International Rural Women’s Day: Here’s how Indian women are keeping dying crafts alive

‘Sashakt Mahila, Sashakt Bharat’, that is the ideology with which the Indian government works towards the upliftment of rural women in the country. Here's a look at how intrinsically Indian women are involved in heritage arts and crafts, and why saving and developing one would automatically benefit the other.

Written by Swasti Pachauri | New Delhi | Updated: October 15, 2017 5:06 pm
international rural women's day, women in rural india, crafts by women, jewellery made by rural women in india, embroidery made by rural women, women artists in rural india, indian express, indian express news The objective of International rural women’s day is to celebrate the critical contribution of rural women.

October 15 is commemorated as the International day of rural women by the United Nations. According to UN Women (a body working towards gender equality), rural women make up over a quarter of the world’s population. This year, the International Day for Rural Women focuses on the “challenges and opportunities in climate-resilient agriculture for gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls”. The objective of this day is to celebrate the critical contribution of rural women. Taking cue from this, the present government is celebrating the first ever ‘Mahila Kisan Divas’ organised by the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development, to highlight the silent and often invisible contribution of women farmers.

According to Census 2011, females have a share of 48.6 per cent in rural population. While there are various means for urban women to become independent, rural women across India engage in agriculture and small businesses through self-help groups. It is no secret that women farmers everywhere contribute tremendously to objectives of food, ecological and human security.

Crafts, ecology and rural women

Democratic institutions such as self-help groups elevate household economics through rural women as agents of change, across global south. In India, for instance, the ‘Deen Dayal Antyodaya Yojana–National Rural Livelihood Mission’ (DAY-NRLM) is making a difference to the lives and livelihoods of over 3.6 crore households from where women have joined Self Help Groups (SHGs). Under the scheme, over 30 lakh women farmers have been supported under ‘Mahila Kisan Sashaktikaran Pariyojana’ (MKSP) to promote sustainable agricultural practices. In addition to agriculture, cottage industry and crafts provide employment and source of livelihoods to women.

A Mahua farmer doing her work.

For instance, according to the Indian handicrafts census, 56.13 per cent of artisans are women. The pioneering work of organisations such as SEWA, Dasra, Pradan and Kudumbashree – in addition to microfinance and self help group (SHG) movements in states like Andhra Pradesh and Kerala – have timelessly recognised the economic wisdom of women. Some of the flourishing micro industries in India such as Lijjat papad, pickle business and handicrafts have contributed to success of indigenous industries with women as torchbearers of socio-economic and political empowerment at the grassroots, while practising ethics in natural resource management, upholding principles of sustainability and conserving mother earth.

Based on this, here’s looking how crafts coexist with agriculture, farming and natural resources and offer sustainable solutions to needs of economic empowerment of women. These craft forms and weaves are at the intersection of sustainability, nature, cultural legacy and livelihoods.

Be it natural dyes, basketry from bamboo and cane, crafts carved out of vegetables, grains, pottery, practising embroidery or spinning the loom – rural women in India are contributing to rural transformation, building a rich cultural capital. These ecological weaves provide insights on how rural women along with agriculture and farming specialise in natural resource management, while exercising a symbiotic relationship with culture, heritage and nature. (The following is not an exhaustive list, only few examples of daily chores practised by women that now find their representation on the crafts atlas of India.)

A woman making bamboo baskets.

* Kumaoni weaves from the blue mountains

handlooms and fabrics. Traditionally, Bhotias are shepherds and pastoralists. Women weavers from Kumaon valley are gaining prominence on the global map of crafts and heritage weaving for spinning looms, weaving and in some cases dyeing the fabrics in beautiful colours for a more palatable, urban appeal. Because of adverse weather conditions, blankets, quilts, shawls, silk stoles and mufflers have been produced. In a few cases, such as some communities in Almora, pashmina silks are knitted and woven.

Similarly, vegetable and natural dyes are also gaining prominence as ‘organic’ becomes the new zeitgeist. In Pithoragarh, Uttarakhand, Avani society promotes indigo cultivation and processing, while empowering Kumaoni women through rural livelihoods, inculcating entrepreneurship principles and craftsmanship skills in them. This also holds significance for ‘indigo revivalism’ as an ideology and a way of life, exactly 100 years after Gandhi embarked on his journey of the famous ‘Champaran Satyagrah’ for the rights of indigo farmers based on principles of ‘swaraj’.

