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Bihar Journal: To Bhusara with Ambika for the Asia Society Sujni Design Workshop - 6th - 12th February 98

Tyabji, Laila, is a designer, writer and founder member and Chairperson of DASTKAR, a Society for Crafts & Craftspeople. She has worked in the craft and development sector for over 3 decades. In 2003 she was awarded the AID TO ARTISANS Preservation of Craft Award in New York – the 2nd-ever recipient.

Laila's work with artisans includes the Chikan workers of SEWA Lucknow, Kasuti embroiderers in Karnataka, Mahubani painters and sujni quilters in Bihar, regurs in Rajasthan, and Banjara and Rabari mirror work craftswomen in Kutch and Maharashtra. One of her most rewarding projects has been the creation of new employment avenues through craft for pastoral communities displaced by the Tiger Reserve in Ranthambhore. A recent intervention has been in Kashmir, working with women victims of terrorist insurgency, using embroidery as a catalyst for social and emotional recovery.

Previous to DASTKAR, Laila Tyabji studied art in India and Japan and worked as a free-lance designer in textiles, graphics and theatre. She writes and speaks regularly on craft, design and social issues.

July 2008, Craft Revival Trust

6th: Its 8 p.m. and we’re finally in the train to Muzaffarpur - en route to Bhusara for the Asia Society Sujni Design Workshop. As always there has been this crazy rush getting ready - with no proper time to psyche oneself into a proper state of creative inspiration and calm. The last three days I have been between Dastkar and the Crafts Council of India NGO meet, lumbered (the usual consequence of being punctual, literate and with a fairly good memory) with the task of moderating the Sub Committee on Policy, writing the minutes, and drafting the Memo to the Government. Somehow, in between, I bought threads and went fabric hunting for my sujni quilts - I’d had this fantasy of doing them on typical Bihar handloom gamcha material with the narrow rudraksha border running round the edges. Past experience suggested that MVSS would have no fabric - and that any threads would be leftovers, in those virulent shades of puce, pink, and turquoise that no one, even they, could want to use! Predictably, the Bihar Emporium didn’t have handloom gamchas and I eventually bought them from the Orissa one. Amrapalli, the Bihar Emporium (meant to be a showcase exclusively for handicrafts & handlooms from Bihar) did have Tangail sarees from Bengal, polyester raw silk, and - quite inexplicably - fiberglass crash helmets!

I’d promised myself that today I would not go into office, and would have a peaceful leisurely, domestic time, getting my thoughts together. Instead there was a hasty visit to the bank (the electrician arrived with a huge bill for mending the geyser) and to the optician to collect my new reading glasses, a lengthy fax to London re: the products for the 50 Years of Indian Craft Exhibition, a memo to the Ministry of Culture on the importance of craft documentation, and a mad dash to Dastkar to scream at Zainuddin the carpenter for his misdeeds in the shelving for the new Dastkar shop - all this interspersed with jotting down last minute memos to the office and doing my packing. One always feels nervous of leaving something behind - Bhusara is an hour and a half away from the nearest town and certainly can’t provide graph paper, slide film, or tampons! I’d just got everything tucked away tightly but neatly and zipped up the last bag when Bhupinder arrived from the office with a couple of dozen boxes of embroidery threads - a last minute fax SOS from Kailashji for shades needed for the Sue Conway order.

Anyway, now we are off. Bihar induces mixed feelings - it such a confused sad place, and the mixture of fatalistic apathy in the villages and mindless violence in the towns is depressing. But sujni itself is a lovely craft, and North Bihar physically a rather beautiful, gentle place - all green, undulating groves and streams.

7th: It’s 3 o’clock and we should have been chugging into Muzaffarpur Station, but the train (somewhat misleadingly called Super Fast Express) is already 4 hours late - with numerous unscheduled stops. Red paan spittle in the wash basin tells one that we have crossed the Bihar State border! Ambika and I have our 4 seater compartment to ourselves. A mixed blessing - we can spread out, but lack the entertainment of observing our travelling companions (and sharing their food!). Nevertheless, since voice levels are high, one can hear that politics and the coming elections are high on everyone’s conversational agenda. Prices of votes and seats are claimed to go into lakhs and crores and (though the Bihari accent make’s the rising stress at the end of each sentence sound like a question) there seems a universal affectionate and admiring perception of Laloo Prasad as some sort of Robin Hood hero. Sleep seems the safest option.

