Mysterious incongruent spheres of vibrant natural colors mixed with castor oil adorn the small bowls within a larger bowl. Sumar, a soft-spoken craftsman of remarkable humility, takes a rod resembling an oversized blunt needle and dips it into the yellow pod. What follows are a series of enchanting maneuvers instrinic to Rogan art. Nimbly, he twirl-wraps the color around one end of the rod. Against the base palm of his right hand, as if it was an easel, he mixes the color to achieve a perfect consistency. Sumar then gently stretches out a vibrant yellow strand from his "easel" with the rod, creating that perfect fine "thread" to transform it into an exquisite flower.
The following video
documents the process behind
ancient and rare Rogan Art.
The technique is demonstrated
by a member of the last remaining family
in a small village in India
that is protecting this rare artform
The ancient and rare craft of Rogan art comes from Persia. Rogan in Persian means "oil-based". The motifs used in Rogan art, such as geometric flowers, peacocks, and the tree of life, evoke a once-sublime culture and its understanding of beauty.
Air weaving: Our common understanding of weaving involves a needle and color thread that pierce through fabric to generate imagery. Rogan defies this logic: the rod "pre-manipulates" the strand of color in the air to create intended motifs before it hits the fabric; the fingers under the fabric help shape the final form into the fabric. In this sense, there is a dialogue between the two hands.
It is only when one witnesses the time, agility, and the utmost control required to draw a simple flower, that one begins to understand the virtuosity behind highly intricate pieces such as the tree of life. It is a calling for those with Buddha's patience, willing to embark on the long road of practice to perfect beauty.
"No drawings, no planning. It comes from the heart, to head, to hands."
If it takes patience and training to create a simple flower, it takes virtuosity to create the complex tree of life.
In the sleepy hamlet of Nirona in the Kutch district in India, there lives a family who has kept Rogan art alive while others had decided to abandon it. The Khatri family has held steadfast to this unique art form for over three centuries.
Crafts survive when there is a local market. In Kutch, over the past 45 years, there remained only two or three families practicing this technique. One stills sees certain communities in the Banni area, and certain Ahir and Rabari communities, using a simple-form folkloric designs for functional applications such as skirts, headgear, wall hangings, and cloth. But it is now rare to see this art form applied in such ways.
With the introduction of machine printing, Rogan designs became easier to duplicate and much less expensive. In certain cases, the manufacturers even blatantly copied the same designs on synthetic fabrics.
A disheartening example of the original(left) vs. machine-copied (right). The Khatri family found this machine-printed skirt in a market using their exact design.
Profusion of low-cost, machine-made imitations started to attract villagers who once bought the traditional authentic versions. Up against competitive costs of machine-fabricated goods and faltering demand, the families traditionally trained in this art form faced difficulties maintaining their livelihood. Most were driven to abandon this practice to seek unrelated occupations as shopkeepers or laborers, forsaking the skillsets and knowledge that had been passed down for generations.
However, the Khatri family envisioned a future for Rogan art and persisted in their conviction that it should not vanish. Spearheaded by Sumar's older brother Abdulgafur, the family evolved the art form to render intricate images of the tree of life as one-of-a-kind wall pieces.
Tree of life by Khatri family's TRADITIONAL ROGAN ART
Originally, men mainly practiced this craft. In India, girls get married and move into another family, and therefore, keeping the "savoir-faire" amongst men was one way to avoid losing it to another family. But Khatri family was one of the exceptions to this common mindset.
Rather than fearing stolen savoir-faire, Abdulgafur Khatri's goal was to keep this art form alive. Instigated by visitors' frequent question "Why only men?", in 2010 he envisioned a school to teach this art form to girls belonging to another caste. They started with over 100 girls. As it is a painstaking road requiring much perseverance and patience, today there are 17 to 20 apprentices. These girls are currently working for the family whilst developing their own series of work. Under the tutelage of the Khatri family, they have acquired skills to help secure their future, whilst keeping the tradition alive.
Nirona is a village located in the Kutch district of Gujarat, India. This is where the Khatri family and their ancestors have lived all their lives. Abdulgafur Khatri was the 1997 and 2013 recipient of the prestigious National Master Craftsperson Awards. His younger brother Sumar was its 2003 recipient.
Mona Kim is the Founder and Editor of Moowon. As the Creative Director of award-winning multidisciplinary design studio, Mona Kim Projects, she has been conceiving public space experiences and large-scale experiential projects for global brands and cultural institutions. Her museum and exhibition design for the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, World Expo, Museum of Tomorrow (Museu do Amanhã), and UNESCO-sponsored projects, gave her the opportunity to document and be exposed to some of the most distinctive examples of social realities and cultural expressions. On these projects, she had co-curated world issues such as endangered languages, cultural diversity and sustainability. The Moowon project is an extension of this background. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, WWD(Women's Wear Daily), The Creative Review, and in publications by Gestalten and The Art Institute of Chicago.