How Khamir is preserving the traditional crafts of Kachchh

Set up after the 2001 Bhuj earthquake, Khamir supports traditional artisans in Kachchh through design and marketing intervention. It clocked revenues of Rs 6.5 crore last year and has created a national market for the region’s endangered crafts

Aruna Raghuram
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Khamir is preserving and archiving the traditional crafts of Kachchh 

Khamir is preserving and archiving the traditional crafts of Kachchh 

Shamji Valji, 50, is a weaver living in the Bhujodi village in the Kachchh (also Kutch) district of Gujarat. Everyone in his 32-member joint family is involved in the weaving of cotton and wool. “I learnt the craft from my father at the age of 12. I work for eight hours a day and earn around Rs 20,000 per month. While the women in the family make the bobbins and set the warp (vertical threads of yarn) on the loom, the men do the weaving and dyeing work,” says Shamji. 

Ramzu Ali Mohammed, 55, is a potter living in Bhuj. “We are 20 members of a family living together. I learnt my craft from a young age. I make pots, kulhads (earthen pots for tea), flower pots, tiles, toys and other decorative items. I earn around Rs 80,000 in the six-month season including Navratri and Diwali. While the women prepare the mud and paint the items, men shape the pottery objects and work in the kiln,” says Ramzubhai. 

Both Shamji and Ramzubhai work with Khamir, an organisation involved in the education, training, demonstration and interpretation of crafts, environment and heritage of the Kachchh region. 

Khamir provides artisans practising 20 traditional crafts of Kachchh with access to raw materials, design and marketing support, production, quality control and innovation. It also offers archival services to preserve the endangered crafts.  

Shamji says Khamir constantly conducts experiments and holds workshops to provide design exposure. Ramzubhai also says he has learnt a great deal from interacting with Khamir. His three children are undergoing training at the organisation. 

ramzubhai and shamji
Ramzubhai at the wheel (left) and Shamji at his loom (right). Pic: Khamir & 30Stades

‘Intrinsic pride’

Khamir stands for ‘Kachchh Heritage, Art, Music, Information and Resources’. The word Khamir means ‘intrinsic pride’ in Kachchhi, the local language. 

Khamir was set up in 2005 as a joint initiative of Kachchh Nav Nirman Abhiyan and the Nehru Foundation for Development. As a result of the earthquake of 2001, many artisans lost raw materials and their workshops. 

While rehabilitation work post the Bhuj earthquake was going on, there arose a fear that years of traditional knowledge would be lost. That’s what led to the establishment of Khamir.  

“It was a post-earthquake initiative to work with the crafts of Kachchh sustainably. We aim to make these crafts a viable livelihood option for the artisans and encourage the young generation to them up as a profession. When Khamir was started some organisations were working with embroidery like Kala Raksha and Shrujan. There was a need for an organisation to focus on the other crafts of the region. This is where Khamir stepped in,” says Ghatit Laheru, director of Khamir.

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After a master's in journalism and a post-graduate diploma in the management of NGOs, Ghatit came to Kachchh looking for grassroots experience. He joined Khamir in 2008-09.  

director of khamir ghatit
Ghatit Laheru, Director of Khamir

The Khamir Craft Resource Centre is located in Kukma, 15 km from Bhuj. The unique eco-friendly campus is a space for artisans, institutions, buyers and craft lovers to collaborate and learn. 

Variety of crafts

Kachchh, the largest district in India, is home to a wide range of communities and cultures. As a result, it is also a hub of different crafts. Khamir supports printed textiles (ajrakh and batik), woven textiles, leather art, lacquered wood, wood carving, knife work, metal balls, silver work and pottery. 

It is also involved in reviving some art and craft forms like ‘namda’ (making woollen rugs), ‘rogan’ (a technique of fabric painting) and ‘bela’ printing (bold and graphic designs usually in black and red).  

“The textile products are very popular. ‘Kala cotton’ weaving, ‘ajrakh’ block printing and tie and dye (bandhani) products have good market demand. Marketing is a significant part of our activities and this includes finding new sales avenues for artisans,” explains Ghatit. 

An artisan weaving wool carpet. Pic: Khamir

Khamir helps with raw material procurement and design inputs. “Ideation is by designers but the skill part comes from the artisans. There is a collaborative process between the designer and the artisan. New designs help us create new markets and opportunities for the artisans,” he adds.

