One has of late rued the fact of the thinning tribe of the Rafoogars, such fine restorers, seemingly lost in the tide of time. Priceless shawls and carpets, hyped up no less for their antiquity and preservation value, in addition to fine craftsmanship, would cease to exist but for the fine hand of these restorers. Rafoogari, the traditional skill of darning, has existed in India for centuries.

In a collaboration between Priya Ravish Mehra, Craft Revival Trust and India International Centre a week-long exhibition that concluded on 17 April, introduced the crucial role of the Rafoogars, the traditional darners, in the creation, maintenance and renewal of antique Kani loom-woven and Amli embroidered Pashmina shawls of Kashmir.

It is truly ironic that the skilled artisans, who still specialize in darning and an embroidery that is so fine as to be considered “invisible”, have, with the passage of time and exponential changes in textile technology, consistently remained practically invisible themselves.

Yet today’s master Rafoogars still command an astonishing precision ~ within micro-millimeters ~ with the wielding of their needle in relation to repair of any kind of fabric. Just as significant as the Rafoogars’ virtuosity with the needle is their intuitive diagnosis of textile damage and their deep knowledge of restoration methodology that enables them to work with equal ease on delicate 18th century Kani pashmina shawls and on fine high count Jamdani muslin.

Rafoogari is indeed an expression of fidelity to the original design template, but as a living tradition it is non-mimetic ~ rather, it is inevitably and simultaneously a recursion, diffraction and fusion of techniques and trajectories.

Rafoo may also be understood as a modality of duration, a unique invisible “joining” of past and present, a felt paradox ~ the past concretely embodied in exquisitely repaired heirloom textiles that seduce the eye, while in the present the unseen artisanal effort, labour and talent underlying this achievement remain an abstraction.

The thematic focus of the show is on impermanence, rupture, abrasion, attrition, friction, corrosion and the internal relationships of these processes.

Equally, it reflects the curator’s belief that anything injured, harmed, disfigured, demeaned and degraded has the potential to be recuperated, conserved and cherished, and to be continually bestowed with fresh value, energy and utility.

The urgent question confronting us today, however, is not about the revival of the craft, but about the survival of the craftsmen and the continuity of the rafoogars’ invaluable, irreplaceable indigenous knowledge.

With regard to Kashmir shawls are we more concerned with the preservation of these extraordinary objects, or with the preservation of the extraordinary skills that make possible the preservation of these extraordinary objects?

The title of the exhibition was Making Visible: The Rafoogars and the Journey of a Shawl. This workshop/exhibition is a presentation of rafoogari, the traditional skill of darning applied in the maintenance and preservation of precious textiles by the rafoogar communities across India.

Said to be synonymous with the repair of intricately designed Jamawars/Kani shawls and robes of Kashmir, these shawls, along with Islam came to India from Central Asia, and have since been refined by local cultural mores through a process of appropriation and acculturation, pushing the technique to its creative limit.

Along with the invisible repair of the Rafoogars, they too have remained invisible to the world at large. This exhibition aims to highlight their important role in the preservation, restoration and renewal of these precious shawls by recognising the highly intricate and laborious work.

An interactive baithak/workshop with six Rafoogars from Najibabad, skilled in darning and mending of Kani to woolen shawls, carpets and rugs had also been organised. Artist, weaver, researcher and designer, Priya Ravish Mehra has been working with the rafoogars since 2003 to make their art visible.