The Hero’s Journey – from Kuran to Kukma
I was thrilled to get the news that Kharad rug weaver Tesji Dhana Marwada had, at long last, received a National Award for his work. Recognition of this kind has been long in coming to this humble artisan who, when faced with disaster, began a journey of recovery that in itself is worthy of a National Award!
I first met Tejsi soon after the earthquake of 2001 when Kachchh was shaken to its foundations and he had relocated his family from his devastated village to relative safety. His birth place of Kuran lies in the lee of Kalo Dungar (the Black Hills); it faces the vast expense of the great white Rann of Kachchh and is the last village before the border with Pakistan. Kuran was close to the epicentre and bore the brunt of the earthquake; the village crumbled and Tejsi’s home became part of the rubble. Distraught yet undeterred, Tejsi set off on foot in search of ‘new pastures’. He told me that after 40 days of searching he eventually found a place on a hillside not too far from his current home. This is where I met up with him and it is this story of survival that he depicted in his graphic piece ‘From Kuran to Kukma’ for the Resurgence exhibition (Manly Art Gallery & Museum 2003). During the weeks following the disaster I traveled far and wide with Tejsi and learned far more about life than I did about weaving.
However, along with many other remote villagers who had fled to the safety of the outskirts of Bhuj, Tejsi’s days on his chosen hillside were numbered. The Collector (district magistrate) would allow no squatters and, ‘Besides,’ he said to me during a meeting with him ‘who will watch the border if all the Hindus have left?’ Tejsi was one of the luckier survivors. With the help of an international NGO who donated a house and that of Sydney photographer, Jenny Templin, who raised money towards the cost of land for a workshop, his future seemed secure. He had a house, a thatched workshop and intention to work but that which followed was not so simple!
Over the intervening years since we first met I have seen this talented weaver falter on the brink of poverty on more than one occasion. There were times when he threatened to leave his craft and work in a local factory to earn the 300 rupees a day needed to keep his family alive (barely). There were times when his son wanted to leave for the same reasons yet the pull of the loom proved to be a much stronger force and despite setbacks, Tejsi and Samat persevered with their craft. But market forces shape an artisan’s destiny far more than talent or skill or heritage and Tejsi was a newcomer to the world of commerce. The earthquake had broken many old trading relationships, the influx of development impacted on the local market and, in short, Kharad rugs were no longer a marketable item.
By this time Tejsi had gathered a few supporters who saw him through the leaner times and those of you who have traveled to Kutch with me and have spent time with this family have been a large part of that support. I commissioned a number of narrative rugs and held the exhibition Zindagi Jo Vanat - Weave of Life at Bondi Pavilion in 2012. English designer Lindsay Taylor, now based in Sri Lanka, worked on designs with him as did the design company Rajka in Ahmedabad. But in the end it is not so easy to sell this kind of work. In the realm of Indian rugs, they are rustic, sturdy and graphically simple. The likes of Ikea and Freedom are stiff competition and Kharad is not for high end rug dealers. I did what I could for a few years and was unable to continue my marketing support in a way that was sustainable for both of us.
Yet over the past three years something has shifted and when I saw Tejsi with my tour group in April he had built another weaving shed and another was under construction. No longer made of straw and tin that the breeze flew through and where birds nested, the new one is strongly built of cement blocks with a sturdy roof and concrete floor. An electric fan sits waiting for hot days. Several ‘apprentices’ were being put through their paces and his son Hiral, now 17, has joined the ranks. There was a newer model car that I was allowed to test drive albeit accompanied by much hilarity (no comprehension that I have been driving for more than 40 years) and a certain level of affluence or, perhaps confidence, was apparent. Former staff from the NGO Khamir have set up businesses of their own and Harsh Dave is now marketing Samat’s work. Caroline Poiner of Cloth and Co, Sydney, is also selling Kharad rugs and with the National Award under his belt the future for Tejsi and his brood looks brighter than ever.
The old adage of ‘if the mountain does not come to the master, then the master must go to the mountain’ has been proven to be true in Teji’s case and to the point where the mountain has now come to him. He is indeed a hero – he has saved the day for his family and along the way has saved a traditional craft from extinction. I am honoured to be a small part of the journey of Tejsi Dhana Marwada and I have to say that transversing traditional terrain in adventures of the heart is hard to beat.
You can read all about the art of Kharad weaving in the catalogue The Weave of Life found on the project page of Desert Traditions website. I have some of the exhibition rugs still available for sale from this collection. They deserve to become part of a home (or business) that appreciates tradition and the ingenuity of the human heart, hand and head - please contact me for further details.