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The price range of products is understandably wide. While copper-coated wind chimes are priced between Rs 200 and Rs 600, handwoven sarees cost anywhere from Rs 10,000-24,000. A handmade chef’s knife costs around Rs 1,000, a lacquered wooden spatula Rs 350, a clay ‘handi’ Rs 350, a set of six upcycled plastic tea coasters Rs 230, a leather mirror set Rs 200, handcrafted leather diaries around Rs 700 and a silk bandhani stole Rs 1,950.

Family units

Khamir has engaged with around 6,000 artisans so far. “We work with units. Each unit consists of a small weaver working with the help of family members. In most crafts, women play a major role. However, the face of the crafts is still the man. They handle marketing. Spinning and upcycled plastic crafts are led by women,” Ghatit says.  

Artisan incomes range from Rs 5,000 to Rs 30,000 per month. Weavers, block printers and spinners earn well. Lacquer product sales are dependent on the tourist season. Leathercraft and pottery items are also in demand. Khamir’s revenue was Rs 6.5 crore in the last financial year, he says.

bandhani drying
Artisans drying bandhani products. Pic: Khamir

Khamir ensures that natural materials and environment-friendly dyes are used. It promotes hand weaving to ensure that mechanisation does not replace traditional crafts. 

Khamir is working on a project to recycle textile waste through hand spinning and weaving, says Ghatit. It is exploring opportunities with solar power enterprise SELCO for the use of solar-based equipment. However, since it doesn’t want to mechanise activities, solar use will be limited. 

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Impactful innovations

Khamir has undertaken three impactful innovation programmes – camel wool, kala cotton initiative and recycled plastic weaving. 

Camel wool: In Kachchh, camels are mainly used for milk and transportation. However, their wool is of high quality and is warm, water-resistant and durable. It can be used to make textiles, carpets and ropes. The Camel Wool Project was started in 2013 by Khamir. Camel wool is coarse and has short fibres, which poses challenges to both spinning and the production of soft fabric. Khamir has explored pre-treatment options that remove the coarse fibres leaving only very soft, fine wool that can be used to make stoles, bags and other products.

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Kala Cotton initiative: Kala Cotton is locally grown and organic, as the farmers do not use pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Kala Cotton is one of the few genetically pure cotton species remaining in India. 

Kala cotton’s short staple length makes it difficult to spin and weave. After years of experimentation, Khamir began producing its first Kala Cotton products in 2010. 

kala cotton hand spinning on peti charkha
An artisan is spinning kala cotton in a 'peti' or box charkha. Pic: Khamir

It has created a supply chain between the Kala Cotton farmers, ginners, spinners and weavers to convert raw cotton into handwoven products.

Recycled plastic weaving: The Recycled Plastic project, launched in 2010 was envisaged to tackle the urban plastic waste problem in Bhuj. Collected plastic is transported to Khamir, where it is cleaned and segregated based on colour and quality. It is then cut into long strips and given to weavers to make bags and other items. Plastic weaving is currently practised by a large number of women trained by Khamir. As it is a skill that can be easily learned by new weavers, it can also generate supplementary income for medium-skilled weavers, people with disabilities, and senior citizens.

“More recently, the IITs have set up a rural technology group and have developed an energy-efficient kiln design. We have built 12 such kilns. We are also working with ‘vegetable-tanned leather’ to minimise the use of chemicals. We are in touch with Central Leather Research Institute (CLRI) for that technology. We plan to set up a tanning facility in Kachchh which will use the local knowledge. We also plan to work with vegan leather in the future,” elaborates Ghatit.

leatherwork mirror
A handpainted pot and leatherwork pocket mirrors. Pic: Khamir

Outreach and documentation

Khamir conducts workshops, holds festivals and exhibitions and encourages school and university students to visit the Kukma centre. It also undertakes research and documentation to preserve the crafts for future generations. In this context, Artificial Intelligence (AI) poses a problem. 

“AI is a concern for us in terms of theft of creative property. We are trying to figure out how to counter this problem,” says Ghatit. 

The organisation is increasing payments to artisans every year. “However, we don’t just want to help artisans who are doing well to do better. Our focus is to reach out to small and marginalised artisans (in distant villages) to make a critical difference in their lives. As for future plans, we may support clusters in other parts of Gujarat,” he says. 

Khamir has an initiative to integrate crafts into the education curriculum. It works with local schools for this purpose. “The aim is to make the children of artisans understand and value traditional crafts that their parents and neighbours are engaged in. Spinning is just a hobby in the West. But in India it is part of the national ethos. A spinner’s child should know that,” stresses Ghatit. 

(Aruna Raghuram is a freelance journalist based in Ahmedabad. She writes on women’s issues, environment, DEI issues, and social/development enterprises.)

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