Later: We were met at Muzaffarpur by Nirmala, Kailashji and the mustachioed Satya Narain: patiently waiting for 4 ½ hours at the station. As always the auto rickshaw was piled high with provisions and fabric, added to by our own luggage - we made the jerky, pot-holed journey to Bhusara with our knees to our chins! It was too dark to see much of the Bihar landscape, but I was struck once again by its gentle rhythms and green fertility - suggesting nothing of the underlying poverty and violence. Ambika, (on her first visit to rural Bihar), was equally struck by the little groups, squatting in semi-circles all along the roadside, swigging the ubiquitous bottles of milky local country liquor stacked round them.

By the time we arrive at Bhusara it is time for dinner and bed - in the same upstairs room Veronica and I had shared on our last trip, though there are no blackboards with exhortations to safe sex this time! An extra 2 wooden takat beds had been squeezed in, propped up on bricks to be the same height. Reena Mohan and her crew of 4 are arriving tomorrow and Nirmala is off to Patna at dawn to collect them. They are to make a video film on sujni and the women for the Asia Society. It is much less cold than New Year’s Eve 96, when we were here last year; without the ceaseless ghostly rattle and squeak of the December winds against wooden shutters. Ambika lays out her music cassettes and I my book, but we are asleep within minutes.

8th: Up at dawn to make use of the outside loo before everyone else queues up! Then tea and a bucket bath of nicely bracing well water before the inevitable aloo bhujia/roti breakfast. Despite stern warnings, the women amble slowly in, 10 o clock onwards. Another three quarters of an hour goes in greetings and chat; but from tonight 6 or 7 of the village leaders will spend the night here so that we can work late and start early - not dictated to by the demands of bus timings and cooking family dinners. Their agreeing to this is a major breakthrough. Anju, Archana, and Vibha too, seem peppy and confident: ready to take much more initiative, enthusiastic about trying something new. We don’t feel the absence of Nirmala at all. Kailashji too, keeps his distance, confining his authority to the logistics of finance, transport, and meals. As always, the women are keenly interested in our clothes: Ambika’s kurta is given to the tailor to copy, Anju traces my current embroidery, and Vibha immediately begins knitting a sweater like mine! Flattering but scary being a role model.

We settle down together to discuss the object of the workshop - the Asia Society quilts as a means to learn how to combine colours, motifs and designs and make the women more participant in the creative process. Along with the quilts we want to make other products - garments, accessories, soft furnishings - to add diversity to the MVSS sujni range. The products developed by us last time have sold well, but the cut and shape of the kurtas and jackets have turned out quite different from the original samples, and many styles have not gone into production. It is not just the problem of finding and training a good tailor: Availability of the right raw material and the cash flow to buy it and make payments to the women remains a major stumbling block. Somehow, despite this and the appallingly low earnings (a 100 or so rupees a month per woman), the motivation and involvement of both the sujni embroiderers and the organisation has grown. They are still passive and hesitant, but when pushed they do respond. And they are extraordinarily and demonstratively affectionate - somehow the intervening Delhi workshops and Bazaars and our being back again in Bhusara seems to have convinced them of Dastkar’s sincerity and staying power.

As we sit together, talk, and measure, cut, and stitch together the base fabric for the quilts, I take a look at the other quilts being made for the Asia Society. It will give me an idea of the direction mine should take. I have deliberately not thought too much about the designs as I want them to develop spontaneously. I see only a few of the quilts (the others are being worked on in other villages and are inaccessible.) The large Asia Society quilts (and the others being made for Sue Conway and the Canadian order) are very much in the ADITHI mode: Design, aesthetic, and even function being replaced by social message.

Though some attempt has been made to coordinate colours and forms, and vary the sizes and staccato rhythm of little figures scattered ad-hoc all over the quilt (the very large feet of some of the protagonists was explained to me as a special request from Molly!), and introduce some innovative detailing, I still find them rather contrived and polemic - out of the head of an earnest activist rather than a rural craftswoman’s psyche. There is one particularly weird one, on AIDS - with wasted figures, doctors with syringes and sickle shaped knives, and a border of huge, ochre yellow condoms! I personally can’t think of anything less conducive to the tranquil enjoyment of the two functions one normally associates with quilts and bed - i.e. slumber and sex!

