This book is not about the earthquake that wrecked the region of Kutch in 2001. Nor is it an activist's investigation into what happened after the disaster. Kutchi history is fraught with unimaginable disasters. Earthquakes, droughts, famines, invasions by rats, locusts, giant black ants, floods, the plague, invasions by warlords and oppression under successive rulers. The recent earthquake was just another occurrence of disaster that the people have had to bear with.
Instead, this is the story of people living in a region that is perpetually in a state of flux and change, with patience, inventiveness, inclusiveness and a courageous openness to life. These are the people who we only see as population counts but never get to know as human beings. This is their story… alive with their memories, their disasters, their triumphs… and the timelessness of a mutating land. Written as a travel narrative, accompanied by photographs, the book eloquently captures the true-life stories of ship builders, mariners, potters, craftsmen and craftswomen, musicians, nomadic herdsmen and people from all walks of life. Myth, legend, popular history and everyday colour weave the past and present into a magical tapestry of Kutchi tradition.
This is a tribute to the resilient spirit of the people of Kutch, a spirit that has time and again risen from the ashes like the phoenix.
Randhir Khare's fiction, non-fiction and poetry have appeared in magazines and journals across the subcontinent, in several books and an audio recording. Over the years, his poetry has been presented at readings across the country, in Eastern Europe, and during lecture presentations on India, exhibition openings and arts festivals in Dublin and rural Ireland, adapted for national and international puppet theatre performances, used in creative and educational workshops in Ireland and England, set to music, used by the Victoria and Albert Museum for their exhibition 'Nehru and the Making of Modern India', and has inspired the works of painters, photographers, educationists and multimedia producers.
Volumes of his short fiction have received critical acclaim both, for their use of language, and their understanding and perception of the human predication. His powerful environment fable, The Last Jungle on Earth has been used in innumerable creative workshops in the country and has been included in a school's curriculum.
Randhir's non-fiction prose has been commended for its hard-hitting representation of the struggles of marginal and minority communities caught in the vortex of change. Among his books are Return To Mandhata, Notebook Of A Footsoldier, The Singing Bow: Song Poems of the Bhil and The Dangs: Journeys Into The Heartland.
He is the recipient of the Sanskriti Award For Creative Writing and Pegasus - The Gold Medal For Poetry given by the Union of Bulgarian Writers, among other awards.
Susan Bullough's photographs have appeared extensively in various publications and books, notably The Dangs: Journeys Into The Heartland and People Unlike Us. Her work has been exhibited at intercultural conferences in Portugal, The Netherlands, Scotland, England, Ireland and India. She was trained as an educationist in England and then moved to southern Ireland where she lived for more than twenty years. She has been traveling in India since January 1988. In addition to exchange programmes between schools in Ireland and India and professional development courses for teachers, Susan conducts creative workshops for young people and women. She has produced two education packs that include her photographs - one on the Banjaras and the other on Indian Jewellery.
Susan also works with Randhir Khare on documentation projects related to marginal and minority communities.
From the Author
This book is not about the earthquake that wrecked the region of Kutch in 2001. Nor is it an activist’s investigation into what happened after the disaster. Kutchi history is fraught with unimaginable disasters. Earthquakes, droughts, famines, invasions by rats, locusts, giants black ants, floods, the plague, invasions by warlords and oppression under successive rulers. The recent earthquake was just another occurrence of disaster that the people have had to bear with.
Instead, this is the story of people, living in a region that is perpetually in a state of flux and change, with patience, inventiveness, inclusiveness and a courageous openness to life. It is the story of craftsmen and craftswomen, musicians, farmers, shepherds, traders and all those we see as population counts but never get to know as human beings. This is their story.
The photographer Susan Bullough and I had begun our travels through Kutch long before the earthquake happened, not with a view to produce an idyllic coffee—table book but instead to tell the story of how Kutchis have lived through times of change, their memories, disasters, and triumphs. I don’t claim to be either a sociologist, anthropologist, historian or any such authority. I am a writer who journeyed A through Kutch, experiencing the people, the places, the memories and the timelessness of a mutating land and I have come back to you, dear reader, to share my experiences.
Throughout the narrative you will find dialogue in two types of English —— pidgin and the relatively straightforward variety. The former is when people were trying to speak in English and the latter a translation of what they said in either Hindi, Gujarati or Kutchi.
Although, most times Susan and I travelled together, I have not attempted to voice her feelings or speak on her behalf. Her photographs and introductory comments do that, extending the narrative to other dimensions.
If you do get to read this book, please don’t store it away on your shelf after you have finished the last page. Pass it to friends. Share it with others.
From the Photographer
When the idea first arose of visiting Kutch, many images and impressions flooded my mind. Now when I try to recollect the reality of the actual experience, I realize how different everything was compared to how I'd imagined them. My first thought was of desert —— the dramatic undulating vastness that I had experienced in Morocco and Rajasthan. The Rann of Kutch turned out to be quite different. The flat oppressive greyness went on and on, interspersed by occasional pink puddles of water the shape of a foetus, and an odd shack here and there with a small gathering of people way out in the middle of nowhere.
The other images that sprung to mind were those of the beautiful embroidery. Here I was not disappointed —— the elaborate styles and huge variety was overwhelming. I often became quite confused trying to remember who wears what. But for a photographer who particularly enjoys capturing portraits it was an absolute delight.
