For the past eight years, Pushpa Vaishnav has been working for about six hours a day, from home, and earning about ₹7,000 to ₹10,000 a month. The money is steady, unlike her husband’s income, and she supports her joint family of six adults and four children. Vaishnav is part of the Udaipur-based women’s handicraft enterprise Sadhna, sewing and embroidering kurtas, saris, cushion covers and scarves. “Every time you buy from an organisation like Sadhna, your money goes directly to a woman like me who’s trying to make a better life for herself and her family,” she says, showing off the applique work she has just completed on a stole.
For nearly 35 years, women like Vaishnav from Rajasthan’s Udaipur and Rajsamand districts have been creating fine embroidered apparel and home furnishings for brands like FabIndia. The artisans, who are part of a collective, are trained in traditional Rajasthani embroidery, tanka, applique and patchwork. They create apparel, including kurtas, saris, stoles, skirts, dupattas and shirts, as well as home furnishings.
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“Sadhna gives women the opportunity to work from home doing embroidery yet allowing them to be part of the mainstream economy,” says Smriti Kedia, Sadhna’s chief executive officer. “It’s a powerful model where there is no single owner; every woman registered with us is an owner,” she says. All of the organization’s artisans are its shareholders and the profits are distributed back to them. “We make sure they have regular pay checks and access to social security benefits as a safety net,” Kedia says. They are also responsible for sales, finance and organizing exhibitions of their products at art and craft fairs across the country. “Every piece at Sadhna is unique because it's an expression of a woman's creativity and emotion. Every garment has a story,” she says.
It all began in the mid-eighties when Udaipur-based non-profit Seva Mandir, which had been working in the region since 1968, convinced a group of 35 women from the city’s Dalit basti to travel to Gujarat to learn more about tailoring, embroidery and building a small business. The group spent time with women who created and sold their patchwork in Tribhuvandas Foundation in Anand and Rangpur Ashram in Chhota Udepur. The women were intrigued by the idea that they could work from home, while taking care of their children and their chores, work at their own pace and earn a living.
Finally, in 1988, Udaipur-based social workers Leela Vijayvergia, Chandra Bhandari and Neelima Khetan helped register Sadhna as a non-profit, mutual benefit trust. The mandate was to promote women’s economic empowerment through various crafts. Not only does every artisan have a say in how the collective is run, but each of them is also covered by provident fund and state health insurance. The women made theirfirst batch of home furnishings in a small room within the Seva Mandir premises. Sadhna has since grown into one of the oldest and most successful women’s craft enterprises in the region, with the women artisans as its owner members.
“The point of Sadhna was to help women become financially independent,” says Khetan, who was also Sadhna’s first chairperson. She is now a visiting fellow at the Centre for Social and Economic Progress in Delhi. “At first, we were not confident if we could take the collective beyond the city of Udaipur but in time we did.” Seva Mandir’s track record in villages beyond Udaipur city gave women the confidence to sign up for embroidery lessons and eventually create furnishings, clothing and textiles for other brands. Seva Mandir had been working in more than 1,000 villages in the areas of sanitation, health, water conservation and education. “The hardships due to persistent drought years in the 1980s and 1990s, helped Sadhna reach more women in villages,” says Khetan.
Sadhna’s artisan members now include more than 700 women artisans from Udaipur and Rajsamand districts of Rajasthan. “Gradually, Sadhna has become a place where women from all castes and religions share a social space,” Khetan says. “Helping dissolve social boundaries has probably been one of Sadhna’s biggest achievements.”
The handloom and handicraft industry is the second largest employer in the country after agriculture, and most of the workers in the sector are women from rural areas. Sadhna has been training artisans to use traditional craft in contemporary ways. Initially, groups of women were training in Gujarat but over time, senior artisans have become trainers. The women receive training in their villages and can earn even while they learn, says Kedia.Sadhna works with established designers as well as design school graduates who develop designs jointly with buyers.“Some of our artisans are also designers; they design everything from kurtas to stoles and dohars,” says Kedia.
For more than 20 years, Shazia Begum Mansuri has been working with Sadhna, starting as an embroiderer and quickly working her way up to being a supervisor. She had always been a homemaker and “going out and working, or even talking to people, was never encouraged in my family,” she says. When her husband lost his job and then could not find regular work, she decided to work with Sadhna. “I recently finished my Masters in Social Work from Indira Gandhi National Open University, and paid for it all myself,” she says proudly.
Anubha George is an independent journalist based in Kochi.