles on a staircase

Athangudi tiles on a staircase

Viceroy's house at Kabini

Viceroy’s house at Kabini

On a recent trip to Kabini (wildlife sanctuary in Karnataka, near Mysore), I stayed at a Jungle resort. Spread over many acres, the resort has a heritage structure, ‘The Viceroy’s house’ now converted to a business centre. It even had a quaint bar!

So after a morning watching birds (we spotted a leopard the previous day!) and falling in love with the ‘Blue Jay’ (Karnataka’s State Bird!), I wanted to capture a little bit of heritage that still remained in this structure.

In the picture above, you can see the sliding roofs. Made with a local terracotta tiles, the slope enables the water to flow down after the rains and prevents the water build up on the roof.

Verandah

Verandah

Due to the intensive solar radiation(summers are very hot), most of the home is closed with very few windows to keep the heat out. The verandah offers a shaded open place to welcome the breezy evenings. This area also shelters the rest of the house from direct sunlight, keeping the interiors cool. Being the entrance, the verandah is partially covered with railings.

Grandfather chair

Grandfather chair

Such chairs are very common in the ancestral homes of Kerala. Ergonomic, very comfortable, and has long sliding handles that can be used to rest tired legs. Imagine watching the monsoons from the verandah, sitting on this ‘spoil yourself’ couch, reading a book and sipping some filter coffee! :)

Columns

Columns

The ornamental columns support the railings. They are present all along the entrance. The rear end of the house has very simple columns to support the sloping roof.

Railings and Red oxide Flooring

Railings and Red oxide Flooring

Flooring is red oxide, lending an ‘old world’ charm to the house. Very functional, it takes in the daily grind easily, without chipping or fading.

Rear end of the house

Rear end of the house

The Northern and Southern Verandahs(entrance to the home) are enclosed or semi closed, whereas the western and eastern Verandahs are left open. The photo shows the rear end of the house.

Entrance Porch

Entrance Porch

The Porch leads to the entrance of the building. In most Kerala homes, there is a brass vessel called ‘Kindy’ filled with water placed just at this point. This ensures the feet are clean before entering the house. It rains quite a lot in this region leading to a lot of muck and puddles, so the feet cleaning ritual is an essential and  traditional form of sanitation.

Skylights

Skylights

The height of the room is almost double the normal size, owing to the presence of double ceilings. Openings are made in between the first and second levels to provide natural light, without heating the room too much.

Ventilating slots on the Mangalore door

Ventilating slots on the Mangalore door

The doors have an opening on the top that can be opened depending on the weather conditions. Even if all the windows are shut, these openings enable ventilation.

Rooms exterior

Rooms exterior

The projecting caves here are rooms. These rooms do not have the double ceiling structures. To shield the room from the harsh sun, one side of the ceiling has a slope. These projecting structures house the many families that are part of the joint family system prevalent here.

The lack of Air Conditioning in those times seems to have been more than compensated with such intelligent building techniques. When I look at the high rise buildings and crammed apartments, I worry for our vernacular architecture that is all but lost today.

For more photos, please click here..

In February, I went on a road trip to Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. The shrubby deserts, interspersed with the yellow of the mustard fields is a beautiful sight for the city dweller. The gorgeous sunsets, the magnificient palaces and the rich food speak of a very distinct culture. The forts and palaces are bigger versions of ‘Havelis‘, the palace-type houses in Rajasthan. Made with sandstone abundantly available in this rocky terrain, their grandeur stands out against the the backdrop of blue skies. Jaisalmer is called the golden city with almost all buildings (both old and new) built with yellow sandstone.

Though ravaged by the many wars fought both internally and with outsiders, this state holds itself in all its splendor. Climatic conditions, traditional beliefs and external influences speak in all aspects of life here, including their architecture. Read on or rather watch on as I went trigger happy trying to capture this region’s history and life through its palaces and forts.

Rajasthani architecture is very different from the North Indian architecture and represents an almost ‘West Indian’ tradition. The features bear a huge resemblance to Gujarati architecture owing to proximity and similar climate .With both regions experiencing extreme weather conditions, with little or no rainfall, there was definitely a need to make homes that keeps you cool during the hot summer months and warm during the biting chill of winters. Though we cannot deny the Mughal influence with many Rajput princesses between married to Moguls and thus bringing some of their culture back home, there is a uniqueness to the way it is portrayed here.

Entrance for elephants at Mehrangarh fort

Entrance for elephants

The entrances to the forts and palaces are huge. My first guess was that it was associated with grandeur, the larger than life attitude displayed by kings. Later my guide told me that the entrance was meant to accommodate elephants during the many processions, both during royal ceremonies like marriage (polygamy was the norm for the kings) and equally frequent wars!

