Making Space:Sensing Place

In October 2009, along with artist Thurle Wright, I was awarded a Making Space:Sensing Place Fellowship; part of the HAT: Here and There International Exchange Programme, managed by A Fine Line:Cultural Practice. The Fellowship includes residencies with Britto Arts in Dhaka, Bangladesh, with Arts Reverie in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, with The V&A Museum of Childhood, Bethnal Green, London and with The Harley Gallery, Nottinghamshire. Working and collaborating with artists and craftspeople from the UK, Bangladesh and India, responding to the collections and spaces we encounter and sharing these experiences through a touring exhibition and educational workshops.

This blog, which is still developing and being added to, is a record of my experiences during the MS:SP Fellowship. Steven Follen.

Sunday, 14 March 2010


If you look beyond the dusty and surface of the village of Nirona in Kutch, you can find, hidden down the narrow lanes, some wonderful architectural details.
Like much of Kutch, the area, and the people, were shaken by the massive earthquake in 2001 when some 15,000 people were killed. Both appear to be taking a while to recover.

Likewise if you look beyond the surface you can find that this unassuming village is a focus for a range of highly skilled craft practices.
It is home to a specialized form of textile work called Roghan Art, where boiled and coloured safflower, castor or linseed oil is applied to fabric with delicate precision to create intricate and complex designs.

The process has its origins in Persia and one family still practicing the art in Gujarat have won national awards for their work.

It takes 12 hours to boil down the oil base which is then poured into water to create its thick, sticky consistency.
Traditionally natural pigments such as clay and chalk are added to give colour, although more recently man-made pigments are used. Kerosene is used to reduce the thickness of the paste if needed.

To create a design, the thick coloured paste is lifted on a blunt metal rod and warmed on the hand, the liquid is allowed to drop in a fine thread which is drawn across the surface of the fabric leaving the trace of a design.

Many of the final designs using this process are symmetrical because the design is first drawn on one half the fabric and when complete (within 2-3 hrs) the second half of the sheet is folded over and both sides are pressed together; printing the design to the second half and forcing the oil based pigment into the weave of the fabric. Once the design is drawn the fabric is laid flat to dry for several days.

Due to the sticky nature of the material, cast and etched metal blocks can be used to print designs with the paste onto fabric and paper. Its adhesive qualities are similar to gilders size for metal leaf work and sometimes fine metal powders are dusted over the moist roghan paste to give glistening details to the fabric. ‘Warkh Kaam’ is a similar technique which uses metal leaf applied to the sticky paste.

In contrast to the cool of the Rogan workshop, in another part of the village a group of lacquer workers sit in the shade of a large tree, working small bow lathes.
One turns small pieces of wood using both hands and feet to control the lathe, the chisel, the bow and the timber as it spins forwards and backwards.
The small blocks of coloured lacquer used to decorate and seal the timber would once have been made from either the resin of a tree or a grease extracted from insects mixed with minerals and pigments to give colour. The origins of the process are from both China and Persia.

As the timber spins, the heat generated by the friction softens the lacquer and coats the wood surface. A cloth is used to smooth and polish the colour, the lacquer hardens through oxidising.
Two men worked together making spoons, chapatti rollers and spatulas whilst nearby a man working on another portable lathe made legs for furniture.
Whilst I watched the men work the women appeared and set out examples of their craft to sell, mostly small textile figures and dolls made from small scraps of fabric.
Many of the women wore beautiful bangles, some glass, some plastic – symbolic of their status as married women.
Some wore ivory bangles on the upper arm called ‘Chura’. The source of the ivory is elephant, a material that was once traded with Africa or may have come from Assam, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh or Karnataka. This type of adornment is typical of women of the Meghwal tribal group.
Nirona is also known for its metal bell makers.

In a small workshop a family make small copper-coated steel bells. Originally the craft was developed for the flocks of grazing goat and buffalo in the region but as animal husbandry declines so they have become more dependant upon other outlets for their skills including entrance bells and the tourist / export trades.

The men work on the floor with a group of stakes, hammers, snips and punches.
A strip of steel is cut and formed in to a cylinder into a hollow and then over a stake, the ends are cut to form an overlapping ‘combed’ joint. Sometimes to ensure that the joint is fixed a thread of wire is stitched along the tabs.
The top edge is flared on the edge of a stake, this lip will be used to attach the domed top of the bell.
A disc is sunk into the hollow of a short length of tube to form a dome and the two components are brought together.
A thin strip is cut and formed into a loop with two tags which are inserted through the top of the dome.
This piece forms both the hoop for hanging the bell as well as the clasp for holding the striker - a thin piece of dense and heavy wood which will swing inside the bell.
When complete the bell is dipped in a solution of earth ‘mitte’ and water. Fine metal filings of brass and copper are applied to the mud. Cotton soaked in the mud solution is then made into flat pancakes and applied around the surface of the bell covering the surface and the metal filings.
Presumably the mud has a fluxing property as well as excluding oxygen (which would allow the bell to oxidise) The whole object is then baked in a ‘Bhatti’, a high temperature earth oven. The copper and brass melt, fusing the joints and sealing the surface of the steel bell with a thin coloured coating.

The striker is added and then the lip of the bell is gently hammered to tune it to the correct tone and ring. The bells come in all manner of combinations and sizes.
It seems that all surfaces in Kutch are decorated - even the tractors are decorated with a  painted metal bumper.