The documentation of historical narratives over decades has taken diverse forms—some conventional, others peculiar to say the least. While chirographic-centred work has taken the main lead in mainstream annals of history, there are multiple cultures whose methods of remembrance depart from majoritarian conceptions. By this, one means that there exist communities who rely on other methods of documentation apart from textual ones. This article explores one such form i.e., The art of Lippan Kaam. Emerging from the white plains of Kutch, Gujarat, Lippan work borrows its etymology from the word “lippai” literally translated as “to rub in” or “to apply.” Birthed from a combination of clay, wild ass dung, and natural tree-gum, these seemingly rudimentary materials when placed in the hands of a master artist, come together to create life-giving art. This simple act of rolling mud into parallel lines and sticking them onto surfaces carries within it deep symbolic, communal, and ritualistic value. For instance, in our conversation with Master artist Nalemitha Mutva of Dhordo village, he revealed to us that his initial association with Lippan coincided with his marriage. As per his community’s custom during celebratory occasions, he had picked up clay to decorate his bunga (“house”). However, this act led to a personal calling much beyond a calendar date.
Traditionally, Lippan kaam was a highly gendered practice. Womenfolk, who spent most of their time within the confines of domestic households under the purdah system, made conscious efforts to spruce up their living conditions by decorating their hearths, walls, shelves, windows, furniture and so on. The clay mixture when dried, naturally emitted a white chalky glow which in turn brightened the circular dome of their bungas. However, these culturally practised roles drastically shifted with the major earthquake of 2001 which altered the course of the Indus River. With the land transforming to never-ending barren plains in the aftermath, local livelihood made from farming, cattle-rearing, and so on underwent major revisions. One such project ‘the annual Rann Utsav of Kutch’ started in 2005, provided the impetus to “change roles’’, so to say. Pioneered by Master Mehmood Bhai (also Mitha Bhai’s mentor), men actively began learning the art of Lippan Kaam. Groups of artists would painstakingly produce art pieces by the bulk and showcase them at festivals, thus eventually putting this minor art form onto the map. As art is subject to changing tides of time, Lippan Kaam also transmuted its original markings. The quintessential white stamp of Lippan slowly but surely began being substituted by vibrant trending colours of lime green, terracotta red, cobalt blue and so on. Mitha bhai reflected on this change as a sad yet necessary evolution.
It was his interpretation that Lippan has outgrown its initial organic conception so much so that the very term “Lippan” is being replaced to mean “mud work.” A cursory glance of contemporary materials used will assuage your doubts. Condiments for Lippan work range from refined chalk powder, Fevicol, newspaper pulp to MDF boards. Not only are the techniques of application different from the original, but also the very designs and motifs of the art. Cultural restrictions of the Mehwar and Mutva communities prevent them from tracing human and non-human figures. These norms however are flouted in current Lippan art. Nevertheless, it is of importance to note that Lippan art, although traced to select communities like the Rabari and Mutva, does not limit itself to its immediate boundaries. Its influences cross and draw inspiration from Garasia, Jat and other connected communities. To further cement this shared heritage, Mitha bhai narrated instances where different communities helped in “adding” or “completing” motifs considered taboo by the others. This symbiotic relationship fostered over art— over the passing of clay, bears examples of community and kinship lines trumping parochial ones.
Art, especially Lippan Kaam, is made meaningful not merely because it is inspired by its environment but also because it bears testimony to the ways in which individuals’ band together and dedicate their lives to it. One interesting aspect that spurred me to think of Lippan as “lines that speak” or “speaking lines'' is the fact that in its original form, the artist-maker’s hand-print on the clay was considered a mark of infinite glory and pride. In its singular act of imprint, the clay becomes a pocket of history. The ability of mud, a tangible material, to permeate immateriality through its moulder/artisan, creates a sense of peace. It gives an image to a passing memory. The people of Kutch who were left devastated after the earthquake began re-imagining their histories through art. The recurrent motifs of fish scales, various species of trees, leaf patterns, fruit texture, rainfall and even ancient games like dice etc. in such a milieu can be seen as a testament of a people’s will to exist, to remember, to be. The reconstruction of memory into physical lines embedded into houses, corridors, bears evidence of how expressions are indefinitely intertwined with bodies and their movements. On asking Mitha Bhai to explain the reasoning behind “remembering” and “imitating” influences from nature, he promptly stated that work such as Lippan also served as documentation for the future generation. The tree leaf motif or the flower Bhori’s petals for example, operate as guidelines: Firstly, its unique design might inspire younger generations to enquire about its origins thus community history, and secondly, as a footprint of memory if in extreme cases the flower or tree species became extinct.
Art, like everything else, does not develop in isolation. Similar to a word following a word, an ant following an ant, and light following the dark, artistic utterances continue to exist because people and their stories do not cease. Even in this age of hyper-capitalism, Mitha Bhai stretches out his hands in hope; in hope that there remain few who will continue to listen, read, and work to conserve fleeting moments such as these. The swapping of originality for convenience of mass production has dented artists who have submitted themselves to their calling. He added that people are quick to prioritise monetary value of art pieces over its actual creation. A cheaper factory product of inferior quality will find a ready buyer, whereas a hand-made art piece crafted over two-three weeks is left to collect dust. In sombre tones he concludes with this:
“People seem to want things to go extinct. When a thing finally dies away, they utter, “Oh, it was the best!”, “Oh, let us make a museum to memorialise its life!”
But why, why do we not appreciate life and all it has inspired– when it is nestled between the palms of our hands?”
- Ramji Devraj Marwada and Family https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/history/ghcc/eac/oralhistoryproject/resources/ramjimarwada/
- Lippan Kaam: The Glittering Art of the Kutch
- Mud Mirror Art: https://www.dsource.in/resource/mud-mirror-art
- Embroidery of Gujarat: https://books.google.co.in/books?id=oNAwl-jS3gwC&pg=PA21&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false
- You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v76tzU7ddwE&ab_channel=MeMeraki
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