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Threads that bind

  • Shrujan, a Kutch-based NGO, works with over 4,000 craftswomen from 12 communities
  • The region's crafts are displayed in the Living and Learning Design Centre museum, a space founded by Shrujan

A group of Ahir women working on their embroidery
A group of Ahir women working on their embroidery

The Mutwa community of Kutch migrated to India from Sindh about 400 years ago and settled in a cluster of seven villages in Banni, close to the Rann of Kutch. Their main occupation for centuries has revolved around rearing livestock and horses, but a new skill generates a bulk of the community’s income—embroidery. Mutwa embroidery, done by the women, is distinguished by its dense design and exceptionally fine stitches and mirror-work. Mutwa women rarely, if ever, step out of their homes even for festivities and weddings, yet their crafts tradition has transformed them from homemakers to breadwinners.

The community’s tryst with embroidery as a means of income started when the late Chandaben Shroff, founder of Shrujan, a non-profit organization working with craftswomen in Kutch, visited Banni in the early 1970s looking for Mutwa embroidery. The village was struggling in the aftermath of a severe drought, and the women were eager to take up embroidery to support their households.

Today, intricate panels and costumes embroidered by Mutwa women find place among museum exhibits in Living and Learning Design Centre (LLDC) in Ajrakhpur village, 15km from the town of Bhuj, a space founded by Shrujan in January 2016 to preserve and showcase the region’s diverse crafts. The museum is a culmination of many decades of work between Shrujan and the crafts clusters of Kutch, starting with a few women of the Ahir community in 1969. Today, the organization works with over 4,000 craftswomen from 12 communities spread across 130 villages.

Shrujan has come to be known for showcasing Kutchi embroidery and crafts, but its impact has been far greater. Chandaben started Shrujan with the aim of financially empowering rural women in the region. Patriarchy is deeply entrenched in many of the communities, but according to Ami Shroff, managing trustee and daughter of Chandaben, the organization has found new ways to intervene. “These women may not leave the house, but they have been (financially) empowered to the extent that they definitely call the shots in the household," she says.

Crafts to museum exhibits

“The Rann of Kutch is a vast, lonely desert, almost impossible to cross", Keki N. Daruwalla wrote in his short story Love Across The Salt Desert. In 2019, the white desert may seem less lonesome, with the thousands of tourists who arrive here, especially on full moon nights and during the annual Rann Utsav, held in the relatively cooler months of November to February. Many of the communities that live around the salt pans, like the Mutwas or nomadic tribes like the Rabaris, remain secluded from the rest of the world.

In contrast to the stark landscapes and frugal lifestyles of these communities, their crafts are vivid. While Ahir embroidery incorporates flora and foliage motifs referring to their agrarian lives, the nomadic Rabaris’ embroidery abounds in desert motifs—thorny foliage, blazing sun, snakes—and mirrorwork in varying shapes. The Sodha and the Jadeja women practise two forms of embroidery—pakko and neran.

Pakko—which translates to pukka in Hindi, referring to the sturdiness of the embroidery—is a dense technique showcasing curvilinear and geometric motifs. Neran, meaning eyebrows in Gujarati, is characterized by the repeated use of eye-like motifs. Soof and khaarek embroideries are practised by the Meghwad Maaru women, who don’t create stencils but conceptualize the design by counting the threads of the fabric and stitching directly on it. The kambhiro and khuri-tebha techniques used by Meghwaad Marwada and Haalepotra women are also done without stenciling and used mostly in furnishing and upholstery.

The museum’s current exhibition, Living Embroideries Of Kutch, showcases 16 of the most popular embroidery styles. Also on display are artefacts from homes of these communities, records of folk music and personal histories, and other crafts of the region. “With LLDC, we are talking about design intervention in things beyond embroidery," says Ami. “Over here, we are also able to offer intervention in pottery, two types of weaving (bhujodi and mashru), and discharge printing." Since 2018, the LLDC has also begun organizing an annual folk festival on its campus, showcasing performances by local artists and setting up booths for artisans to sell their crafts.

The Living and Learning Design Centre in Ajrakhpur. Photo:  Living and Learning Design Centre
The Living and Learning Design Centre in Ajrakhpur. Photo: Living and Learning Design Centre

Breaking barriers

The embroideries exhibited in the museum also feature on Shrujan’s branded garments and accessories. The products are retailed in their stores in Ajrakhpur and Ahmedabad, and through custom orders and exhibitions across the country. Shrujan’s women artisans are not employees of the organization. As independent artisans, they work on a commissioned basis with Shrujan, with complete autonomy on the number of designs and the deadline. “In some areas, the women need money every month, so they take the pieces accordingly," Shroff says. “But in areas where the farming is good, it depends on the season and rainfall. If the rains are great, the women will not work (on embroidery) for up to five months."

Shrujan works directly with 3,000 women, says Shroff, while another 1,500 women work indirectly, working only if there’s a drought or if they receive pieces of fabric to embroider via the artisans who work directly. “We recently found that our products go as far as Barmer (in Rajasthan) to get embroidered because some of the daughters have gotten married and gone away," she adds. In order to maintain quality, Shrujan has devised a grading system to categorize the artisans’ skill. “It’s easy to maintain (quality) with people we meet directly. In turn, they send the fabric to others and tell them what to do," Shroff says, adding that smartphones too have been greatly helpful as artisans can click photographs of their work for feedback from supervisors and production teams.

Once the artisans complete the embroidery work, the fabrics are tailored and finished by Shrujan’s in-house teams in Ajrakhpur into a variety of products, from small bags and wall panels to dresses, kurtis and lavishly embroidered saris. According to Shroff, the payment structure is also flexible. Artisans can quote and negotiate their fees, which are usually calculated on the number and scale of motifs to be embroidered (for saris, the border measurement is also included). Small designs are paid for immediately, and for elaborate designs that can take a few months to over a year, artisans can choose to be paid in quarterly instalments or in a lump sum on completion. “A young woman will usually take bulk payment, because she may be saving money for jewellery (for her wedding) and doesn’t want to burden her parents," Shroff explains. “Married women with children prefer quarterly payments." Small items will yield a fee of 500-800 but a top-graded artisan can earn up to a lakh for embroidery on a single sari.

Empowering rural women financially, Chandaben also paved the path for emancipation in other ways, from taking them out of their homes on excursions to fairs and encouraging the education of girls. Over the years, the birth of a girl child has become cause for celebration in local households. They have also started sending girls to school, though it has led to an unfortunate side-effect. “By the late 1980s, we realized that they understood only one thing—educate the girl child, do not educate the boy child," Shroff says, adding that they also want to focus on men and ensure they don’t remain uneducated. Shrujan’s other achievement has been to cut across caste divisions. In the early years, Shroff recalls, her mother appointed Dalits as supervisors and seniors.

Chandaben’s work earned her a Rolex Award for Enterprise, established to recognize the work of social entrepreneurs, in 2006, and Shrujan has come to be associated with high-quality artisanal embroidery. Shroff aims to take the organization’s work further, validating these crafts for their brand value. “Things have improved drastically in the last four years, but the awareness that these things are hand-crafted needs to increase," she says. “Be willing to pay for them. You don’t bargain with brands, why would you bargain with artisans? This needs to change."

The writer was in Kutch on invitation from Shrujan to attend the LLDC Folk Festival 2019.

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