Saviours Of Style
A spotlight on the Rafoogars, the invisible Indian artists of darning
Chitra Balasubramaniam shines a spotlight on the invisible Indian artists of darning – the Rafoogars. Skilled in the art of mending fabrics, these artists are uniquely skilful when it comes to reviving damaged clothing.
It is said that a stitch in time saves nine; and a group of darners in India truly sew through the fabric of time. The Rafoogars, expert Indian garment restorers, recreate entire garments with finesse. Whether it is a regular dress or a luxury item of clothing, if any apparel is broken, they fix it! Torn fabrics are sewn together so beautifully that the wearer would forget it was even torn.
Once a part of every market, their numbers are dwindling. They would sit and ply their trade, darning and mending garments with small tears or even those which were literally in tatters. They would do it slowly and steadily but when one would return, one could barely see the tear. Rafoogari was usually sought to repair winter garments, especially expensive shawls, sweaters, jackets. So refined are the skills of the Rafoogars, they simply pick up nuances of a new fabric and repair it. From silk, chiffon, georgettes, Dhaka Muslin, fine cotton to even newer fabrics like Lycra, Tencel and more, there’s no material they can’t renew.
Priya Ravish Mehra, a textile historian, has worked with the Rafoogars of Najibabad to give them recognition and a platform where their works are visible to the world at large. The expertise of Rafoogars is seldom celebrated. An antique dealer may get a shawl restored from them and sell it through antique galleries at astonishing sums but the unsung hands
which pieced and restored the piece remain anonymous. Priya Ravish Mehra has held baithaks where the work of the Rafoogars has been exhibited. Such initiatives help them to come in contact with people and increase the demand for their work. She has, through her exhibitions in India and abroad, created awareness of the Rafoogars from Najibabad. This recognition has given them a sense of pride in their work and a confidence to continue with it and even encourage the next generation to take it up. The awareness also brings in orders and jobs and thus increases the earnings of the Rafoogars. It is after visiting one such event recently that I understood that the work done by the Rafoogar in a span of minutes is because of the skill he has
Rafoogars have picked up their skill from many places. Each locality has its own special rafoogars. The bylanes of Chandni Chowk have some very well known and famous ones. Rafoogars can be called a jack of all trades when it comes to textiles. They can sew, embroider, rework the fabric and attach it to something else. It is their innate understanding of the textiles which helps them to function with such ease. A Rafoogar working on a carpet will work like a weaver and filler. He will weave the base fabric and fill it with piles of the same colour so that the damaged area is just not visible. Working with basic tools, the Rafoogars can create magic with
They don’t have a special stitch, but the Rafoogars understand the fabric and its construction. Priya Ravish Mehra has managed to put together a sampler of all stitches that are Rafoogari specialties. The panels which were on display tell a story about the stitches and how it was done by the workers. It is her passion and in-depth working with the craftsmen which has resulted in such an exercise. She has also worked to create contemporary pieces paying homage to the stitches which are usually hidden or invisible, giving it a pride of place as a means of ornamentation or decoration.
RAFOOGARS HAVE PICKED UP THEIR SKILL FROM MANY PLACES. EACH LOCALITY HAS ITS OWN SPECIAL RAFOOGARS.