The Sabarmati River that runs through the bustling city of Ahmedabad, nourishes many textile traditions which are still practiced and adored. In the central most part of the city, resides the Vaghris, who paint and create a wonderful ritual cloth, called the Mataji no chandarvo or Mata ni pachhedi. As the name suggests, these ritual cloths with the imagery of the Goddess along with other related legends serve as a portable shrine; a backdrop and canopy (also popularly referred to as chandani) during the festivities of the nine auspicious nights called the navratri. The Vaghri communities were nomadic in nature; hence a portable shrine was a practical solution to their lifestyle. In olden times, restrictions of them entering the temples by the upper castes also led to the creation of these sacred textiles. In a way, it was creating their own sanctuary for their beloved Goddesses. The rituals and sacrifices that were performed, invited the Goddess to dwell on the cloth which becomes divine by her presence, now cannot be touched or looked upon by a mortal.
After following various steps of preparing the cloth, the images over the cloth were primarily block printed and then colours were filled by hand. The wooden blocks for these textiles were made in Pethapur, presently located in the Gandhinagar district, approximately 35 kilometers from Ahmedabad city. The block-makers of Pethapur are renowned far and wide for supplying intricately carved wooden blocks to printers in Ahmedabad and other parts of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The wood, referred to as sag (also sometimes called teak)[i] is procured from the local forest and stored in the house to be later chiseled into blocks of various sizes. The surface of the wood blocks is smoothen using sand paper and other leveling tools. Then, the design created in paper is transferred onto the prepared surface of the block, which is brought to life by the expert chiseling work of the craftsman. One of the celebrated master block-maker was Shilpguru Maneklal Gajjar from Pethapur who was also the last surviving specialist on the designs of the famous block printed saudagiri textiles exported to Thailand roughly between the years, 1850 to 1940. He maintained a meticulous record of the designs along with impressions of blocks, names of printers, traders’ logo and label, etc, that were handed over to him by his ancestors, which once in a while, he delightedly shared with textile enthusiasts visiting him. The saudagiri designs often comprised small geometric and floral patterns covering the entire surface of the field. The structure of the pattern is a rhombic grid which was elaborated with stylized leaf and floral forms, sometimes with flower in the centre of the rhombus or rhombic-shaped motifs placed in the grid.[ii] The designs and the patterns were dictated heavily by the current tastes and market demands in Thailand, as these textiles were solely for the purpose of trade with the kingdom. At times, the aesthetics in these textiles also slipped into the local textiles such as the chandarvo textiles, made for the Goddess. The textile below probably was used as a canopy for a small portable shrine dedicated to Goddess Bahuchara, with her vahana, the rooster forming the repeat motif along the undulating floral creeper in the border.
The cloth used for these textiles is mostly a cotton mill-made fabric. Although, various processes are professionally employed to prepare the cloth, the women of the household, often lent a helping hand of soaking the cloth in a tub filled with solution made of myrobalan (harda), water, soda and castor oil. This process helps in the fixing of the colours and the eventual dying of the cloth. The block print and the hand sketches are generally done by the male artists. The filling of the colours especially red, is done by the women of the household with the use of a brush.
The old shrine cloths made in Ahmedabad, followed a certain format and pattern in the layout. The central part was occupied by the Goddess for whom the cloth was commissioned and dedicated for. She can be also accompanied by other goddesses depicted in smaller scale occupying the registers on the side and below. The borders are done entirely by blocks. Sometimes two Goddesses can be depicted in the same cloth in the same scale positioned next to each other. Certain registers would have flower-garland bearing ladies (malins), musicians and other devotees venerating the Goddess. The black goat brought for sacrifice is also shown, being dragged by a man towards the divine mother. The sun and the moon are depicted on the corners above, sun having a moustache and the moon without a moustache. Popular gods such as Lord Ganesh, is depicted seated on a throne. Mythological characters from the epic Ramayana, such as Rama and Sita are also painted. The legend of the king who turns into a two headed deer and his seven daughters into fish on a pond is also shown frequently.
There are few main Goddesses for whom these shrine cloths are made. Ambika, who rides a lion or tiger, Bahuchara rides a rooster, Vihat prefers a black buffalo and Meladi is mounted on a black goat. Other Goddesses such as Khodiyar (her vahana is a crocodile), Momai (rides a dromedary), Vaduchi Ma, (depicted seated on a throne), Shikotar (sails on a boat) and Gel Mata (rides a composite animal called gajasinha similar to a chimera)[iii] are painted on commission or special request. Two other Goddesses worshipped for similar purpose and slowly becoming popular in the chandarvo textiles, are Hadkai who rides a mad, saliva dropping dog (worshipped for cure of rabies) and Shitala whose vahana is a donkey (worshipped for various poxes and skin aliments).
The above study of this tradition of textile is limited to only the ones made in the city of Ahmedabad. There are variations of the same, with more colourful ones made in Jambusar in Bharuch and Bhingrad in Saurashtra. Over the years, hybridization of this tradition has started with wall hanging format, much smaller in size are made, for selling them in high end urban stores and fairs. They are extremely expensive compared to the earlier block printed repertoire due to the fact that they are entirely hand-drawn by the use of a kalam (pen made of a twig). The use of a kalam has also given much freedom in the layout of the theme and has infused a lyrical movement to the storyline whether it may be the swaying branches of the trees or be it the ferocity of the blood bath of the demons, the Goddess is slaying. New experiments are also not feared, in terms of using new striking colours that were earlier not available. These are all attempts to give the clientele fresh products and the continuation and survival of the craft. Product range also includes saris and dress materials with various figures painted on them.
The development of the riverfront area along the banks of the Sabarmati River has also put in new challenges to this tradition. Now to wash off the dyed textiles, they have to travel further down which increases the efforts and the cost of making these textiles. The original humble clientele who bought or commissioned these sacred cloths, solely for the purpose of worship, can no longer afford to buy them in their new rates. For them, screen printed options are produced in sharp lines and extremely bright colours. With all the challenges, the tradition of making these delightful shrine cloths will survive, in the hands of talented new generation of Vaghri artists. Probably like any other crafts today, in new avatars.
[i] Katherine F. Hacker and Krista Jensen Turnbull, Courtyard, Bazaar, Temple: Traditions of Textile Expression in India, (Seattle: University of Washington, An exhibition organized by Costume and Textile Study Center, 12 June -25 July 1982), 51.
[ii] Aditi Ranjan, “The Legend of Sabarmati’s Hand Block printed Textiles”, in Ahmedabad 600: Portraits of a City, eds, Suchitra Balasubramanyam and Sharmila Sagara, Marg Volume 63 No 2, December 2011, 112-113.
[iii] Eberhard Fischer, Jyotindra Jain and Haku Shah, Temple Tents for Goddesses in Gujarat, India. (New Delhi: Niyogi Books, 2014), 155-191.
Priya Devi, ed, The Master Weavers, Catalogue of Festival of India Exhibition, Britain: Royal College of Art, 1942.
Ranjan, Aditi and M.P. Ranjan, eds. Crafts of India: Handmade in India. New Delhi: Council of Handicraft Development Corporations, COHANDS, 2007.