The traditional art of dhabla has undergone a number of changes and innovative advancements with time. Renu Gupta offers a glimpse into the world of dhabla woollen quilts, blankets and shawls in Gujarat's Kutch.
Dhabla is the common term connoting woollen blanket or quilt used across Gujarat, primarily by a few local communities like Rabari and Bharwad. The signature feature of dhabla is its textured white surface of sheep wool, adorned with yarned extra weft motifs in different shades and hues. The textured surface is embellished with a spectrum of colourfully vibrant acrylic yarns, usually only along the borders to leave the middle portion of the weave completely plain.
The Vankar community weaves dhabla at present. This community originally hails from Rajasthan, where they were called Meghwals. According to popular belief, the Meghwal community was a staunch follower of saint Shri Ram Dev Pirji, who once came to Kutch and the Meghwals followed him. That was the origin of the migration of Meghwals to Kutch. Apart from religion, trade was a factor behind Meghwals' frequent trips to Kutch. They soon understood that Kutchi villages desperately required weavers as there was no weaver community there at that time. The Rabari and Ahir communities were the first to come to Kutch and settle down. The Rabaris reared sheep and are skilled in the art of embroidery, but lacked weaving skills. Consequently, the Vankar community got to work as weavers in these villages and settled down there over time. Earlier, the Rabari womenfolk used to rear the wool from the local sheep and spun wool. After the Meghwals settled down in Kutch, the Rabaris began to offer this handspun wool to the weavers and the weavers spun shawls and blankets for the Rabari men and women.
Traditionally, dhabla was woven in two pieces because the width of the loom in those days used to be narrow as hand shuttles were used for picking. Weaving of fabrics of wider width was not possible with hand shuttle. Therefore, a blanket was woven in two pieces, each 26-inch wide and 100-inch long. The Rabari women then finely stitched the two pieces together.
The traditional dhabla used to be very heavy. Two-ply yarn was used for quilts and single-ply yarn was used for shawls. The shawls were said to be so tightly woven that rain drops couldn't penetrate inside. The men folk wore dhabla throughout the day.
The shawls woven for women were known as luri. These black luris had less extra weft patterns than dhabla. It was chiefly of plain weave. The Rabaris used to ornament the luris by using bandhani. They made red dots against black background and embroidered it extensively. These luris were used by newly-married women. Young girls of marriageable age used to embroider luris for themselves. They adorned those with beautiful mirror work and thread work. The length of the luri was more than that of the dhabla as women folk used to drape it around themselves just like a saree. It length was about 130 inches and width 48 inches.
Raw materials used
Wool is the fundamental requirement of the dhabla weave. In spite of hot weather in both Rajasthan and Kutch, the artisans were occupied in wool weaving for most part of the year instead of using some other lighter fabric like cotton because of the availability of wool in Kutch. Traditionally, the Rabaris extracted wool from the local sheep twice a year - once before rain and the other towards the end of winter. Earlier the quantity of wool generated was just sufficient enough to cater to the domestic demand. But gradually, as the craft flourished, the demand of wool increased and eventually, the weavers realised the need of procuring wool from outside. The local wool was not of superior quality either.
The weavers now use the following four kinds of yarns:
Hundred percent Merino wool: It is procured from Ludhiana towards the end of winter. Its use increases the cost of end product exorbitantly for the local market.
Acrylic wool: This is relatively cheaper.
Desi wool: It is the variety generated from local sheep in Kutch and Rajasthan.
Silk: Different varieties of silk like tussar procured from Bihar are used.
Traditionally, undyed natural wool was used and the natural colours were black, white and brown. Gradually as people got skilled in the art of dyeing, they began colouring the wool. At present, the demand of coloured weave has increased, which in turn has enhanced use of dyed wool.
Wool is dyed now using vegetable dyes. In vegetable dyeing, a number of natural ingredients like onion peels, lac, madder, harad, dates etc. are used.
Weaving a Rabari shawl
The traditional time consuming and expensive method of weaving a Rabari shawl, no more prevalent, is as follows:
Wool is first spun by either the weaver's family, most often the women, or the Rabari communities.
Next the weaver weaves the fabric. The old fashioned pit looms used to be just wide enough for one half of the shawl.Hence two pieces were first woven. And then they were sewn together through distinctive and ornamental fish stitch.
The woven fabric was then sent to the dyers. If it had to be tie-dyed, the fabric was first handed over to the Rabari woman customer for selection of her preferred pattern.
After dyeing, it was returned to the Rabari women who would bedeck the shawl with elaborate, dense vibrantly-coloured embroidery.
Till a few years back, shearing was done by the shepherds themselves. Presently sheep shearers come from regions close to Rajasthan borders twice a year and commute from village to village to shear the sheep.
Motifs: The design repertoire has traditional patterns based on daily life of the weavers - mostly geometrical motifs. Only pointed motifs can be generated through extra weft patterning technique used by the weavers. Fine curvilinear motifs can't be produced. Very simple layouts were in vogue traditionally. But at present, overall jaal and patterning using the same traditional geometrical motifs are prevalent. Warp wise stripes are also in vogue.
Colour palette: The traditional dhabla used to have a few colours in natural dyes - white, black, maroon and sometimes brown. The body used to be white with black and maroon extra weft patterning. Sometimes warp-wise borders with black and maroon were made. Patterning was very less mostly. The Ahir community got its dhabla woven in seven colours -blue, black, green, orange, rust, pink and red.
The scenario now
This traditional art has undergone a number of changes and innovative advancements with time. The weavers earlier used pit looms on which one person could sit and weave at a time. But after the 2001 earthquake, frame looms have replaced pit looms. Similar changes have been observed in the method of weft insertion. Fly shuttles are now being used in place of hand shuttles, which has facilitated weaving of fabric with wider width. Weaving now is much speedier. The artisans perceive the quake to be a blessing in disguise. Although they incurred huge losses, but in the long run this craft gained momentum, generating warp side stripes.
The government, a number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and designers are behind this craft revival. Several designers have been spending a lot of time with weavers and on their suggestion, weavers have resorted to using a much finer reed and other materials like cotton and silk. They are also providing the weavers a vision of current market trends. Consequently, the weavers have expanded their product range beyond shawls and blankets.
The yarn count has become finer. The layouts have also witnessed a tremendous change. A much elaborate work of patterning is observed today and the body has embroidery work in addition to the borders. The colour palette has acquired a contemporary tone.
Now the weavers continue weaving up to September and from October to February end. They visit several regions and states of India. They make it a point to register their presence in all the chief craft fairs like the Surajkund Crafts Mela and Virasat. This provides them a lot of exposure to buyers and also helps them in understanding the market trends. Their primary target markets are in north India. As almost all the craftsmen produce the same craft items and all attend the same exhibitions, they deliberately try to create products different in design because this saves them from unnecessary competition among themselves.
Besides, there are a number of NGOs scattered across the Kutch region. The NGOs constantly interact with the weavers and keep in touch with a number of fashion designing institutes like the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad and the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) and invite their faculty for guidance. These NGOs conduct short-term training programmes as well.
The pricing of dhabla weaves is done on the basis of quantity of extra weft patterning. If the patterning is finer and elaborate, it will require more labour and time.