An Invisible Craft: Rafoogari of Najibabad

An Invisible Craft: Rafoogari of Najibabad


The tradition of the Kani shawl journeyed to India from central Asia along with the Mughals and was influenced by local cultural mores, pushing the technique to its creative limit. By the end of the 19th century though this thriving shawl industry had gradually declined. Attempts at revival have been made but the socio-cultural conditions that had made such production possible have changed. Normal production of such exquisite pieces of such high quality is not possible anymore.

The continuing tradition of darning itself becomes extremely significant in this context. The Rafoogars (darners) with their special darning skills have been responsible in keeping these exquisite pieces alive, in circulation and ensured their continued use through an interesting transformation of the product and the market.

At a Symposium on Indian Textile Traditions at the Textile Museum, Washington DC recently, I came across this sign at the entrance to the exhibition:

“A Garden of Shawls: The Buta and its seeds
Welcome to the Textile Museum
We ask you not to touch the textiles on display. It is a privilege to view them outside the confines of cases and Plexiglas, a privilege we ask you to respect. Textile fibers are highly sensitive to damaging deposits of oil and dirt found on our hands. In addition, over exposure to light, heat and humidity is detrimental. As a result our galleries are cool and light levels are low. Please understand the needs of the textiles. Enjoy your visit and help us to preserve these important works of art for generations to come. Thank you.”

 

In a flash, it brought back childhood memories of summer vacations in my grandfather’s ancestral house in Najibabad in Western Uttar Pradesh where it was a pleasure and great privilege to view, handle, touch, feel and smell these antique Kani shawls and robes brought by the Rafoogars, well known to repair and restore especially these shawls. They are also known as Shawlwale or the shawl people being in the shawl trade for many generations. Najibabad is home of several darners and hub for Kani shawl repair. Repair of these precious shawls is carried out throughout the year. The darners sit on the floors in their verandahs or in the open courtyard for sufficient daylight even in hot summer months, spread the shawls on the ground for inspection and then mend them according to the need. These pieces pass through several hands/over their knees in this intricate process of darning and restoration, before it is returned to its owner or sold to a new patron.

Having spent long years of childhood there, old Kani shawls and robes were very much part of our life and held center stage amidst other crafts/ textiles from various regions of the country. The yearly ritual of airing our warm woolens after monsoon had always been a thrilling experience for us as children. Every winter we saw these exquisite shawls being pulled out of the storage with other warm clothes. They had a special storage place. Any faulty or careless storage was out of question lest mites and bugs caused damage to these priceless items, otherwise one had to inspect any destruction they had caused. However the sheer impact of age too often makes textiles fragile. Being worn and used they would inevitably require mending. No one missed a heart beat though because the shawl repairmen was a call away.

When the Rafoogars visited our homes to repair the shawls they also brought along old shawls carefully wrapped in fine cottons, acquired cheap as rejects unfit for further use from earlier owners. With their skill and ability to mend and restore these priceless, tattered, discarded rags, the Rafoogars would restore, transform and renew these pieces for further sale to new patrons and collectors with expensive tastes.

It was so natural then, as it is even now, to experience and admire the beauty and refined workmanship of these unique textiles Even if one could not afford to buy a shawl it was always a treat going through the bundle, mesmerized by their beauty, the intricacy and complexity of weaves and design, and of course the fine skills of the Rafoogars in repairing them. For us as children, these shawls were wonderful treasures and the men were like magicians showing one fine piece after another.

Some of them never seemed to mind or feel offended if the pieces were not always bought but liked the involvement and respected ones love, interest, and appreciation for these pieces and were happy to share with us.

This interaction of generations continues to date.

One always appreciated the skills of the Rafoogars whose repair of the shawls was almost invisible to the naked eye. But along with the invisible repair, they too have remained invisible to the world at large. Possibly, ’sheer invisibility’ being the hallmark of good darning!