Earlier designers from ADITHI have had an interesting challenge (much as we did in our Ranthambhore Project) in trying to create a whole new design idiom for sujni; since the original craft tradition has died without being documented and the women are not yet equipped to become their own designers. But I have great reservations about their solution. Not so much in their wholesale adoption of the kantha pictorial quilt tradition of Bengal (the two techniques and cultures have much in common) but in their treating the sujni quilt as a kind of admonitory poster, rather than a functional and decorative household accessory. The sujni/kantha technique lends itself to pictorial story telling but social and political rhetoric should also be pleasurable viewing! An occasional freak might buy a condom quilt crafted in rural Bihar as an interesting, one-off, cultural phenomenon, but when hundred of women in dozens of villages have both the need and capability to earn from sujni, there is an imperative to develop products with a more universal appeal - products that are marketable, functional, and fun.

I set the women to drawing the images for the first quilt; first discussing the content and then dividing them into 6 different groups, giving them each large sheets of newsprint. The quilt was to show the changing stages of a woman’s life. Each group worked on the pictorial images for one stage of life - birth, childhood, marriage, family, widowhood and death – encouraged to discuss and draw on their own experience and inspiration, rather than an NGO fantasy! Many of the women said that they could not draw - wanting Archana, Anju, or Nirmala Devi to draw for them - but I deliberately excluded them and Vibha from the groups.

The five of us worked on getting the quilt bases together while Ambika’s role was to wander around the groups, encouraging the more tentative ones, and throwing in an occasional idea to get them thinking. After a couple of hours we had a collection of extraordinary images - ranging from comic scribbles to hauntingly evocative scenes of childbirth and alienation. Interestingly, men hardly figured in their vision of their lives - the marriage scene was the only one where a man (perforce!) had been included. Even when I teased them and forced them to put in an occasional male, they figured only as pall bearers, a priest, or the doctor with a grisly scalpel in hospital.

With all the drawings in, we discussed each scene and how the different images could be incorporated into one harmonious composition. To introduce the concept of colours as conveying a mood, as well as combining with each other to create a pattern, I suggested that we give each scene a separate coloured background appropriate to its subject. Though limited by the choice of coloured poplin in the MVSS store, our eventual choices ranging from a progression of deepening yellows and reds for birth, girlhood, marriage, to the grey and black of widowhood and death. We then selected a few images from each group’s drawings and traced them onto 20 inch squares of Gateway paper, enlarging some and reducing others so that they fitted into an interesting composition. The idea that we were showing one woman in various stages of her life, and that she should be the central figure in each square, distinguished by size or some special feature from the others, seemed unfamiliar. Obviously, unlike urban women, they don’t see themselves in the heroine mode, or as markedly different from each other!

We pricked the khaka transfers, and printed the designs (with a solution of kerosene and neel) onto the coloured poplin squares, which we had previously machined together. This central panel of 6 squares was then stitched onto a larger 60 x 90 bed sheet made up of 2 layers of unbleached markeen. We used a broad geometric linear border of wavy lines around the coloured panel to create a decorative frame that would pull together the various coloured pieces and very varied pictorial images. The 4 corners had a repeating motif of the 6 colours patched together, and a line of tiny women holding hands at the top and bottom of the quilt completed the design. Hopefully message and metaphor mingle harmoniously with art and end usage!

By this time it was dark. Most of the women had drifted off in the afternoon, leaving only those who were spending the night. It was time for dinner, songs and chat. It has been a wonderful, productive, participatory day - luckily, as tomorrow the film crew will take over.

Reena and her crew: Ranjan (cameraman), Ashish (sound) Raja Ram (technician) and Kalpana (general gofer and holder of hands) arrived with Nirmala at 7.30 - their plane from Delhi was as late as our train. It was too dark for them to do more than hump their 2 carloads of luggage upstairs (how happy I am that my creative process does not involve much equipment!), distribute boxes of sweets all round and join us at dinner. Later, recording the women’s songs, the start-stop-start again rhythm imposed by Ashish’s perfectionist desire to get everything right, plus his obsession with pin drop silence (difficult with so many children, dogs, hens and other village sounds, to say nothing of the ubiquitous paan shop loudspeaker blaring Hindi film songs) augurs ominously for tomorrow when they will be shooting in earnest.

