The nomadic Rabaris of Kutch have produced some of the most spectacular embroidery of the Indian sub-continent. Inspection reveals a distinctive and coherent visual vocabulary expressed with great skill. It is a marker of their identity and plays such an important role in their traditional way of life that it has now seen as a barrier to change and is subject to a ban, which is rigorously enforced.
A glimpse of the dramatic attire of the Rabari, predominantly black wool for the women and white cotton for the men, impacts on the eye in sharp contrast to the dun-coloured landscape of the village or the kaleidoscopic hues of the bazaar. Closer inspection reveals a distinctive and coherent visual vocabulary expressed in supremely skilful embroidery.
However, in the last year, a radical piece of self-legislation has been introduced by the samaj, or community council of two of the three sub-groups in Kutch. A wholesale ban on the use of embroidery has been decreed by the Dhebaria and Vagaria samaj and an accompanying severe reduction in the amount of ornamentation to be worn. Only the Kachhi Rabaris remain aloof from the new austerity.
While the rules of the Rabari community are not recognised by the Indian legal system and are, therefore, not enforceable under national jurisdiction, they are rigorously implemented and fastidiously observed. A comprehensive system of penalties has been drawn up and transgression of the new codes of dress, for example, in both Dhebaria and Vagaria communities, incurs a fine of 5000 rupees (approximately GB£100) for a single offence.
Within days of the samaj’s edict last year, the women had stripped themselves of their jewellery and all the embroideries were stored away. No dissent was voiced and observance was total.
Reasons for change
What has prompted such drastic action? Two things: the need to modernise and, more importantly, the need to speed-up the whole procedure of marriage.
The idea of ‘modernising’ is generally expressed by the men rather than the women. They have greater exposure to the urban and metropolitan areas and are more conscious of the way others perceive them: anachronistic, quaint, tribal. Officially, they are classified as Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEBCs). The desire to shed the more obvious markers of membership of a so-called backward community when in regular contact with groups of higher estate is understandable. Driven by the stigma of low status in class and caste conscious India, most of the men shed ‘traditional’ or ‘ethnic’ dress in favour of shirts and slacks. In broader terms, ‘modernisation’ is signified by the acquisition of consumer goods – a TV, a Hero Honda motorbike, a ghettoblaster, or the construction of a larger house. Modernisation and provision of community amenities such as education (for females as well as males); primary health care and an easily accessible, potable water supply are thought of by few and remain neglected.
Marriage cements the fabric of caste, community and society at large. Life without marriage is no life at all, unless it is part of religious devotion, and the unmarried are looked upon with pity. For the Rabari women certainly, preparation for it has been a feature of their daily labours. So comprehensive were a woman’s dowry requirements, after all they were supposed to meet her needs for life, that a woman could still be embroidering well into her 30s and full residence in her husband’s village might not be taken up until all was complete.
In tandem with the burden of dowry for the women, the requirements of the bride price had become impossibly onerous for the men. Bride price was usually paid in instalments as a combination of cash and jewellery over a number of years. However, the total cost of a Dhebaria or Vagaria bride (the case is different for the Kachhis) escalated in the last few years to between 1 and 2 lakh rupees (approximately GB£2000 – 4000), an astronomical amount for a pastoral migrant. Consequently, marriage arrangements were protracted in the extreme placed ridiculous demands upon the parties involved and sometimes did not unite the couple until their mid to late 30s, when a woman’s fertility starts to decline.
Thus, marriage rather than acting as a cohesive system within the community was contributing to the causes of its decline. Unsurprisingly, the answer seemed to lie in dismantling the offending elements of both dowry and bride price. However, what is surprising is the uncompromisingly radical policy adopted to achieve this and the swiftness of its implementation. Where a gradual reduction of the amounts of embroidered goods and ornaments might have been anticipated – such is the enduring pride of the female community in these tokens of membership – there has been no such moderation and minimalism now prevails where formerly densely embroidered narratives flourished.
Heritage for sale
A few months on from the initial implementation in numerous villages the accumulated dowry of several generations is being put up for sale.
There has been a trade in Gujarati and Rajasthani folk embroideries for two to three decades, now spurred-on by the rise in tourism. The sale of dowry items has become a source of income for members of most of the rural groups, either by selling directly to visitors or, as is more often the case, by selling to middlemen and dealers. As a source of income, the money realised is generally meagre, sporadic and finite. These textiles and embroideries were not made as commodities for trade. At the most utilitarian level they served as the domestic and personal items required by a woman and her family either at home in the village or, as with Rabaris, for use with the dang (the migratory group). In fact, dowry items rarely were simply utilitarian and were a great showcase for the Rabaris’ characteristic aesthetic, Stitched embellishment on clothing and household items became a marker of group identity, marital status, function (of the item itself and also a testament to the skill of the maker.
Until lately, in the Rabari community, embroidered-clothing played an integral role in the twin systems of dowry and bride price. Blouses, veil cloths, quilts and bags in particular were important inclusions in the series of gift exchanges enacted as part of the whole system of betrothal and marriage. Alongside utility and their function in nuptial arrangements, the embroideries give evocative accounts of Rabari life. Stitched details reveal aspects of daily existence: stylised women carrying water pots, ranks of flowers, parrots and peacocks compete for space with camels. The primary activity of fetching water for desert people and the flora and fauna encountered by the nomad are described stitch by stitch. The religious and symbolic are recorded and the celestial and the mundane jostle together in a single piece. A small repeated triangle is a thorn, a larger triangle a temple; flowers and a temple combine to-form a semi-abstract elephant design. The exuberant whole gives expression to a profound and devout Hinduism.
Adapting to survive?
The Rabaris came to Gujarat from Rajasthan where they were originally camel-herders serving the Rajput courts. The demand for camels declined and, adapting to survive, the Rabaris became primarily herders of sheep, goats or cattle.
The pattern of pastoral nomadism is changing yet again, eroded if not yet eradicated by the rapid urbanisation of modern India. The Rabaris have had to respond to these changes. While many are still pastoralists, there is widespread sedentarisation of all sub-groups. The Kachhis, who inhabit the central and western parts of Kutch, are now heavily involved in farming. The Dhebaria and Vagaria in the east and north-east of the district have retained a certain aloofness from farming, but are becoming involved in sedentary occupations such as agricultural labour, working in the salt industry, and trucking.
The impact of these experiences upon their lives is profound and assails the integrity of their traditions as no earlier upheavals have. The shedding of obvious markers of group membership, such as embroidery and ornamentation, is an expression of this far-reaching change. With the public declaration of ‘Rabariness’ gone, a significant surrender of ethnic identity is announced. For the scholar and textile enthusiast, research has lately been transformed from the documentation of a vibrant tradition to writing the epitaph for an abandoned aesthetic.
J. Frater. ‘Threads of Identity: Embroidery and Adornment of the Nomadic Rabaris.’ Mapin Publishing, Ahmedabad, 1995.