For more than 150 years, the holy town of Pushkar in India’s Rajasthan desert has been cultivating folk art. Its annual livestock market, the Pushkar Fair, draws farmers and tradesmen from across the country, looking to buy camels. But to make the camels more attractive to buyers, they must first be decorated and displayed in their full majesty.
At the town’s fairground, Ashok Tak – renowned livestock decorator and the curator of a mobile camel fashion museum – showcases the tools of his trade to a crowd of foreign tourists. On a large rug laid on the sand he talks through the mirror work embroidery, macramé murals and flower garlands he uses to accessorise Raja, his favourite camel and 11-timewinner of the fair’s beauty competition. He picks up a heavy set of bells to show the crowd.
“These can be worn on the feet or around the legs,” he says. “The face mask is from Afghanistan and the bridle is made from real Pakistani silver. I have been collecting these items for 33 years; some of them are more than 60 years old.”
When asked how he knows when the decorating is complete, he laughs off the idea that his work will ever truly be finished. Eventually, however, he decides the time has come to clamber aboard Raja and do a ceremonial lap of the fairground. Tourists flock around him, keen to capture the moment on their smartphones. He seems thrilled to be the centre of attention, until he concludes the display with an impassioned plea.
Decorated camel at the Pushkar camel fair. Photograph: Bjorn Holland/Getty Images
“This is an ancient tradition but it is happening less and less.” He holds up a vintage phonograph horn to amplify his message. “It is a dying art now, so shoot each and every moment. I hope to make it a veritable feast for your eyes.”
In recent years, fewer camels have been bought and sold at the Pushkar Mela. In 2015, 10,000 camels were brought to the fair and just over 3,000 were sold. Estimates for this year suggest that fewer than 4,000 arrived in Pushkar. Camel decorators like Tak are much less sought after than they were just a few years ago.
A 17-year-old camel driver, who goes by the name Mowgli, shows me the lots that used to be filled with camels and are now occupied by the concrete skeletons of resorts under construction.
The Rajasthan Tourism Board believes that the future of the event is not as a livestock market but as a celebration of the state’s rich heritage. They’ve introduced a carnival with neon-lit ferris wheels, as well as more Instagram fodder in the form of a moustache competition.
A man in a moustache competition holds up the ends of his facial hair at an event at the Pushkar camel fair, November 2018. Photograph: Himanshu Sharma/AFP/Getty Images
The biggest threat to the art of camel decoration, however, comes from Rajasthan’s rapidly changing job market. Pushkar is in a key investment area for the largest infrastructure project in India’s history. The Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor aims to develop the rural lands between the two cities as a global manufacturing hub. Young men in the region are quickly learning that it no longer pays to be in the camel business.
The joint director of Pushkar Tourism, Anand Tripathi, believes preserving the local culture will be crucial to the long-term development of the region.
“We spend a lot of nights looking through the social media feeds and people really like to share pictures of the camel decoration,” he says. “We hope to promote it as much as possible while people are still doing it.”
Ferris wheels at the Pushkar fair. Photograph: Getty Images
Despite the declining numbers of camels at the fair, Tak remains upbeat about the future. He hopes that as demand declines for camels in agriculture and transportation, a new generation will see how handsome the animals are and continue to decorate them for wedding ceremonies.
“I’m always optimistic and hopeful for the best,” he says. “My mission is to tell the world to conserve yesterday’s wisdom, act together today, and create a better tomorrow.”
Back at the Pushkar fairground, I try to ask Mowgli how he thinks the town will change over the next decade. He seems largely disinterested and instead wants to show me pictures of his girlfriend on his smartphone, so I ask if he’ll buy a camel for their wedding.
“Nah, camels are old-fashioned,” he says dismissively. “Maybe just a horse.”
(This story has not been created/edited by Unicaus and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)