I had remembered previous travels, in other parts of the country seated comfortably in the back of an old Ambassador, protected from the elements, whilst gliding past interesting landscapes, villages and people. I had not foreseen the bumpy, dusty journeys in Kutch in old, beaten up, rattling, back- breaking buses and jeeps, or the endless hours of waiting.
Experiencing Kutch was a wonderful example of how we can never foresee what fate has in store for us or ever know what waits for us around the next corner. I could never in my wildest dreams have created the magic of wandering around the back streets and bylanes of a town like Khavda in the moonlight. I would never have imagined the wonder of listening to Musa Gulam Jat playing his 'magic flutes’. His music literally transported me to another dimension. Sitting listening to him lovingly playing his jodiya pawa, I felt as if all the music I had listened to and enjoyed in the past was shallow and out of context. Here I was experiencing the ‘real’ thing in the ‘real’ place. I was entranced but I also felt sad. I wanted all the people I knew and loved to have been able to share those magical moments.
I could have never imagined the awe I felt when walking along the dried up bed of Khali Nadi, surrounded at every turn by the intricately lavish patterns and shapes that nature had sculpted. Where, just to take me one step higher, I rounded a corner and found myself amid a huge herd of camels and looking into the beaming faces of their Rabari keepers.
Some of the most enlightened and enlightening people I remember, all initially appeared to be ‘ordinary simple' folk. But they demonstrated a joy and compassion for life and love for their families that one rarely witnesses today.
For many months after our return from Kutch, I had a photo of Saraben on the kitchen wall. Just thinking about her makes my heart swell with happiness and my eyes fill with tears. Saraben, the potter, the wife, the mother, the grandmother. On our first visit to their home, I remember having a wonderful time looking at all the pottery playing with the beautiful children and photographing the women’s jewellery. Not long before we were due to leave, an older woman arrived. Although she entered unobtrusively and went to sit by the back wall, it was obvious that everyone was delighted to see her. The children rushed over and clambered for her attention, the young women began to chatter and giggle and Ibrahim’s face broke into a fixed smile. Saraben carries with her an aura of love, which she manages to spread evenly between each member of her family and all their numerous friends. Even though our personal communication was through knowing smiles, brief tender touches and questioning sideways glances, I developed an affection for her. She is like the central symbol of harmony in a Mandala painting. From this centre everything radiates outwards.
There was an elderly Rabari woman I won’t forget; large, proud, dressed from head to toe in black with the distinctive jewellery of her community. I noticed her on a bus and when she alighted at the same crossroads as us and sat waiting in the middle of nowhere for another bus, she graciously allowed me to photograph her. When we finally reached our destination, she glanced back and gave me a smile that communicated more than words could ever have done in such a brief encounter.
I still experience a tingle of excitement when I recall sitting with a nomadic shepherd in a vast expanse of wilderness on the outskirts of a royal estate. Like a handsome, smiling mirage he appeared suddenly, as if out of nowhere. Surrounded by his bleating flock, we sipped hot tea that he had brewed with fresh milk from one of the sheep.
It is these small incidents I cherish and which have enriched my life experience. The landscape and history of Kutch is dramatic and inspiring, but it is the people who I met who left their footprints on my memory. Even though often I could not converse with people directly through speech, there was an almost telepathic communication with many individuals on a very human level.
After even a brief visit to a village home, I would come away with the feeling that some kind of a meaningful interaction had taken place between me and the children and women. Maybe the harsh realities of their everyday lives help the people of Kutch to rise above superficial communication. It never felt as if they were trying to impress me or pretend to be any-thing other than what they were — just themselves, generous, creative and affectionate. The days of sickness and exhaustion and the hours of discomfort and exasperation I experienced in Kutch kept my feet firmly on the ground and helped prevent me from romanticising. But the dramatic beauty of the people and their strength of character shone through the filth and squalor in most of the places we visited or passed through.
On many occasions, I had to overcome my own apprehensions and inhibitions and try to ignore the tiresome feeling of being so conspicuous. In one village, they dressed me up in the local costume and paraded me around. They were delighted by my embarrassment. At first it seemed just like innocent fun, but later I realised it was actually a very clever marketing strategy. It didn’t occur to those women that a white woman ‘might not be wealthy and able to buy lots of their merchandise. Looking back, I can surely say that the trials of filthy sheets, lack of water, mangy barking dogs, cursing beggars and suspect food were well and truly outweighed by the enchanting experiences. Like the one afternoon that I spent sitting beside the lake, accompanied by a delightful little boy, the son of a local dhobi, watching a vast flock of pelicans gliding in formation, backwards and forwards across the lake.
Or the visit to the Mota Jakh festival near the village of Saira. After depositing our shoes, we climbed, and climbed, up the steep white marble steps to the temple. Here horse statues of various sizes and clothed and adorned in different styles, were lined up all around and a mass of colourfully clad people gathered waiting for their turn to approach the pundit. There was an almost tangible feeling of camaraderie in the air. All the worshippers, the pundit receiving the offerings, even the policewomen keeping order, smiled at me. Several, also waved good-bye as they retraced their steps from the cool peaceful refuge to the clamour of the market below I sat in a corner observing everything, immersed in the moment but also storing away the experience so I could try and recapture it in the future.
Kutch was for me an experience that touched all my senses, and my heart. I will never forget the people and I will always treasure the memories.
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