* Vegetable colours and exquisite ‘Lambani’ crafts from Karnataka

(Source: Dastakar/Pinterest)

Rural women of the Lambani tribe from Bellary in Karnataka have benefited manifold with the Geographical Indication status granted to the art form in 2010. The Lambani embroidery is a combination of mirror work, stitching, pattern and appliqué work done on dark coloured fabrics such as red, green, blue and black. According to D’source, the cloth is made of cotton khadi dyed with chemical or vegetable dyes made from Rathanjot, Kattha, Chawal Kudi, Pomegranate peel, etc. There are 14 types of stitches used in Lambani embroidery. They are Kilan, Vele, Bakkya, Maki, Suryakanti Maki, Kans, Tera Dora, Kaudi, Relo, Gadri, Bhuriya, Pote, Jollya, Nakra.
Although similar to Kutchi craft works, Lambani is different from Kutchi embroidery and also uses shells and coins.

* Bottle gourd/Sponge guard lamps, or ‘Tuma’ crafts from Chattisgarh

Women farmers from Bastar, Chattisgarh and other central Indian plains grow vegetables in kitchen garden. Dry pumpkins and bottle gourds that are used to retain seeds for the next season are also used as water containers once these fruits and vegetables have dried. These are then experimented with what is known as ‘Tuma crafts’, where dried fibre of fruits is cast into lamps, wall hangings and other artefacts.
Similarly, sponge gourd fruit fibre is also used in making modern-day loofas and lamps, and this business is slowly picking up empowering women farmers from central Indian plains benefiting their small businesses.

* Rice Jewellery from Tamil Nadu

Women in the Vellore district of Tamil Nadu make rare and exquisite ‘rice jewellery’ in addition to growing and practising paddy cultivation. This is a beautiful example of how women closely connect with nature and use its resources to create cultural resources and objects of reverence. Earrings, necklace, bangles and other type of ornaments are practised by woman artisans here.

* Earthy screw pine crafts of Kerala

A woman with freshly- moulded matkis.

Women in Thrissur, Kerala weave beautiful products from screw pine leaves. Screw pine shrub is found commonly near water bodies and plays a larger ecological role in protecting ecosystems and prevents land degradation. The craft from also has Geographical Indication status, and women make mats, baskets and small artefacts for securing livelihoods. This craft form which is more than 800 years old has traditional significance and are objects of reverence.

* Sujini weaves of Bihar

Traditionally, Sujini embroidery and stitching was done by women in their free time to make beautiful blankets, covers and quilts. The art form belongs to the Muzaffarpur district in Bihar, and has a Geographical Indication status from the state. Heavily inspired from Mithila works, at the heart of Sujini embroidery is the principle of waste management, as women use old and used fabrics, pieces from old saris to make warm covers for family members. Sujini quilts are a rare collection of narratives, essaying different tales of women, their hardships and daily chores.

 * Kutchi embroidery of Rabaris, Gujarat

Rabaris are nomadic herders who live in the Kutch and Saurashtra regions of Gujarat and Rajasthan. Typical black blouses and skirts, heavy silver ornaments and embroidered accessories are important cultural symbols of Rabari women. Traditionally Rabaris are pastoralists, and also expert embroiders and artists, experimenting with rich colours such fuchsia, red and yellow, and mirrors. Motifs and mirror works are inspired from mythological references.

 * ‘Chunar’ red clay pottery from Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh

With Diwali around the corner, different type of lamps and earthen artefacts are everywhere from local haat bazaars to urban market places. It is true that pottery with clay, mud and earth is the oldest type of handmade crafts known to history. Every district and block in India have families practising traditional pottery, with men and women both engaged in moulding beautiful products from clay, on the manual potter’s wheel. In Chunar, red clay and terracotta crafts are sources of socio-economic empowerment to women. Unique raw materials for this type of pottery is heaps of rice straws, soil and cow dung.

So, what’s the way forward?

The 2030 agenda for sustainable development recognises that rural women are key agents for achieving socio-economic transformation, with Sustainable Development Goal #5, focusing on Gender Equality.

Several organisations in India, such as the Craft Village, commemorate the importance of International Rural Women’s Day by celebrating the crafts and honouring rural women by celebrating ‘International Crafts Day’, on October 15. There is a need to organise more such festivals, fairs and haat bazaars, and to celebrate the crafts revolution that has timelessly contributed to economic empowerment of women, through wider awareness programmes by central, state and district governments to honour their contribution to national development.

It must also be noted that gender bias in a few cottage industries such as block printing which employs men predominantly, must be addressed for a more inclusive employment and livelihoods programme. For instance, recently, in Gujarat the dying art form of ‘Rogan’ has started to engage with women, so as to continue the art and its legacy.

Women are endowed with aesthetic acumen and have innate skills for crafts and arts. Steps such as the recent introduction of ‘Kamaladevi Chattopadhya National awards’ by the Ministry of textiles for handlooms and handicraft women

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