There is only one place in the world where rogan art is practiced, and that is in the sleepy town of Narona in Gujarat, in India’s isolated northwest. Isolated it may be, but the fame of the rogan practitioners has spread far and wide, so much so, that a rogan work was selected by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to present to Barack Obama on the occasion of his visit to the United States in 2014.
It is easy to understand why this difficult and painstaking art form is so rare. It is not a technique that comes naturally, and requires a steady hand and great precision. Rogan, meaning ‘oil’ in Persian, refers to a special paste, or paint, which is applied to fabric, typically cotton or silk. The paint is made from castor oil, derived from the castor plant which is farmed prolifically in these parts. To make the paste, the oil is boiled with water for over 12 hours and then mixed with cold water.
The addition of pigments, chalk and a binding agent then turn the paste into a gloopy, sticky, stretchy puddle, which is applied to the fabric using a pointed stick. Patterns are created by stretching the paste to make fine lines, and allowing the paint to adhere where it falls. The trick is in letting the ‘tail’ fall in the right position, and then in flicking the stick so that the sticky paint is neatly cut off. At no time does the stick ever touch the fabric – it merely serves to guide and lead the elastic lines in the desired patterns.
As is typical in Muslim art, rogan subject matter eschews animal or human forms and instead features fine decorative, floral or geometric motifs. The tree of life and circular mandalas are prevalent themes.
In Narona, rogan is practiced by the members of the Khatri family, who have passed down the tradition through the generations for over three hundred years. Today, family patriarch Gafur ensures that all members of the family learn the art, and they have also started teaching others in the village.
With the help of advocates such as the Prime Minister and support from various NGO’s, the Khatris are well on the way to ensuring that rogan art will occupy a permanent place in India’s cultural heritage.