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The Cultured Traveler – A column exploring the many miles of what South Asia has to offer.
Imagine a mirror image without any mirror. The artwork is pure imagination on cloth. The artist creates the painting without any tracing, drawing, or brush, using only heated oil and vegetable colors and a metal square or pointer tool to execute his craft.
Rogan art is so unique and unusual that Indian PM Narendra Modi gave then-US President Barack Obama a Tree of Life Rogan painting during his visit to the US in September 2014. The artwork was created by national award winner Abdul Gafur Khatri.
When I visited Nirona Village in the Kutch region of Gujarat, I met the Khatri family who has kept the art of Rogan alive for eight generations. After the pandemic hit, only Abdul Gafur Khatri and members of his family continue to practice the craft of Rogan art cloth painting.
Traditionally Rogan art was designed for bridal wear and wedding fabrics but now is used to embellish everything from skirts to wall hangings and file holders. At Gafur Bhai’s home, creativity was on display everywhere in the room. Beautiful original designs in natural colors, created without pencil sketches or a brush adorn different fabrics — only a sharp eye can tell the difference between Rogan art and what appears to be fabric printing.
Creating Colors from Castor Oil
Rogan art originated in Persia and came to Kutch some 300 years ago. In Persian the word Rogan means Varnish or ‘Oil.’ The technique for preparing colors for the craft follows a fascinating process where oil from castor seeds ( a plant found in abundance in Kutch) is mixed with natural colors. Castor seeds are hand-pounded then boiled to form a paste. The extract is then mixed with natural, mineral-based powders, which have been stored in earthen pots of water to prevent them from drying out.
Eventually, the castor paste is used to prepare a thick, bright-hued paint-like substance.
Only five colors are created – yellow, red, blue, green, black, and orange – and mixed with each other to create different colors. Preparing the base from castor seed oil is a complex process that usually takes two to three days.
Painting in Threads
Before the paint is applied to the cloth, it’s twisted into a fine thread. First, the artist places a little portion of the thick paint paste into his palm and mixes it vigorously with a metal stylus or ‘Kalam.’ held in his other hand, till the Rogan paste stretches and twists into fine threadlike filaments. Then the artist uses a six-inch-long Kalam, flat at both ends, to paint freehand, half an original design onto fabric, using paint strands trailing from the stylus. The metal tool never touches the cloth. Next, the cloth is folded in half and pressed together to create a mirror image. Finer detailed work is added later – it may look like embroidery, but all of the art is done with paint!
I was amazed to see the way the artist twisted the paint across the cloth into motifs and patterns. What is remarkable is that once the design is complete and pressed upon another plain fabric for about five minutes, the sticky paint easily transfers to the new material to create a mirror imprint.
Rogan work takes up to 10 days to a month to complete and a year to add more detail.
Creating Freehand Motifs and Complex Patterns
“Initially, natural motifs and patterns, drawn from the history and folk culture of the Kutch region were used. The traditional Rogan flower motifs and designs speak of a Persian influence. Mainly geometric flowers, peacocks, the tree of life, etc,” explained Abdul Gafur Khatri. “But with the time and its demand in other countries, art has developed and turned out to be more attractive, with complex patterns and intricate motifs.
Phool (flower), Trikhani (three dots), Vesur (wavy borders) and Jhad (trees) are among the oldest motifs used. Contemporary patterns include circular designs and architectural elements. The wall hangings I viewed depict moments from daily village life. Apart from wall hangings, ghaghra-cholis, bridal trousseaus, today cushion covers, bedspreads, skirts, kurtas, curtains, tablecloths, quilt covers, sarees, stoles, and other utility items such as sling and shopping bags, mobile covers, and even file folders are created using this technique.
“The craft has become more stylized and now is almost a high art. It’s the colors and freehand motifs that make it most appealing,” added Khatri. “The designs are not planned. They just flow from within us and that is why no one is able to replicate Rogan art.”
Suman Bajpai is a freelance writer, journalist, editor, translator, traveler, and storyteller based in Delhi. She has written more than 12 books on different subjects and translated around 150 books from English to Hindi.