Observations on Craft: Thoughts on the Vanishing Ghaghra

Sunny and Meeta are a couple working towards providing rural communities with the means of a sustained livelihood. Sunny has worked with NGO's and projects involved in afforestation, drought relief, craft development and community participation in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. He worked for a year in Haryana coordinating a rural centre for organic farming, informal learning, raising women awareness while editing and writing booklets and magazines which tried to evolve practical programmes stemming from ecological indigenous visions.

Before striking out with her partner Sunny, Meeta worked with Dastkar for 4 years organising crafts groups and establishing Crafts Bazaars in different cities. For the past 12 years Sunny and Meeta have been developing ranges of natural dyes and block prints on tussar, cotton, silk, jute with an artisan family in Rajasthan. Simultaneously they have been working with artisan families making artificial jewelry out of threads and with lacquer workers. They consult for craft agencies and groups and develop craft merchandising avenues.

Thoughts on the vanishing Ghaghra

All the women of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan wore the ghaghra till the early 20th century. The farming castes and nomadic tribes of Rajasthan continue to wear them today. Made from 24" wide triangles of khadi fabric, ghaghras were famous for the number of triangles orkalis (folds). A husband's love for his wife was measured by the number of kalis in a woman's ghaghra. The entire outfit comprised the ghaghra, choli (blouse) and the lugdi (dupatta).

There was a whole sociology of colour and prints which functioned within an implicit understanding that fabrics too can be a language identifying a persons, community, caste, occupation and marital and religious status. Certain castes like the Jats wore indigo or "darker" colours while Rajputs wore sunhera (bright) colours like oranges and yellows. Sunhera colours were less, pucca (fast) as upper caste could get the Rangrez (dyer) to keep freshly re-dyeing their ghaghras with fresh flower smells of "tesu". This re-dyeing was a status symbol, the farmer castes wore blue as that was fast color and men usually bought their women one ghaghra per year. There used to be a saafa or head scarf of long yardages which men wore as turban. The most exotic was Maliagiri in whose dyeing more than twenty ingredients were used including attar or naturally condensed perfumes. We tried to recreate the maliagiri and still have a small sample that holds perfume even after 10 years. The old neelgar who did it is no more so the secret died with him and the knowledge now extinct.

As with most systems of traditional knowledge the tasks are divided amongst communities, the Rangrez are the dyers (though there is a separate lower caste which dyes indigo called Neelgars) and the Chippas hand-block print the fabric in central Rajasthan in the region around Jaipur. There is no strict division between labour and religious leaning though the caste and its corresponding occupation is very strict. For instance the printers in Balotra are Muslim Chippas, in Barmer Hindu Khatris, in Kutch they are Muslim Khatris who are famous for their "bandhej" (tie dye) and in Western Madhya Pradesh they are Muslim Khatri engaged in Chippa work. So the complex interaction between Muslims and Hindus produced the ghaghras worn even by tribal Bhils of Udaipur till this day.

The Chippas used to print the fabric for the ghaghras for the tribals and nomads but their markets have slowly vanished. Why? One of the main reasons was the adoption by the Bengali and UP upper caste women of the Sari which became identified with Mother India and was adopted as the national dress. It was more becoming of the resurgent Indian identity than the sashaying ghaghra of various lengths, the "banjara" nomad women wearing knee length to much lower lengths worn by women of the upper caste. Slowly the Ahmedabad mills copied the prints on wide 45" fabrics and then unto saris, soon upper caste women stopped wearing ghaghras. The Jat and Ahir women still wear them as they are much easier to do manual and farm work in and one does not need a separate petticoat. Till today you see women in rural Rajasthan roaming in petticoats as faux-ghaghras with a dupatta as their ghaghra wearing days are still fresh in their memories.

Jasleen Dhamija told us that in the 1950's when they went to find saris, no one printed them. The Chippas used low small tables and printed while sitting on the ground. For saris you needed a 4 feet broad table and high so you could print it standing, and also 6 meter long to lay a sari on it. The printers we work with say such tables became popular in the 70's with the hippie rush for exports. Ravi Shankar and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi along with Beatles made Sanganer, 35 kms from Jaipur, a popular destination.The small print bootis (floral motif) of ghaghras became the sari prints on the body and the big blocks of the "lugdis" became part of "Pallu" designs.

So the Ghaghra was vanquished by the monopolization of the Sari as the preferred civilized garment. This is a story culled from conversations and probably would need lots of ground level research to be documented with facts of how such cultural and fashion transitions take place. We need a lot of work to understand the dynamism of tradition and the long tradition of innovation in our craft sector.

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