The Search for Sindhu

The Search for Sindhu

A rediscovery of shared vocabularies of crafts and design in Sindh and Kutch. From cloth to ceramics, from Ajrakh to embroidery, from pastoralism to Sufism. From old to new

When Good Earth founder and creative director Anita Lal first mentioned a show called Sindhu to celebrate 10 years of the brand’s everyday wear label Sustain, an undercurrent of déjà vu coursed through me. As a culturally aware Sindhi, the tug I felt was subjective. The river Sindhu or the Indus, that also finds mention in the Rigveda, isn’t after all just about Sindh as a geographical region. In its gurgle and meandering path flow memories and slices of the ancient Indus Valley Civilisation from the archaeological site of Mohenjo-Daro, 2500 BCE. Its trade routes, cultural bonds, the crafts and ceramics of that era and the way it connects histories of an entire subcontinent along the Arabian Sea from Tibet to Kashmir, Punjab and Sindh made it a unique idea for a fashion and design show.

Pastness has an irrefutable enticement but that it would also illuminate links with our current lives, pieces and parts of our wardrobes and cultural inheritance was the promise of Sindhu. A potent context to explore content on crafts and textiles. A series that could tap shared vocabularies of design, block printing, embroidery, pastoralism, pottery, colour, cotton and other connects across the border between Pakistan and India.


Photo: Sondeep Shankar

Shabri Wable, clothes maker, Bhuj, Kutch photographed at Bhuj Gate, in her own Ajrakh.

Good Earth’s show and exhibition are finally ready to be mounted this Sunday, the 20th of October at Indira Gandhi National Centre of Arts (IGNCA) in Delhi. The Sindhu collection looks at “persistence of pattern”, from the Indus Valley Civilisation to what survives as living textiles today. At “roots and routes” through Ajrakh, the sacred cloth of the past with its resist printed, mordant dyed cloth in madder and Indigo, in floral and geometric patterns. Good Earth interprets these through two leitmotifs. Fostat Brocade (derived from patterns of Fostat Ajrakh) and Mingora Ajrakh, design explorations that use classical traditions as inspiration but add unusual artworks to it.


A handwoven mashru jacket edged with hand-done zardozi and resham threadwork by Good Earth, a part of the The Sindhu exhibit.

On the other hand, at TVOF, we worked on a series called The Search for Sindhu. Stories told through photography and writing reported from the crafts-rich region of Kutch. We set out to understand the story behind the current resonance of Ajrakh in design institutes and exhibitions across the world, in fashion markets, in art galleries, among students and researchers of crafts techniques and whether the hand-created textile can withstand the new pressures of the market without being qualitatively compromised.

What we also brought back however, are how the centuries-old textile is made and worn today in Kutch. Accounts of Sindhi Muslim communities from Khavda, Banni and other border regions of Kutch. The crafts they practice and sustain. From pastoralism to Sufism, language to music, recitations of famed Sufi poet Shah Abdul Latif’s poetry by the Maldhari singers of Kutch and their use of Ajrakh. The shrinking availability of the “original” Sindh Ajrakh in the markets of Khavda.


Photo: Saumya Sinha

An artisan showcasing her craft at Zerarwadi.

From the only practitioner of the Sindhi nada (drawstring), a pre-knitting technique, in Pacham in Moti Bandha district, a lady Fatima Bai, fondly called Nani by the entire village to the famed Khatris of Kutch, the master craftsmen and makers of Ajrakh, their explorations of commerce and creativity. If Dr Ismail Khatri of Ajrakhpur who was awarded an honorary doctorate by a UK University and his sons Juned and Sufiyan are one influential pillar of this story, the other is an obscured one. Bilal Indris Khatri of Khavda, an extraordinary artist skilled at making the “dupaasi” (two sided) Ajrakh still struggling to find ways to fund, promote and sell his work.

If there is the account of the septuagenarian A.A. Wazir, Kutch’s well-known collector of antique crafts and embroideries, there is the young Shabri Wable who calls herself a clothes maker. Wable works with local communities and organisations in Kutch to create clothes and support developmental ideas through crafts having relocated from Pune to pursue a slower and more conscious life far from the madding crowd.


Photo: Saumya Sinha

Jenaben Jakhau painting a pot at Khamir Craft Facility.

The work of institutions like Khamir, Shrujan or Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan may be known to those who followed the crafts resurgence of Kutch in the rehabilitation years after the Bhuj earthquake. Our stories though flow, much like a river from region to religion, the different block printing motifs used by Hindu and Muslim Khatris, the importance of Ajrakh in the life of a Sindhi Kutchi, especially the pastoralist menfolk, the use of natural dyes in Ajrakhpur, the plant installed to recycle water used in the dyeing vats to which is then released to the fields, how the very intensity of colour of madder and Indigo changed after the earthquake as the quality of the water—that was anyway high in iron content—changed. There is science and craft. People and products. Progress as well as poverty.

The Search for Sindhu is a rediscovery.

Starting today, you will find all these stories here in a rolling series. Including first person narratives and interviews with scholars and writers who have worked with and worn Ajrakh as identity, or those who understand ceramics, community life and crafts.