The Khatri family in northwestern state of Gujarat has been trying to revive the art form since the 1980s by painting things other than ceremonial clothing, hosting exhibitions and spreading awareness about the art form.
Rogan art, a method of cloth painting, is a four-century-old art form exclusively practised in the Kutch district of Gujarat, India. Until recently, Rogan art was on the brink of extinction, but was revived by the efforts of one family.
The art gets its name from the main ingredient of the paint it requires: castor oil. ‘Rogan’, a word of Persian origin, means ‘oil-based’. Some believe Rogan art originated in Persia before ending up in India.
The rogan fabric painting is produced through an arduous process. First, oil extracted from castor seeds is boiled in a cauldron for 12 to 14 hours periodically. The whole process takes around two days. The heated castor oil then meets cold water which thickens it and turns it into the slimy golden brown substance called rogan.
The next step is adding colour. For this, vibrant pigments are mixed with water and the rogan using the help of a pestle. The result is rogan paint which is then stored in water to prevent it from drying.
The painting process is not easy either. It can take days, weeks, or months depending on the design. In contrast to this meticulous process, the tools that the artist needs are quite simple: a rod and the palm of the hand.
For this unique art form, the artists usually prefer using dark fabrics that accentuate the vibrant colours of their paint. The fabric is laid out in front of the artist who takes some of the paint and starts twirling it in his palm with the rod.
This act of twirling the paint is an essential part of the painting process as it gives the paint the necessary texture. Heat from the palm loosens the thick paint just enough for the artist to form a thread.
The rest is up to the imagination of the artist. By moving the rod above the fabric, the artist lays the paint on the cloth in the form of thin lines. Often, only half of the fabric is painted and the rest is folded onto the painted part to duplicate the design.
The painting process is freehand and the end result resembles embroidery. The prevailing designs found in rogan art are patterns of florals and mandalas. While the tree of life is the most admired design, it is also the most demanding one to work on.
Rogan painting is an inherited art form that has been around for 400 years. It is said to have originated from Muslim Khatris and was practised exclusively in the Gujarat region.
Rogan art was traditionally found on bridal clothes and bed coverings. Until recently, the art’s reach did not exceed the Kutch community.
To be a rogan artist, one had to be a male member of a lineage that practised the art. Women were primarily responsible for managing the household and caring for the family, as well as occasionally doing Bandhani work (a cloth dyeing practise of the Khatri community, similar to tie-dye.)
Unfortunately, these traditional requirements of rogan painting made the art especially prone to dying out. In the past, many families in Gujarat practised rogan art. Nowadays there is only one family left.
When machine-made industrial textiles prevailed over handmade rogan art in the 1980s, those who practised the art struggled to make ends meet and had to look for new jobs. Abdul Gafur Khatri was one of them.
The demand for rogan painted fabrics was little compared to more affordable industrial textiles. Abdul Gafur Khatri had lost hope in making a living with the art form that had been passed down in his family for centuries. He left his village Nirona in the early 1980s to find a job in Ahmedabad and then Mumbai.
Nevertheless, his journey was cut short when he received a letter from home after two years. The Indian government had a project for the family and he was needed back home.
Upon his return, Abdul Gafur Khatri realized his importance in preserving the legacy of his ancestors. If he were to abandon the art, it would go extinct. With this sense of responsibility, he fought through poverty and promised to sustain the art. Today, he has been practising Rogan art for almost 50 years.
It is not just him; the other Khatri men are practising the art as well. Currently, there are a total of 10 members of the Khatri family, most of them award-winners, that practise traditional rogan art. While the art has been around for four centuries, the Khatri family has been practising it for around 300 years.
A true revival of the art occurred in 2014 when Indian Prime Minister Modi gifted former US President Obama a rogan art piece made by Abdul Gafur Khatri that depicted the tree of life. After that, tourists began pouring into Kutch to see the Khatri family work on their art.
Reviving and preserving the art necessitated its reinvention. In 2010, the family began teaching the art to women in their village. There are now over 300 women that can practise Rogan art. Moreover, the family actively participates in conferences, exhibitions and workshops to spread awareness about Rogan art worldwide.
The Khatri family began painting on different items that range from clothing items and accessories to house decorations too. Their designs can be found on masks as they are in high demand with the surge of the Covid-19 pandemic. The family is also working on improving their designs.
Since tourists are the main revenue stream of the Khatri family, the pandemic considerably damaged their business by bringing tourist flow to a halt. Yet, the family adopted a new strategy of utilizing online platforms to present their art to the world.
Although the methods and processes of rogan art are known by others today, the real know-how is hidden in the intricate details that only the Khatri family knows. The family has been continuing this four-century-old tradition for eight generations.