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.