Threads of life

MAGGIE BAXTER

SHRUJAN started as a small family project, and now has a network of over 2500 craftswomen spread across 85 villages. This achievement would have been remarkable per se, but in the difficult terrain and climate of Kutch, it is an additional triumph of will and determination over adversity.

Kutch lies in the northern-most part of Gujarat. The character of Kutchi people is formed partly by the unique and isolating geography of the area. To the north and east, Kutch is surrounded by great salt marsh desert areas: The Great Rann and The Little Rann. To the south and west lies the ocean, which was for many centuries the main route to the rest of the world. The land is very hot and arid; at worst, droughts occur year after year.

The traditional life for many Kutchi people was one of being nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoralists. Although most have now settled into villages, the agricultural and pastoral cycles still dominate the structure of their working lives. At the same time, the 360 km of sea coast, blessed with many natural harbours has ensured a long tradition of seafaring activity. This uncertain lifestyle meant that many women were left for long periods of time to raise their children and maintain the continuity of village and family life. Consequently, Kutchi women are a very strong force within the social structure.

Embroidery is one of Gujarat’s most celebrated and splendid craft traditions. From the 16th century onwards, the region developed a range of professional, trade embroideries which were exported throughout the world. In parallel, this area has a rich material culture of domestic embroidery that has been handed down from mother to daughter for generations. For the women, embroidery is more than a practical, decorative medium for household goods; it is an important means of personal, social and religious expression. Each tribal group and community in the area has its own particular style, lexicon of stitches and motifs.

When a new wave of commercial activity entered the region in the 1960s, it was the domestic rather than the professional artisans that took on the work. Their inexperience in the ways of the business world, combined with the modern emphasis on speed and quick profit, sometimes led to lower standards and loss of fine skills.

Under Chandaben Shroff’s leadership, the Shrujan organisation has worked to reverse this downward spiral, restoring skill levels, while at the same time introducing new design opportunities and business training to the women doing it.

In 1969, Kutch experienced a particularly severe drought. Chandaben went there to assist with a famine relief project. During this trip, she noticed the wonderful, local embroideries, and realised that they could be modified for the urban Indian markets with great benefit to the women. After asking the Ahir women of Dhaneti village if they would embroider saris, she persuaded various members of the Shroff family to give small amounts of sponsorship money to buy silk and threads. She then went back to Kutch to plan and work with the women. One woman, Parmaben, was appointed as the village supervisor and placed on a monthly salary at the same rate as the men for working in the fields. For this, she had to draw freehand designs onto the saris, distribute the work to and from other craftswomen, help with embroidery training, handle the accounts, and send the completed work to Mumbai.

All the other women were paid on an equivalent daily basis. At first, it appeared inconceivable to the Ahir women that they could actually earn money from embroidery and drawing designs. No one before had considered their skills to be financially viable. Now they were.

 

 

The women were equally incredulous that the fashion shades of threads that Chandaben gave them could be sold to any one. In their opinion the colours that she had chosen were much too insipid and tasteless, without enough spice and drama. Not surprisingly they rebelled, but were eventually cajoled and persuaded, and production went ahead.

The first exhibition of saris was held in October 1969 in Mumbai with considerable publicity and retail success. The profits were immediately reinvested into the project, and so it grew. By 1974 the sales were national, and in 1982, they held their first overseas exhibition in London. Despite the initial success, Chandaben had to face detractors and doubters. Some members of the buying public were disappointed that the threads were silk and not nylon; exporters approached her trying to persuade her to lessen the quality of work for quick production and profit; some friends and acquaintances advised her that the first sale had been a one-off success, solely because of her business and social contacts.

But throughout, Chandaben never wavered from her vision that the work would only be sold as status items and that the women would be afforded the respect they deserved as fine artists and artisans. This original concept was both revolutionary and farsighted but at the same time firmly located within a strong philosophical framework.

As followers of the Sri Ramakrishna Mission, Chandaben and her husband Kantisen observe the teachings of Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda: ‘Religion is not for empty bellies… it is futile to preach religion… without first trying to remove their poverty’.1 To make this philosophical ideal into a practical reality, they believe that rural communities are best served by maximising local, available resources, situations and skills; that all forms of useful work are equal; and that the unnatural divides of caste and communities can be overcome.

Through Shrujan, domestic embroidery is the medium used to achieve these aims. This is particularly potent when taken in the context of the Indian artistic tradition in which the artist rejects the ego of signature and instead considers that each design, each stitch, each colour is an offering to God.

 

 

Furthermore, it is the domestic art of women, through wall and floor paintings and auspicious wall hangings, which is used throughout India to protect the family from outside harm. This includes the damage and fear caused by financial deprivation, as well the physical hardships of drought and famine. As a domestic art used to protect the family, Shrujan embroidery can justly be seen as an extension of this. Significantly, all of these ideals are encapsulated in the belief that self sufficiency, confidence, and dignity are the rights of women all over the world.

