Review by Hemavathy Guha
April 15, 2018


Making Visible: The Rafoogars and the Journey of a Shawl
Curated by Priya Ravish Mehra
April 10-17, 2018
IIC Annexe, New Delhi

Contrary to the normal exhibitions that we are generally acquainted with to seeing in art galleries, Indian International Centre along with Craft Revival Trust, Delhi and artist Priya Ravish Mehra recently treated us to a totally different type of exhibition which took us to another realm providing knowledge, both historical and pedagogical about several things which many of us are not aware of. The concerned exhibition is the recently held ‘Rafoogar’ exhibition at India international centre annexe. The artist Priya Ravish Mehra in her curatorial note says “Rafoogari, the traditional skill of darning has existed in India for centuries. The exhibition introduces the crucial role of the Rafoogars, the traditional darners, in the creation, maintenance and renewal of antique kani loom woven and amli embroidered pashmina shawls of Kashmir. It is truly ironic that the skilled artisans who still specialize in darning and an embroidery that is so fine as to be considered ‘invisible’ have, with the passage of time and exponential changes in textile technology consistently remained practically invisible themselves”. However, many of us in the art fraternity in Delhi and at international level also, have been familiar with artist Priya Mehra’s engagement with the ‘Rafoogars of Nazibabad’ for quite some years.

The Rafoogars are a community of professional darners. But darning, doesn’t mean just mending a piece of torn garment, but rather it is doing it very artistically, matching the design, colour, texture, the warp and the weft and many more hidden things. As I talked to the master darner, Intekhab Ahmad, he told me that many of them sit together and discuss how a piece can be mended in the best possible manner, with each of them offering their expertise on different aspects like colour coordination, design or yarn alignment and so on. Sometimes they have to wait for nearly six months in order that they could get hold of a particular fragment of a piece of cloth with identical pattern which might match with another damaged piece they have been provided with. So, the customer and the darner have to be patient to get the ultimate fine result. It is not like getting an assignment and just finishing it off. In this sense, they are true artists.

On display were several pashmina shawls and a men’s coat called Chagha, all neatly darned and displayed like paintings. The accompanying notes explain the method of darning which had been adopted for each of the garments respectively. So, I begin with the first exhibit called ‘Ek kadar’ which was a pashmina kani shawl made on loom. This shawl, which was 150-years-old had a booti motif in red colour and a border had been added to it to make it look more finished.

Another machine made shawl with paisley motif in green colour was displayed next to ‘Ek Kadar’ .The centre part of this shawl had been totally redone with lining from behind in a light green shade. Stitching had not been done only at the joints or edges, but there were four rows of stitching across the length of the shawl so that the cloth doesn’t warp.

Another jamawar shawl from Hyderabad was displayed in which even colours have been reapplied with a bamboo brush using vegetable pigments. The shawl had been recomposed by joining three panels together, painted in with colour and reworked with rafoo by the Rafoogars.

Another interesting piece was a 120 inch shawl, which had been cut and made into three identical lady’s shawls in which the centre part had been taken from another piece.

A 150-year-old machine made shawl from Scotland with the paisley motive was another attraction, while a 300-year-old shawl had been darned by different people as informed by the darner Intekhab Ahmad. He also informed that the linings are given in muslin cloth as it attaches well to the paschmina preventing slippage. A gent’s shawl in beige colour had been reconstructed with needle work from a rumal square shawl. The border had been recomposed with patchwork, but it is visible when seen from the back.

There were some shawls on display, which were being referred to as ‘thali’ shawl. The centre of this type of work is in black colour and it can be viewed as a reincarnation of other shawls as its border and centre piece have both come from different rumals and square shawls. The ‘thali’ shawl is interesting as the centre portion looks like a thali or plate and it is actually a different piece from another shawl which had been incorporated in this shawl. Sometimes one can see some needle work on the shawls which look like a script and it was attributed to the signature of the Rafoogar.

The master darner also informed us that the Makhi (insects) booti rumal square pashmina shawl on display took them six years to complete the work. The hand stitched pashmina choga long sleeved men’s coat can be traced back to 50 years as can its needle worked border. The borders were attached to the choga by the rafoogars around two years ago. The kani gents pashmina shawl had been replaced and various parts had been joined to recompose the shawl. As people no longer wear shawls of heavy size, the Rafoogars use them as a source of cut pieces for new shawls for women.

There were also some damaged fragments of shawls displayed in a box.

Sometimes, a family owns just one antique shawl, but every member of the family would be interested in owning it. At this juncture, rafoogar steps in who cuts the original shawl, adds borders and center pieces to it and makes it into three lady’s shawls! There was also a ‘baitak’ or demonstration of the manner in which they do the mending over several days where a small piece of cloth was provided and masters taught the visitors some basic techniques. Sometimes, they take out the yarn from the border of the shawl, which is used in mending other parts in the centre or the sides. They also have a different way of needling the thread, which is holding the thread in one hand between fingers and inserting the needle over it. The Rafoogar explained that frequently he has to change the thread as sometimes the thread available is very short or it breaks, and hence the necessity to do it very quickly. However much I tried, I could not learn their method!

Those keen to learn were taught how to close a tear in a cloth by extending the warp and the weft over the gap in a checkered pattern, which I could learn and thought would come in handy sometimes.

The exhibition on ‘Rafoogari’ meaning darning was really an eye opener and it really brought the common people and the Rafoogars as a community closer by disseminating knowledge and skills.