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Making Fair Progress

Making Fair Progress

Author: Uday Mahurkar
Publication: India Today
Date: November 7, 2005

Introduction: Tradition meets modernity in a cultural extravaganza in arid Kutch as Gujarat packages the region as a tourism hot spot

There is a new buzz on the Indian tourist circuit, and it originates from the unlikeliest of destinations. Kutch in Gujarat is a flat, endless desert that has, till now, been largely known for its population of wild asses and, of course, the earthquake that devastated the region in 2001. Out of the desert, however, emerges a mirage, but one that is very real. Finally, the state Government has woken up to the region's tourism potential and if the Sharad Utsav held from October 16 to 18 is any indication, the Rann of Kutch could soon rival Jaisalmer and Pushkar in neighbouring Rajasthan.

For all its perceived desolation, Kutch has some obvious advantages. The salt desert is unique, woven as it is into an ecosystem comprising creeks and mangroves and pristine beaches. Equally saleable are the exquisite handicrafts made by local tribes which have a heritage going back centuries. If ecotourism should be the buzzword, then there are rare wildlife species like the wild ass and the Great Indian Bustard. What Kutch lacked till now was promotion as a tourist haven by the government as well as travel operators. Last week's festival, organised jointly by the state Government and local citizens, was staged under the light of the full moon on the occasion of Sharad Purnima and represented the biggest attempt as yet to sell the myriad attractions of Kutch to the tourist.

Travel operators, including those who regularly participate in the Jaisalmer and Pushkar festivals, and the large number of foreign tourists present at the occasion were charmed by the sheer colour of the event and the zeal of the people -25,000 came for the fair every day-in the middle of nowhere. Thirty kilometres from Bhuj, the festival venue, spread over an expanse of 4 sq km of desert, comprised 400 luxury tents, 150 of them air-conditioned, a typical Kutchi village of 25 huts housing five local tribes and two big exhibitions, a handicraft bazaar and a village fest with 200 stalls showcasing everything from the region's crafts to cuisine. Old-timers say that on Sharad Purnima, Goddess Lakshmi flits across the night sky, showering gifts to those who are not asleep. This time, though, it was the pyrotechnics in the amphitheatre that made sure that many stayed up all night.

Kutch Collector Pradip Sharma, one of the architects of the event, offered a potpourri of local ingredients for the novelty-seeking globetrotter. In a faint replica of the Pushkar mela, there were camel races and horse races. Chief Minister Narendra Modi himself went around in a camel safari and his dream project was well on its way. A show of Mal Kushti, a form of wrestling known as bakh malakho in Kutchi and which is nearly extinct today, was part of the attractions. The wrestling show, jokingly called rural WWF, was staged to the beats of the dholak. The ethnic flavours were matched by a good dose of modern elements: hot-air ballooning and a captivating air show by the Surya Kiran team of the Indian Air Force. While tourists shopped for knick-knacks at the Bhujodi crafts village, a fashion show by young designers of the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Gandhinagar, displayed the best of Kutchi textiles and embroidery.

Says Ranjit Singh Muli, a Mumbai-based travel operator, who has done the round of the top tourist festivals in the country: "The Sharad Utsav has the right mix to attract the international tourist. It has the potential to emerge as a popular event on the festival calendar." This year, the event was organised with the help of corporate houses which chipped in Rs 2 crore. However, organisers are optimistic that the event will cut even soon. The feel-good factor has spread to Kutchi artists. Double flute player Musa Ghulam Jat, who has performed in shows abroad, finally got a chance to display his art before an appreciative home crowd. Says the grateful Jat: "I never imagined that such a show could be organised in this remote area. It can go a long way in helping artists."

If the sword dance of the Sodha Rajputs along the Indo-Pak border in Kutch and Rajasthan was novel, the garba dance of the Mer community of Porbandar brought the best of dandiya raas to town. The piece de resistance was 2,000 dancers playing garba under the full moon. As Michelle Decamoncle, a travel writer from Belgium, says, "The Sharad Utsav will give many festivals a run for their money." Mahendra Singh Vaghela, the only travel operator who runs an ethnic Kutchi lodge in the area, agrees. "If this festival is made a regular feature, it will change the face of Kutch," he says.

Kutch had never been packaged like this. The team of craftsmen which erected a Kutchi village for Aamir Khan's Lagaan raised a similar one showcasing the lifestyle of five tribes of Kutch in 25 huts. The Kumbhars, Muslim Jats, Ahirs, Rabaris and the Sodha Rajputs lived here for three nights, carrying on the activities for which they are known-from embroidery to pottery-making. For the Kutchis, it has been a moonlit sonata. Now only if it would translate into hard cash from tourism.

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