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Wonder weaves: How these Kutchi women wove themselves a successful life and career

It all started in 1969, when Chanda K Shroff visited Gujarat in a bid to help drought victims during a famine relief project run by Ramakrishna Mission.

Written by Deekshita Baruah | New Delhi |
Updated: August 3, 2016 9:10:32 pm
Ahir embroidery celebrates abundance and opulence. It is bright, colourful and dense. Ahir embroidery celebrates abundance and opulence. It is bright, colourful and dense.

There’s no denying that there’s a certain charm to Kutchi weaves. Understated yet elegant, over the years, we have seen top-notch designers incorporating it in their work. Thanks to them, it’s found its way into our wardrobes, but not just us, Bollywood celebs such as Shilpa Shetty and Genelia D’Souza have often been spotted in Kutchi weaves as well. But have you ever thought that behind these beautiful pieces you own, there are months of toil and sweat that have gone into it. Not only that, these are testimony to how art can change people’s life for the better.

Today, Gujarati handloom is considered a full-fledged industry and if you look at the larger picture, it’s a blessing for those who choose to embrace it and present it to the world. For them, it’s a means to end the days of the ‘ugly’ battle with drought and unemployment.

Take the example of Yashodaben, a 37-year-old widow and mother of three teenagers. She used to work as a labourer and domestic help. The only working member of her family, money was a problem until she started working as an embroiderer with a Bhuj-based NGO, Shrujan. It was a big step for her as she belonged to the Ahir community where selling embroidery was prohibited. Forget monetisation, people from this community were not even allowed to embroider for their own daughter/son or any other member of the family. But she chose to excel in life than suffer in ignorance. “Forget education for my kids, earlier, feeding my family was a huge problem. But after I decided to defy rules and show my embroidery skills to the world, our life changed for the better. Today, I make Rs 20,000 on a sari and the best part is that two of my kids are in school,” she says.

Yashodaben is not alone. Rajiben (40) started working with the NGO when she was only 19 (one of the first woman to join). Today, she is a supervisor and earns Rs 40,000 a month, with a daughter and engineer son, who are well-settled. Long gone are the days when life was drudgery because of drought and there was no source of income. “These days I teach the younger generation the tricks of the art and how to experiment with colour. I am happy that things are easy-going now,” she says.

Artist and master craftswoman Parmaben, who was among the first group of Ahir women to become part of Shrujan, has a similar story. “Today, 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 and had to migrate a lot. Today, I get wages at home, in my village.”

It all started in 1969, when Chanda K Shroff visited Gujarat in a bid to help drought victims at a relief kitchen run by Ramakrishna Mission. While there, she saw the local women wearing beautiful embroidered clothes and came upon the idea of helping these people. Since, they were already so skilled, she did not have much to do except convince them to join her in her mission to commercialise the art. But that was the hardest part as it was considered a blasphemy in their community. Finally, hardships made them relent.

Ami Shroff, director and spokesperson of Shrujan Trust, says, “This age old art form has stayed with the artisans from Kutch for generations but Shrujan had taken this craft heritage and turned it into a viable source of income for the people especially women. We have shown how traditional craft can be revived and transformed into an enterprise that enables rural women artisans to earn a dignified and sustainable livelihood.”

Ami Shroff (C) with Jat Garaaciya artisans. Ami Shroff (C) with Jat Garaaciya artisans.

She further adds, “We started getting requests from the elderly artisans that the organisation must do for all the crafts forms what it has done for embroidery. It is this faith of the communities that led us to initiate an ambitious project called The Living and Learning Design Centre (LLDC).”

A multi-dimensional craft education and resource centre, LLDC is sprawled across 8 acres of fruit orchards near Ajrakpur village, 16km from Bhuj. Other than training, educating and supporting artisans to practice their traditional crafts for contemporary markets, it also plays a key role in preserving, revitalising and promoting the glorious craft heritage of Kutch. Recently, it launched the biggest crafts museum in Gujarat.

Shroff says, “We want to deepen people’s involvement with the crafts of Kutch as well as promote greater collaboration opportunities between designers all over the world and local artisans. We want to create awareness and another way to do that is to take the artisans’ skills to a wider audience through exhibitions in major cities. We recently held an exhibition in Delhi where 16 out of the 43 exquisite hand embroidered work were showcased. There were exclusive collections of saris, cholis, blouse pieces, dupattas, kurtas, tops, tunics, stoles, shawls, mufflers, yokes, bags, cushion-covers and wall hangings.”

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