“When people see this decorative craft of lacquer work on wood, they ask if I have created these patterns with a brush and oil paints,” says Bhavik Bhachaya Vadha, 40, a lacquer artisan in Nirona, a village in Kachchh district of Gujarat. But in fact, he explains, it is created using a lathe with a stick of lacquer held against it which flows onto the wood making kaleidoscopic zigzag patterns.
Bhavik bhai (as he is referred to in the community) has been practising this craft for over 30 years. “I am an expert in making bhamardo (spinning tops). I once made a spinning top which spun for a good seven minutes,” he said. He can even make a top based on the length of time you want them to spin.
There are six to seven other families in Nirona who also practise lacquer art. They all live in a settlement of shell-like concrete houses built under the Indira Aawas Yojana scheme. Their homes are all next to each other, closely spaced and set in a rough semi-circle; the bare ground between the houses is where they work.
“Lacquer craft is also practised in Rajasthan and some other states,” says Bhavik bhai. “[Others] mostly colour the wood in a single layer over the base coat. Our work has two layers or more, depending on the design. We have developed our own patterns over time.”
Bhavik bhai belongs to the Vadha Adivasi community. He says, “my father and his family migrated from Pakistan. My grandfather had seven brothers who practised this art in Pakistan. We have travelled and stayed in different villages in India. We settled in Nirona after the Bhuj earthquake of 2001.”
When we visit his village, a dry hot wind is blowing through the sparse shrubs around the settlement. Women, resting between their daily chores, sit with elderly people on string cots, holding their infants and watching the older children play. They tell us that many of the children around here have never been to school. Only 53 per cent of Nirona’s 5,710 population is literate. However, Bhavik bhai and his wife Rahema have made sure that all their three sons go to school. “I was planning to send my daughter Jyotsana to school this year but it does not seem possible due to the Covid outbreak,” he says. His village reported three cases of corona in July.
Seeing our cameras, Reshma, a young girl, motions for us to wait. She runs and brings her favourite embroidered ‘chunri’ (scarf), wraps it around her head and shoulders and smiles, now ready for the shot.
Bhavik bhai was once a wrestler and participated in village matches all over Kachchh. One day he received a call informing him that the police had picked up his brother. “I was shocked and worried,” he said. “But they told me that my father had won a state award for his lacquered wood work and they wanted both of us to come to the police station to collect it. After this recognition, I started taking my work more seriously.”
Bhavik bhai’s three sons are learning the craft from him. “With their help, I can make three to four products in a day,” he said. His eldest son, Daanji, 17, can make simple kitchenware and he along with one of his pieces was filmed for a scene in the film, Jayeshbhai Jordaar, expected to be released in 2020.
To make lacquer wood pieces, the wood is first chiselled and filed to the desired shape, then turned on a lathe. The friction between the stick of lacquer and the moving lathe brings out layers of contrasting colours. Finally, the lacquered piece is polished with oil to give it a lustrous finish.
Earlier, forests provided the wood for the craft – the local babool trees are preferred. “These days we need permission to get wood from plantations and farms and we have to pay them as well,” he says. “These trees [from farms] are generally small so we use their wood to make kitchenware.”
For bigger products like chairs, they buy the wood from markets in Bhuj where it is readily available in larger sizes and quantities. Bhuj is the headquarters of Kachchh district and about 40 kilometres from Nirona.
Lacquer is made from lac, a resin secreted by lac insects to protect themselves and their eggs and laid on ber trees in Kachchh. The lac also coats the branches of the host tree. This is then removed and crushed, and impurities are removed. One kilogram of lac produces 250 grams of lacquer powder.
The powder is then heated with colour pigments and mixed with groundnut oil. On cooling, the mixture becomes lacquer – a crayon-like stick of colour. This task is generally done by the Vadha women like Rajema – Bhavik bhai’s wife – who help out between household chores.
Some of the colours – like white and blue – are now made with chemicals while others are still made with natural ingredients: turmeric is added for a yellow colour and coal for black. “I also mix these basic colours to form new colours – yellow and red are mixed to form orange,” said Bhavik bhai.
“Traditional skills, like lacquer painting on wood are never taught,” said Bhavik bhai. “You learn them at an early age by observing your parents.” He remembers watching his father, Bhachaya Khamisha Vadha, 76, make a decorative khatiya (a traditional bed with a wooden frame, which is then woven over with cotton tape or ropes), sindoor (vermillion powder) boxes and other such gift items for weddings. “As payment, we were given clothes, grains or money,” he adds.
Gradually, as the craft started gaining recognition, Bhavik bhai’s father began to make kitchenware such as rolling pins, mortars and pestles, spoons and spatulas. After working for around 60 years, his father has now slowed down, his weakening eyesight making it difficult for him to continue this fine work.
Income from the craft used to be less than Rs. 150 a day, so Bhavik bhai and others in his family also did wage work like lifting sacks of grain in the market. “My father has seen worse times, and as children we slept hungry for three to four days at a time,” he said.
Kachchh’s tourist season used to be their only opportunity to sell as they had not developed marketing and distribution systems. Now things are better as Vadha artisans like him work with Khamir, a Kukma-based organisation which promotes and sells lacquer wood craft pieces. Khamir helps in purchasing raw material, pricing and marketing their craft.
In addition to kitchenware and furniture, artisans also create new designs or items on request. Sometimes customers give them a drawing as reference. Bhavik bhai uses WhatsApp to communicate with his customers in Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Bhopal. He and other artisans in his family have also sold at exhibitions in cities.
Today, including Bhavik bhai, there are only about 15 people from the Vadha community of Nirona still involved in the craft; a relative practises the craft in the nearby village of Mishariyado. They face many challenges as they are dependent on the tourist trade which has come to a stop due to the lockdown and recent ban on travel and tourism. Many Vadhas have migrated in search of better paying employment opportunities.
Bhavik bhai, however, remains optimistic. Besides teaching the craft to his children he conducts training workshops and apprenticeships. He believes that his community of artists are regaining their pride, interacting with people across the world and innovating in areas like jewellery making, furniture, colour and form exploration. “My customers appreciate my work and this makes me determined to continue and improve the craft,” he says.
Surabhi Singhai is a first year student of Information Arts and Information Design Practices at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru. As a part of her project ‘Narratives, Immersion and Information’ she explored the craft of lacquer wood in Kachchh by tracing the journey of an artisan.
She says: “With PARI I was able to delve deeper and turn out a better visual narrative, with attention to processes and challenges. I re-visited my interview process, reframed questions and did follow-up calls to add more detail about the craft.”