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  • Writer's pictureAzera Rahman

Changes in local climate impact Kachchh’s traditional crafts and craftspeople

For Mongabay India

Published on 14 September 2023

Sai, potter Razak bhai's daughter in Tuna, Kutch, paints the pots

  • Erratic rainfall, more heatwaves, cyclones and a gradual shift in seasons are affecting the craftspeople and artisans of Kachchh, who mostly depend on natural resources and predictable weather for their art and livelihood.

  • Reports by India Meteorological Department and other agencies say that Kachchh has been witnessing more intense rainfall, heatwaves and cyclonic activity over the past few years.

  • Disappearing local species of plants used for natural dyes, growth of invasive plant species, increasing salinity of potter’s earth are some ways in which the changing weather patterns and the consequent environmental impacts are leading to economic loss in the district.

In the village Tuna that lies by the sea in Kachchh, Gujarat, Razak bhai sat watching the rain clouds gather in the sky. Razak bhai is a potter and one of the last few remaining craftsmen in this village to continue in this traditional line of work. It is said that no other pot keeps water as cool as the pots from Tuna —even in the scorching heat of Kachchh’s summers. The water stored in these pots tastes fresh, almost sweet.

“But as in the last three-four years, this year too the summers have been very brief,” said Razak bhai. “It was raining in the beginning of summers and then the cyclone (Biparjoy) brought more rains. Who will buy pots in such weather?”

In a region well-known for its variety of crafts, most of which are dependent on natural resources, climatic changes such as erratic rainfall, heatwaves and increasing cyclonic activity are affecting Kachchh’s artisans in myriad ways. For some, like the potters of Tuna, these challenges have made their craft unsustainable.

Shorter production season, lower quality of raw material

Talking about the difficulties he is facing, Razak bhai said, “We usually make pots and sell them for most of the year, which is about eight months, except the monsoons. But over the last three years, we have been able to do so for just six or six and a half months. It’s raining more than earlier.” These erratic rains have also made the soil, that the potters get from the sea bed, more saline. The consistency is different too, making it more difficult to mould, he adds. Additionally, it makes the pot-making process where the kiln is fired and the pots baked, more challenging.

Pots in a kiln in Tuna, Gujarat

Erratic rainfall, more heatwaves, cyclones and a gradual shift in seasons are affecting other craftspeople and artisans too.

V. Shamji, a weaver in Bhujodi, located about 50 kilometres from Tuna and six kilometres from Bhuj, attributed the changing climate for lower wool quality. Bhujodi is also known as the weavers’ village and its woolen shawls, stoles and rugs have both domestic and international buyers.

Elaborating on the challenges that weavers like him are facing, Shamji said a delayed onset of winters is affecting the quality of the wool. “Earlier, we would shear the sheep twice a year— in February, when winters recede and then in the beginning of July,” Shamji told Mongabay-India. “But now winters extend to almost the end of February, as a result of which we have to shear in the first week of March. The second shearing is also affected because of this.” He claims that the seasonal shift has lowered the wool quality.

In the same vein, unexpected dry spells are also affecting the fodder quality for the sheep and other animals. This is perhaps making the wool “more coarse,” said Rana Jaimal Vankar, another weaver.

Changing climate of Kachchh

Kachchh has been facing the brunt of climatic changes, which have become more visible over the last few years. According to a research paper by Manorama Mohanty of the India Meteorological Department and Kamaljit Ray of Ministry of Earth Sciences, the average seasonal rainfall over Kachchh in the previous three decades (between 1984 and 2013) has increased from 378 mm to 674 mm.

Experts also say that the increase in cyclonic activity over the Arabian Sea at the beginning and end of the monsoon season has impacted the rain days in Kachchh. Another report by the Gujarat Institute of Disaster Management said that the frequency and intensity of cyclonic activity over the Arabian Sea has increased between 2001 and 2019.

According to M. Mohapatra, the Director General of Meteorology at the India Meteorological Department, this is happening because of an increasing sea surface temperature.

“There has been an increasing trend in the number of intense cyclones over the Arabian Sea since 1990. This, and the increase in the heavy rainfall days, is because of rise in sea surface temperature,” Mohapatra told Mongabay-India. It could also be the reason behind the increase in heatwaves. According to the Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority, the intensity and frequency of heatwaves in the state in the last decade has increased as a result of “rapid climate change, urbanisation and rapid industrialisation.”

Local plant species becoming rarer

The effect of such changes in climate is possibly why certain local species of plants that once thrived in the semi-arid landscape of Kachchh and were a major raw material source for artisans, have now either diminished or almost disappeared.

Khamir, an organisation that works with artisans in Kachchh, collected the names of some of these plants in a report, developed along with environment action group Kalpavriksh and published in 2019. “Leaves and bark of baawad or desi babul (Acacia nilotica) were once used extensively to get the black colour dye for Rabari skirts,” the report said, referring to the richly embroidered skirts worn by women of the nomadic Rabari community. “With time this species is difficult to find, replaced by gando bawal (Prosopis juliflora).”

P. juliflora is an invasive species of plant. Invasive alien species are one of the main causes of biodiversity loss and species extinction, according to IUCN and the proliferation of invasive species is often exacerbated by climate change.

The report also mentioned that Indigofera tinctoria which was once the main dye used on yarn for indigo colour, is now becoming increasingly rare in Kachchh. V. Naran bhai, a woolen carpet weaver in Bhujodi added, “Earlier the ber tree from which lac would be obtained to get the natural red dye, was easily found. Now it’s no longer so.”

Such changes in climate are affecting craftspeople in block printing and batik printing too. “Unseasonal and erratic rains affects the planning and production process of those in block printing and batik printing,” Ghatit Laheru of Khamir told Mongabay-India. In Ajrakh block printing, for instance, sun-drying of the cloth is a crucial part of the 16-stage process using natural dyes. This is why work takes a break during the monsoons — typically about four months. Erratic rainfall has however been punctuating their production unexpectedly.

Cloth pieces laid out in the sun to dry before being block-printed on in Ajrakhpur.

“We stopped our work completely for about eight-ten days during the cyclone (Biparjoy) because of the rains,” Khalid Khatri, a young Ajrakh craftsman told Mongabay-India, “There were unexpected, heavy rains in the beginning of summers too this year.” Evidently, this translates into economic losses.

For some, like the potters of Tuna, climatic changes adding to the challenges they were already facing, has become overwhelming. “Earlier there were 70 potter families in our village. Now there are just about 40. Many kaarigars (artisans) left this traditional work this year,” says Razak bhai. Increasing expenses on fuel to ferry raw material home and to take the pots to the market as well as lowering prices of the pots themselves — from Rs. 70 to Rs. 50 — is a major challenge for continuing in this line of work.

Resilience in the face of change

Razak bhai, however, will continue his craft. “I know nothing else,” he said, “And anyway, my back is now weak after years of working in a bent position over the potter’s wheel. I cannot work as a daily wage earner like some others are.”

Laheru, however, is confident that Kachchh’s craftsmen will stand resilient in the face of these challenges. “In any case, the complete dependency on natural resources has been on the wane for the past few years now,” he said. For instance, instead of using only natural dyes, artificial colours are also used. Be it the forces of the market when handcrafted products are pitted against cheaper, factory-made replicas, or the force of climate change, Kachchh’s crafts and craftspeople know that the only way to survive and carry forward their tradition is to abide by the law of nature: adapt to the change, or perish.

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