Jyoti Shukla
Manager, Centre for Heritage Management Arts

With a history of exclusion and caste-based discrimination, the Devipujaks (worshippers of the Mother Goddess) have come a long way and carved out an
identity of their own through the creation of the Kalamkari (hand-painted) tradition called Mata ni Pachhedi. A community of painters, hand printers, and dyers, settled in a small urban slum in Vasna, Ahmedabad, are struggling to sustain themselves by keeping alive this age-old art. This article attempts to capture the artform Mata ni Pachhedi and how the community is working on sustaining the textile tradition despite facing numerous challenges.

Goddess Meldi in Mata in Pachhedi painting © Kirit Chitara

Mata ni Pachhedi was started by the Chitara, part of the Devipujak community of Gujarat. They were a nomadic tribe that traveled from place to place along the Sabarmati river. The idea of the paintings originated at a time when temples or idols were being destroyed during invasions. As a result, the community painted the Mother Goddess on pieces of cloth and started traveling with the textile wherever they moved. The cloth, considered sacred, was kept in an earthen
pot or copper vessel during journeys; when the people reached a camping ground, multiple painted cloths were taken out to construct tents. This sacred fabric came to be known as Mata ni Pachhedi, which translates as “Behind the Mother Goddess.”

This tradition has evolved over time and has incorporated many changes. During the nine-day Navratri festival celebrated widely in Gujarat, the Chitara worship the traditional cloth with numerous other communities. The cloth is worshiped and celebrated with folk songs and rituals practiced by communities that apart from Chitara (makers of the cloth), also include Bhuva (priests who perform the rituals) and Jagariya (who interpret the Pachhedi and sing songs).

Based in Ahmedabad, the textile city of India, the Chitara community is the only one practicing this centuries-old craft that is disappearing from the public knowledge. The word “Chitara” refers to a chitrakar, or a painter. Hence, the community that produced the handmade paintings began to be called Chitara. They are part of a seven-hundred-year-old textile art tradition and have continued to pump life into this dying craft. Some prominent artisans from the Chitara
community include Bhulabhai Chitara, the first artisan to have won a national award for the craft and to make a name for the textile art. Chandrakant Chitara, the master artisan who has received global acknowledgment for his work, and Kiran Chitara have both received the national award for their craftsmanship as well. The younger artisans in the community include Kirit Chitara, who has created his own identity for new innovation in the craft, and the first woman artisan, Niral Chitara, who is learning from her family and carving out her own name, which should encourage more women artisans to enter what is traditionally a male-dominated space. All of them have shared their knowledge of this incredibly rich cultural heritage and numerous stories relating to it.

Outlines of the Mata ni Pachhedi painting © Niral Chitara

Making a Mata ni Pachhedi painting involves the following process:
1. The cotton fabric is soaked in water for twenty-four hours as otherwise it is unsuitable for printing or dying due to the accumulation of starch in the cloth.
2. It is then soaked in Harda (Myrobalan) solution for fifteen minutes and dried completely in sunlight.
3. The outline of the Mother Goddess on her vehicle is drawn in the center along with numerous other characters with the help of a bamboo stick and black dye. (The black dye is prepared using scrap iron, jaggery, and water, and is fermented for two to three weeks. Tamarind seed powder is then added and the mixture is boiled until it achieves a thick consistency.)
4. After the outline illustration dries, the painting is filled with red color that is made of alum and tamarind seed powder. The remaining white area is left blank, and wooden blocks are used for the borders. The cloth is thereafter dried in sunlight.
5. After the application of the two traditional colors (red and black), the artisan takes the cloth to the river for washing. This process requires running water as it helps to remove excess color and does not leave a stain on the cloth. The black and red colors were used traditionally in the paintings to ward off evil powers as well as to signify auspicious festivities. Many more colors have since been incorporated in the art, including blue, yellow, and green, using traditional methods of extracting colors from natural materials.
6. Once the cloth is completely washed, it is then boiled in water on a high temperature with the mixture of dhavdi (fire flame bush) flowers and alizarin. This helps to fix the color on the cloth. Afterwards, it is washed in plain water again.

Natural ingredients used to make dyes in Mata ni Pachhedi paintings © Niral Chitara

The paintings are a true representation of craftsmanship and cultural creativity. However, with the declining number of artisans, the identity of the community is under serious threat with increasingly less means to sustain it. The communities are also gradually losing access to the river, which happens to be an essential requirement of this craft. With such decreasing opportunities, the Chitara hope to present their stories by adopting more innovative ideas, unfortunately so far without much support.

The Mata ni Pachhedi craft boasts a distinct identity and has a rich cultural value not only for the Devipujak but also for craft consumers. Sadly, this natural and completely handmade art is fading away with the demand for cheap paintings; as a result, screen-printed cloths have entered the market, creating difficulties for the traditional practitioners of this craft. With more awareness about cultural heritage, one can only hope that such rich crafts not only continue to exist but
also to inspire the next generations by telling them stories of ancient times.

NOTE
1. L.A. Alekseeva and J. Nazhmedenov. “Features of the musical structure of the Kazakh dombra.” Kazakh Culture: Research and Search. Collection of scientific articles. Almaty, 2000. pp. 69–70.