This initial project with Ahir women was so successful that the Indian government approached her to work with Soof refugees who went to Kutch as a result of the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war. The Soof provided a new dimension to the Shrujan project because their embroidery is highly geometric, whereas Ahir embroidery is flowing and curvilinear with frequent use of mirrors.

Currently, Shrujan works with 16 different styles of embroidery, done by a variety of communities and tribal groups.

 

 

Initially, the products and designs stayed very much within traditional parameters but slowly fashion items and new design motifs were introduced. By 1971, they were making high fashion garments such as halter neck tops and wrap around skirts. Today, inspiration may come from sources as diverse as jewellery design, wood carving, Tibetan Buddhist motifs, and the 19th century English art and crafts movement.

Village craftswomen who show a natural aptitude for design are employed by Shrujan as artists. Design is a two-way process between village artists and urban designers. In broad terms, the village artists deal with embroidery designs in their own traditional style, working with motifs, layouts and colours. This ensures that the designs retain their original flavour, but are not static. Urban designers, on the other hand, work mainly with clothes and product development, pattern cutting and internationally based colour forecasting.

The design style at Shrujan is an innovative synthesis of local embroideries and the full range of textile crafts from Kutch and throughout India. As new printing, dyeing, weaving, and tie dye techniques are developed and refined locally, they are incorporated into Shrujan’s design and product range. These innovations in design, product and process are not introduced to undermine the traditional base, nor to quickly answer a commercial imperative, but to give the craftsmen and women of the area more options when organising their own small business opportunities.

Shrujan uses only good quality fabrics and threads. This assures the consumer of a high-quality product and gives the craftswoman a sense of pride knowing that her work is worthy of the best and will not be downgraded.

Personal involvement is still very important. Chandaben Shroff now lives in Kutch where she is an active participant and friend, not just a figurehead. In addition, each craftswoman has two visits each month from Shrujan staff, who may either be from the central office or, more likely, locally from their village or one close by.

Shrujan has developed a system of delegating responsibility for production to village women called ‘entrepreneurs’, who have been trained in organisation and business skills. If the work load warrants it, entrepreneurs may in turn delegate to subentrepreneurs. This structure ensures management at the village level is constantly evolving rather than being left in the hands of a few without consideration for successors.

 

 

The women are paid for their labour, but do not have to pay for materials. At the Shrujan central office packs of thread and cloth are made up, ready for distribution. If it is a counted thread geometric style such as Soof, Jat or Kambira, where the design cannot be drawn, the threads will be included in the proportions designated by a designer. If the style is more representational and flowing, such as Ahir, Aari or Pakko, then the packs will include cloth that has had a design already lightly stencilled on it. Nevertheless, because each piece is hand done, the charm of individual interpretation is constant.

Completed goods are thoroughly checked to ensure that they are up to standard and every part of the design has been embroidered as required. Once back at the Shrujan central complex, the goods are washed, ironed and, if necessary, sewn and finished in the tailoring room.

 

 

This level of structure and efficiency has evolved through a combination of organisational growth and individual commitment. In 1969, it was almost entirely Chandaben and Parmaben. By 1974, there was a more formal partnership of five Shroff family members, all of whom were actively involved with design and production in Kutch. Friends and business associates from outside of the family began to be involved too, so by 1982, when Shrujan formally became a non-profit making trust, there were people with diverse business and design skills available and willing to become trustees. Further assistance and in-kind support, such as marketing advice, has been provided over the years from Excel Industries, the Shroff family business.

For Chandaben, there is no conceptual division between skill, design, production and economic improvement. Consequently, it is integral to the project that the craftswomen and men of the area should have the skills to become self-sufficient business people able to develop their own market opportunities. To facilitate this, Shrujan runs training programmes both in small business management, and embroidery, at which both teachers and students are paid a stipend. Since 1969, Shrujan has provided training to over 18,000 women. In recent years, women from the traditional embroidery communities have voluntarily chosen to share their knowledge and have run classes outside of their communities. This would have been unthinkable before their involvement with Shrujan.

 

 

In 1995, Chandaben began to conceptualise a travelling resource centre and museum that would go from village to village to educate and provide professional development opportunities. This idea grew out of an increased awareness that at the end of the 20th century, the young women of Kutch were caught in a cultural predicament; often unable to leave their villages or travel far to take advantage of educational opportunities, they do not have the same link to their aesthetic history as their mothers or grandmothers.