Jharokhas at Mehrangarh fort

Jharokhas

Jharokha’ is a very important feature in Rajasthani architecture. Considering purdah (not permitted for public viewing) was important for women in the royal household, this feature allowed them to witness outside events without being noticed by outsiders. They are typically balconies covered with a ‘Jaali’. In havelis, usually there is an entire section called ‘Zenana’ where women lived separately from the men.

Another functional feature of the Jharokha are the sloping eaves called ‘Chajjas’ that project out above the balconies. They protect the building from the heat (can be as high as 50 degrees Celsius in summer) and the slope of the eave helps in draining out the monsoon rain.

The exteriors of a Jharoka are intricately carved with sculptures of flowers and peacocks. The ostentatious carvings on the exteriors represent the culture’s need for ‘display of wealth’. In some smaller havelis, the ornate exteriors camouflage the cramped interiors. Historically, each community or region in Rajasthan has tried to outshine the other with displays of bravery, beauty and wealth.

jaali design

Jaali design

Covering the Jharokhas are the ‘Jaalis’. These are lattice screens intricately carved in either wood or stone and are prominent in most structures, even on balcony railings. Since an open window was not an option owing to security reasons, these screens formed the perfect alternative to windows. Most carvings on the Jaalis depict flowers and leaves.

Jaali shadow at Mehrangarh fort

Jaali shadow

Note the interesting shadows thrown by the ‘Jaalis’, further accentuating the beauty of the rooms.

Stained glass at Mehrangarh fort

Stained glass

The Maharajahs (kings) were patrons of art. There were frequent dance performances for entertainment. Dance halls were built are part of the fort/palace for this purpose and a lot of attention to detail was paid in making these rooms. Stained Glass was imported from Belgium for the windows. Imagine a beautiful dancer swaying away to the tunes of the palace musician. The windows can only add a dash of colour to this vibrancy.

Aalas for placing diyas (candles)

Aalas

.‘Aalas’ are small niches made in the wall for the placement of diyas (candles). Most of the dance performances were held after sunset. In order to light up the dance hall, diyas were lit inside these niches. The light from the diyas was reflected on the mirrored ceiling in the room. The room was often referred to as the ‘Moti Mahal’, the Pearl Room for the magical illumination that it created.

Courtyard at Mehrangarh fort

Courtyard

Courtyards called as ‘Aangan’ are common in the havelis, the one near the main entrance usually has a fountain in the middle. The number of courtyards in a haveli determine wealth of the owner. In most havelis, there are atleast 2 courtyards-one each for men and women. Women typically use the inner courtyard adjacent to the ‘Zenana’, their living quarters.

Chhatri at Mehrangarh fort

Chhatri

The ‘Chhatris’ are called so as they resemble umbrellas and are used to demarcate funeral sites. In some cases, they also act as a memorial for royalty. This feature was later copied in all future buildings. In recent structures, they are merely decorative and are not associated with memorials.

Balcony railings with ornate carvings

Balcony railings with ornate carvings

Every region is inspired by factors in their environment. Owing to the arid desert landscape, the region is devoid of flora. Most of the vegetation is shrubby, even the trees are bare. Hence the craftsmen here use a lot of flowers and leaves in their design. What they lack in nature, they compensate in their art. The block printers, dhurrie makers, Pichhwai painters, almost every craft here portrays this aspect.

Column detail, Lotus

Column detail, Lotus

Even structural requirements like columns are carved intricately. They are circular and even the most basic designs have a Lotus design at both ends. Traditionally Lotuses are associated with worship in Rajasthan. In fact, even the famed Pichhwais of Nathdwara in Rajasthan would be incomplete without the Lotus. A square structure similar to the Greek columns completes the design on the top.

Peacock detail

Peacock detail

Peacocks are a common sight in this part of India. The peacock showcasing its plume signals the onset of monsoon in this dry land. For a region with little or no rainfall, this is a welcome sign. Thus peacocks take prominent place in these sculptures. The state was constantly at war either for succession or community clashes or invasions. The numbers of forts in Rajasthan stand testimony to that. All forts are fortified with high walls, secret underground passages and cannons at strategic locations.

Stoneware

Stoneware

Since people no longer live in palaces, the craftsmen here have adapted to the needs of today. The golden yellow stone is sculpted into everyday items like glasses, tea light holders and soap cases. While some homes still accommodate the Jharokhas as part of the design, most others incorporate a few features like ornate Jaalis and columns to add a touch of royal living in their homes. Each of these pieces are hand crafted masterpieces, made by craftsmen who have been making them for generations. Luckily for them, there is still a demand for this craft.

The most fascinating feature of Rajasthan is that inspite of all the wars and turmoil, the art, craft and culture in this region has lived on. Rajasthan has stood the test of time.

P.S: Click Here for more photos.