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New Delhi: Mapping a forgotten tradition

LiveMint logoLiveMint 28-04-2017 Avantika Bhuyan

Within a spartan room populated with mattresses covered in white cloth, a bookshelf and a couple of playful geckos, Nadeem Anver, a rafoogar, is poring over a map of Najibabad. This city in Uttar Pradesh’s Bijnor district has been the hub of rafoogari —the traditional art of darning—for centuries. Anver, 35, who represents the 16th generation of rafoogars from the city, is a picture of concentration, his mind registering the contours of the map. Minutes later, Anver and fellow rafoogar, Shariq Khan, 35, start reconstructing the map on fabric using their trademark darning technique.

It is a novel experience for the duo, more used to operating from a karkhana (workshop) than the house-cum-artist’s studio in Delhi’s Greater Kailash-1. They are in the city to take part in a one-of-its-kind rafoogar baithak (meeting), organized by Delhi-based textile designer and researcher Priya Ravish Mehra, in association with the Foundation of Indian Contemporary Art. These baithaks have been attended by 35-40 people.

Mehra doesn’t just share the love for rafoogari with Anver and Khan, she is also from the same town. And for the last 14 years, she has been working with rafoogars to preserve their tradition and bring them the much-needed recognition—to bring these craftsmen and their stitches to prominence.

Anver and Khan are creating sampler stitches with the patience of monks and the precision of surgeons. As I watch them, I get the sense that over time, these karigars had begun to mirror the essence of their craft—the ability to stay invisible, much like their stitches, which blend seamlessly into the cloth they darn.

Anver demonstrates the technique of ‘rafoogari’.

It is no wonder then that when Mehra started researching the subject, she couldn’t find a single mention of rafoogari in textile history. And yet, old artefacts, antiques and fabrics prove that they have been an integral part of the textile tradition. “I felt that this was the right time to honour them and make them feel proud of their skills. If not for them, all our shawls and heirlooms would either have been discarded or donated to museums,” says Mehra.

She recently started these baithaks as part of a project titled “Making The Invisible Visible”—to bring these craftsmen and their stitches to prominence.

The inspiration for the reconstructed map or the fabric nakshas came from two old textiles. One is a 19th century Sikander Nama Pashmina, on display at the Chandigarh Museum, which credited the contribution of the rafoogar in the making of the textile—a rare instance. The second is a 19th century Kashmiri pashmina embroidered with the map of Srinagar, on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. In 2012, Mehra got pieces of cloth printed with satellite images of Najibabad, downloaded from Google Maps. The rafoogars then created a schematic of the city on the fabric. Some of the fabric nakshas from 2012 can be seen on the first floor of the studio in Greater Kailash—each of them extremely attractive for the novelty of idea, intricacy of stitches and vibrancy of pattern.

But Mehra began to feel that these renditions of satellite images didn’t reflect adequately on the shared histories of the rafoogars, their memories of the place, and the sociocultural fabric of the city. For instance, there was a time when the city was demarcated into mohallas, based on people’s professions. “Anver, for instance, used to live in Dharamdas mohalla. He has very vivid memories of a mint located nearby. So it is these landmarks, in the history of rafoogari and of Najibabad, that we want to bring out through this map that the two are working on right now,” she says. Given the magnitude of the task and the intricacy required, this map will remain a work-in-progress for several months.

One can view the progress and the process by appointment.

The fabric nakshas from 2012 are part of the exhibition C13, An Exhibition, A Proposition, A Playground, A House, on view till 7 May at Greater Kailash-1. Book an appointment with Priya Ravish Mehra; email her at priya.ravishmehra@gmail.com to observe the progress of the map being created at the rafoogars baithak. For more details, visit www.ficart.org

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