Funded with assistance from a number of major sponsors,2 The Design Centre on Wheels is an extensive and ambitious project to preserve, document and rejuvenate Kutchi embroidery. The crucial, underlying principal behind the project is that the embroidery match, and even surpass, the levels of exquisite skill practised before the more recent pressures of commercialism took over. Shrujan has deployed and trained 400 of its best craftswomen to work to on this project, all of whom have benefited from the increased income that the project provides.

Although it is an ongoing project, when the first major phase is complete, there will be two collections, each consisting of traditional and contemporary designs. One collection will be for exhibition in cities around the world and the other will be maintained in Kutch for research by overseas designers and academics, and most importantly, as a mechanism of professional development for the local craftswomen.

In the vast, arid, decentralised terrain of Kutch, the Design Centre on Wheels embroideries will be taken to the women in their villages. There they will be able to study the works closely to see and understand the level of skill to which they can aspire, and be exposed to a wider range of design ideas and combination of stitches. Education and information are the keys to continuing this art form as a viable means of income generation. By understanding their own rich and colourful heritage the young women of Kutch can confidently approach the future.

 

 

On 26 January 2001, Kutch was hit by a massive earthquake that destroyed the main town of Bhuj and many smaller villages and towns. Inspite of their headquarters being damaged beyond repair, the Shrujan campus was immediately turned into a relief centre and temporary home for many volunteers, Shrujan staff and their displaced families. At the height of the crisis, Shrujan was feeding up to 200 people per day, as well as acting as an agency for collecting and distributing relief goods.

In spite of the massive displacement of artisans, production continued wherever it could be done. The most important and immediate requirement in villages was to restore income generation. The first exhibition and sale of Shrujan goods was held in Mumbai by mid-February 2001; kits continued to be supplied to villages, and in some cases cash advances were given to artisans so that they could start the rebuilding process.

At the same time, Chandaben knew that she had to think beyond the immediate devastation and plan for medium and long term rebuilding of structures, livelihoods, morale and health. Before the earthquake, Shrujan was experimenting with the idea of providing a common place in each village where the craftswomen could work together. From 1998 until the earthquake, Shrujan had been renting space in 12 of the villages in which they worked. In each of these, 15-20 women gathered under the guidance of an expert craftswoman. Using this system, both the women’s income and the quality of work vastly improved.

Post earthquake, provision of these workstations became a high priority. Shrujan has been actively raising money to provide work stations in 40 villages. The selection of villages was based on the availability of artisans and the severity of damage to the village infrastructure. These new structures are earthquake, cyclone and fire proof. In times of disaster, they can be used as shelters for the whole community.

In 2002, plans for a new Shrujan headquarters are well under way, as are plans for a new Design Centre on Wheels Museum building. Production has returned to its full capacity, and the brave and strong people of Kutch are rebuilding their lives.

 

 

Since its small beginnings in 1969, Shrujan’s considerable achievements extend well beyond the training and employment of a large number of women. The organisation has helped to build houses for nomadic communities, organised cattle and health camps, and carried out relief operations during droughts, floods, a cyclone, and most recently, the earthquake.

Shrujan’s work has also affected the structure of society in Kutch. Village life is deeply conservative and slow to change. Women from some communities were not allowed to leave their villages. Now, for Shrujan projects they can. Training programmes and the Design Centre on Wheels project have brought together women from communities and castes that would never before have mixed or sat together. Now they have found that the common bonds they share are far greater than the barriers that kept them apart. But the core activity remains embroidery. Embroidery styles and quality of work have been revived. By adapting traditional craft with contemporary tastes, Shrujan has ensured that the work is easily marketable.

 

 

Providing women in Kutch with a regular income has had far reaching benefits. On a material level, the women have been able to improve the lives of their families. They can invest in land, afford good health care and provide better nutrition by purchasing cows and goats, and they can do this at their own pace, from home and without leaving the village. On a personal level, economic empowerment has transformed these women into confident and competent business women. The national recognition that they now receive for their embroidery has consolidated their financial and political power and encouraged enormous respect within their communities. Even more importantly, these benefits have occurred without negative disruption to their lives within the family and the village.

Asked how being involved with Shrujan has changed her life, artist and expert craftswoman, Parmaben, who was among the first group of Ahir women, said: ‘Everyone is earning and getting work, everyone comes to my house and knows me, everyone respects me in my village and outside. Earlier we were dependent upon agriculture, which was not reliable. I get wages at home in my village. I don’t have to migrate.’3 

 

Footnotes:

1. Rolland, Romain. 1960. Pp. 30-31

2. The many sponsors and individuals who have given generously of their time and money for this project are too numerous to mention in this limited space. However, particular acknowledgement is given to the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust and to Dr Kalpana Desai of the Prince of Wales Museum.

3. This conversation took place and was translated for me by the (then) general manager of Shrujan, Himanshu Dugar during an interview with Parmaben, April 1996.