scorecardWATCH: Meet the last family practicing this 400-year-old Indian art form
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WATCH: Meet the last family practicing this 400-year-old Indian art form

Dylan Barth   

  • Rogan is an ancient Indian art form that has been practiced for 400 years.
  • The Khatri family has practiced Rogan art for eight generations, and they believe they're the last ones keeping the tradition alive in India.
  • The rise of industrial textiles in the 1980s put many artisans out of work. And the COVID-19 pandemic has threatened the business as tourism has dried up.

The palm of the hand is the essential tool for getting the ancient painting technique of Rogan just right.

Rogan art is believed to have come to India from Persia around 400 years ago. The designs were once common on ceremonial clothing and bed covers throughout India.

Today, the Khatri family says they are the only artisans left in the world practicing this traditional craft.

The base of the paint is castor oil, and it's what gives the art its name — Rogan means oil in Farsi. The oil is heated over a fire for two days until it becomes a honey-like texture. Then, it's combined with crushed pigment to create the paint.

The painting process involves just two tools: a metal stylus and a hand. Abdul Gaffur Khatri, the eldest of the family business, swirls the paint in his hand to create heat and thin it out. He then floats the threat of paint over the fabric using the metal stylus.

While he has an idea of the final design in his mind, the painting process is completely freehand.

"The perfect thread out of this color, which can run on cloth, is in the mind of the artist," Khatri told Business Insider. "It is all God's gift. It cannot be done by everyone or by any machine."

Khatri can finish some pieces in five days, while more complex designs can take him up to two years. Larger wall art pieces can cost over $1,000.

A metal stylus and one's hand are the only things needed to create Rogan art.      Prakhar Jain for Business Insider Today

The Khatri family normally sell their pieces to tourists in the town of Bhuj, about 25 miles from the small village of Nirona, where they work. This year, the pandemic put a strain on their peak season.

"I can tell you that we have incurred losses because tourists didn't come, and this business depends on them. There's no other source. So what do we do?" Khatri told Business Insider, "Now we are just waiting and watching to see what will happen next."

The struggle feels familiar — the rise of mass produced textiles in the 1980s forced many artisans to drop their crafts and look for more lucrative work. Khatri made the hard decision to leave the family business and search for opportunities in Mumbai.

"In 1980 I decided that I will not waste my life on this art," Khatri told Business Insider, "And there were some arguments in the family due to that because at that time sending a kid from a village to Mumbai was a big deal."

Khatri returned to his village just a few years later after his family plead with him to carry on the tradition.

"I remember at that time I promised him that I'll dedicate my whole life to this art," Khatri told Business Insider. "And now I can say that promise is complete."

Since then, the Khatri family has brought rogan art to the international level. They've earned over 10 awards for their work, and India's Prime Minister even gifted one of their pieces to President Barack Obama in 2014.

Now, the family uses social media and education to spread awareness about this rare art form. Since starting a program in 2010 to grow and diversify the village's Rogan artists, they've trained around 300 women, 20 of whom went on to work for the family.

Though they've since had to lay off those employees due to the pandemic, they plan to hire them back when business returns to normal.