 

One wonders how shawls made in Kashmir reached these darners in Najibabad. Are they related to the Kashmiri darners or descendents of the seamsters or embroiderers of Kashmir who played a significant role during the original production of these shawls or their role shifted once such production stopped? Or did they master the special needlework skills of darning much later when the shawls needed maintenance, repair and renewal. We have yet to find answers to establish these links with Kashmir but the fact is that few families settled in Najibabad about 250 years ago during the reign of Najibuddaulah, a Rohilla chief from Afghanistan in mid 18th century.

Foster (1793) gives us interesting details as regards the situation of Najibabad and the climate of the surrounding country. “Najibuddaulah, who built this town, saw that its situation would facilitate the commerce of Kashmir, which having been diverted from its former channel of Lahore and Delhi, by the inroads of Sicques, Maharattas and Afghans, took course through the mountains at the head of the Punjab, and was introduced into the Rohilla (country) through the Lall Dong Pass. This inducement, with the desire of establishing a mart for the Hindoos of the adjacent mountains, probably influenced the choice of this spot, which otherwise is not favourable for the site of a capital town, being low and surrounded by swampy grounds…. since the death of its founder, Najibabad had fallen from its former importance and seems now to be chiefly upheld by the languishing trade of Kashmir.”

Thus, being on the trade route from Kashmir to Bengal, some Rafoogars, also in the shawl trade, migrated from Kashmir via Punjab and settled in Najibabad. One of the darners possesses a family record of nine generations, helping trace their ancestry to Timris Kala, Tabab-e-Bukhara who arrived in Najibabad via Ropar. Other families shifted here from the neighboring villages of Bijnor. An old haveli called Rafoogaran (home for rafoogars) still exists in Najibabad.

An entirely male occupation, most of the darners are Sunni Muslims, who settled in Rampura and Mohalla Dharamdas. Gradually, they spread to other areas of the town and migrated to other neighboring villages like Jalalabad, Kaleri, Alipura, Mandawar, Akbarabad and bigger towns/cities like Dehradun, Mussourie, Saharanpur, Meerut, Jodhpur, Lucknow, Benaras and Delhi in search of darning work.

These darners were earlier engaged in stitching cotton selvedges (kanni) on rafal and Pashmina woolen shawls manufactured in Amritsar. This led them to travel from one place to another to sell these new shawls or to repair old Pashminas, (especially Kani shawls) to eventually be involved in the Kani shawl trade. Some migrated to Pakistan during the partition in 1947 where they still work as darners in Karachi and Lahore. Today they are also employed by museums, shawl traders or work in dry-cleaning shops. The onset of winter means renewed business for the darners when they travel to towns and cities, meeting old clients and making new ones. Some visit the hill resorts in the summer but the rest of the year they are back home busily mending and assembling fragments of tattered shawls or even procure shawls from princely states or families who cannot afford to maintain them any longer. Many of the younger members in their families now opt for other professions, and therefore men from other communities have learnt the darning skill to meet the present needs in textile restoration.

The darners have been the conduits of time. Their special skills have been part of our living tradition. The practice of our Indian ways of ‘use, mend and re-use’ has kept their darning skills alive and are a key factor in rescuing a number of priceless pieces textiles from further destructions or till they are well preserved in the controlled environment of any museum While the shawls of Kashmir have been elaborately and well researched, their unique weaving and fine needlework celebrated, an important role and major contribution of Rafoogars in the maintenance of these priceless shawls by highly intricate and laborious work of restoration and renewal of these pieces, practiced for generations has yet to be recognized.

Though there is an urgent need to understand the complexity of their skill and practice. The continuous demand in the market has been responsible for the cutting and destroying of many of these magnificent original Long shawls and Rumals to create smaller shawls, stoles and scarves catering to the present clientele who prefer it for the size and price. With every generation, tradition evolves in order to survive. It is a challenge to preserve and continue with our inherited skills and knowledge of the past. The circulation and recycling of these shawls makes one realize their contribution in the survival of what remains of the Kani shawls today. There is a value addition to these restored priceless textiles, giving a new life to these textiles of the Past.

Perhaps we need to recognize darning as an independent practice and the contribution of these darners in preservation and continuation of their inherited skills, creativity and knowledge in the survival of what remain of the Kani shawls today.


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