“Quilts can tell a powerful story. Advocacy Quilting was inspired by Bosnian weavers from BOSFAM who lost relatives in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre; they produced the first of 15 memorial quilts carrying the names of murdered family members. Quilting has allowed marginalized communities to speak out, develop skills, and produce works of art which keep their culture alive.” Advocacy quilts have been created by weavers in Morocco, survivors of sexual violence in Democratic Republic of Congo, and former child laborers in Nepal.We are attempting to try this project with the communities Vikalp engages with in Gujarat.
Before embarking on this project, I wasn’t quite prepared for the challenges it would entail, nor the Huckleberry-esque adventures. In six crazy days, spanning over four crazier weeks, we learned a lot more than how to make an advocacy quilt. We identified the Rathwas, a tribal community based in the Chottaudepur district of Gujarat, as artisans of a gorgeous style of wall and fabric painting known as Pithora. Vikalp works in the area through a government project on combating HIV/AIDS. They connected us to Kusum, the project coordinator of the field office, and an exceptional leader; she would help us get in touch with the Rathwa community. Sounded, well, simple.
After a lovely three hour drive to Chottaudepur, we get news that we won’t be able to meet the Rathwa community that day, so we decide to explore the area instead. We find thrift stores with everything from Ninja Turtles lunch boxes and lacy wedding dresses, a temple-lake where women performed their ablutions, a Sunday vegetable market, and lots of interesting people. Before heading back to Baroda, a date is fixed for us to go to the neighboring tribal village. We are supposed to bring paint and cloth panels, but not paint brushes, as the painters prefer using their own special paint brushes.
We set out to Nyaya Mandir (my favorite area in the city) to get paint supplies. The cloth is easy, but the paint, that’s another story. Baroda has four monumental gates, built by the regional rulers during the colonial period – we traverse through all the gates before we find what we need: the cottonwallah directs us to go to a shop at the nearby Gainda gate. That shop only dyes cloth, and so we are directed to Chapaner gate and told to ask for the ‘rangwallah’ (ask who? Is this a spy movie? Will someone know what we’re looking for? Is there a paint mafia?) Once there, we find a guy who sells spices, who I ask rather sheepishly ‘Bhaisabbh, rangwallah kahaan miliega?” (sir, where can I find the paint-person?) Of course he knows exactly what I’m talking about and directs me further forward (while pointing towards a direction that, to me, is backward) walk past three streets, skip the fourth road and turn into the next one’ (But turn left or right? He makes a sign with his hand that looks like a U-turn). It begins to pour heavily and neither Andra nor I really believe in carrying umbrellas. As we walk down a narrow street, a group of shopkeepers seem to make wagers on where these two rather lost-looking girls will finally stop. Finally, we stumble upon a shop labeled ‘rangwallah’ in faded red paint. Mini mission accomplished.
At Kanalwad village, where we are searching, yet again, for the rangwallas – the tribal Pithora artists. The car can deal with a certain level of mud, sludge, and animal related road blocks, after which we have to get off and start walking. Through rice fields, hay stacks, dung-cakes, and monsoon streams, we make our way to Manki’s house, who will lead us to the rangwallah. Once there, we are fed glasses of delicious milkier-than-usual tea, which we are taught to sip properly i.e. from a plate. This is followed by many more house visits; we converse on topics where everything is lost in translation and found in laughter, with people so far removed from my world, that I wonder how many impenetrable planets this country can hold. This hits me when Dharmesh, Manki’s son tells me, ‘We’re so happy that you’ve come from so far to visit our homes, and share our tea. We wish it were possible for us to see your life as well’. It spoke harshly of the impossible restrictions on mobility, restrictions that are one-sided.
During this endlessly fascinating journey, we finally find our rangwallah’s house. He just happens to not be there. So we hang with his family, and we find his picture! The elusive rangwallah now has a face. We also find his painted wall. Just as we’re about to leave, our rangwallah walks in, but he sets a date for us to return to the village a few days later. Because… that’s just how it works. Far be it for me to question the lightening quick processes of my country.
Return to rangwallah’s house, then retrace my muddy steps back to the car as paints/cloth were forgotten, then return to house. As soon as I get back, I see Andra has set up the tripod, the camera, and everything is in gear. Except for Mr. Rathwa, who has gone missing. When we find him, he seems to be finding something as well – the paintbrushes. He can’t. As the sun goes down, we head back home. He says that he will meet us next time in the Chottaudepur office, so we don’t have to make the trek to the village again. Unfortunately, our rangwallah cannot make it. Andra and I go to New Delhi for a weekend trip, and decide to figure it all out when we’re back.
There’s good news in Part II: Searching for the Rangwallah
Posted By Jasveen Bindra (India)
Posted Jul 22nd, 2013