9th: When Reena met me in Delhi and told me she was planning to coordinate the dates of her trip with mine I’d been deliberately rather vague and off-putting. I was horrified at the idea of the workshop as spectator sport! I’ve always found even a snapshot camera an obstruction to the kind of unselfconscious, total involvement that a successful workshop requires. And my knowledge of filming made me certain that however wonderful the end result, and however valuable the eventual documentation, the process would not only be painful, but death to my objective of collective creativity - which is a noisy, difficult, not necessarily dramatic or picturesque process.

How right I was. The up-beat, participatory sharing of yesterday was quite gone. Every time we settled to something, from sorting threads into colourways to drawing a motif, Reena and gang would shift us to a new, better lit location or hush us into total frozen silence. The place was awash with cables and obtrusive machines. everyone was self conscious; either jostling into corners to dodge the camera, or trying (the younger girls and children ) to edge into its frame. Even when I retreated into the store to scold Munna the tailor for the elephantine proportions of his kurtas I found myself pursued by the huge, phallically threatening, boom mike. An attempt to withdraw with my embroidery for a breather meet with equal lack of success. It was impossible to re-create the spontaneity of yesterday’s collaborative design process. Every motion and sentence had to be repeated at least thrice. We fell back on putting together something more familiar and easy - a variant on the Women & Nature theme we had done for the Crafts Council UK exhibit - using the cream gamcha fabric with woven, green rudraksha borders that I had brought.

After dividing and squaring up the quilt into a central panel with 12 inch borders, we sub-divided the central panel into 12 rectangles. Curving branches of bamboo, mango, and bor foliage were drawn free-hand by Anju, Vibha and Archana in alternative rectangles and the intervening ones filled with animals and figures, using existing tracings of designs already developed by us on our previous trip. I showed the girls how different juxtapositions of the same motifs created different designs and images. Also how interlocking and extending some branches into the spaces where there were figures softened the regularity of the layout. In both life and art, human beings and nature must interact together.

The narrow, green border was stitched around the central panel as well as the outer circumference of the quilt: creating a double frame. In between the 2 woven borders we used an all-over jaal design of curving vines as a further broad border, knitting together the whole composition, while continuing the Nature theme. This lead to the start of an animated discussion on structure, and the need for both design layouts and society to have one - interrupted by the “sshsshs” of an irate Ashish!.

Meanwhile one set of women: Ambika Devi, Sumitra Devi, Nuttu Devi, Puthul, Anupam, Seema Kumari, had started embroidering Quilt 1. We’d selected the colours and stitched little tags of each colour combination onto the coloured poplin squares. I’d made the women play a game, sorting my bag-full of a 100-odd variegated colour threads into piles of greens, reds, yellows, blues. It was interesting how confusing they found it, unused to such a plethora of different shades, to place a pale green or misty blue into an appropriate colour group. Embroidering too, they found it difficult to remember the rhythm of colour repeats. What was touching was their willingness to open up and redo their mistakes - none of the aggressiveness of our ari bharat women or other more professional craftswomen, used to calculating that time is money!

Earlier Reena had told me that though she loved the colours and layout of Quilt 1, the dramatic ‘ochre, red, black’ colour combination was a very urban ‘designer’ one - clearly an outside intervention. I said that it had actually arisen out of a group discussion with the women. The associations - yellow and red for fertility and marriage, white for widowhood, black for death - were very much part of the traditional colour symbolism of Indian society. When colours were vegetable and mineral dyes, made by craftspeople themselves, from plants and resources around them, each colour and shade had a meaning and name and the directory of colours went into hundreds. India is probably the only civilization to have had words for 5 distinct shades of white! It is the advent of cheap, commercial azo-dyes into the village economy that has reduced the choices of the women to these half dozen, crude, primary shades now available in rural markets.

In the afternoon I set Nirmala Devi to begin drawing the central image for Quilt 3. Though the Asia Society has ordered only 2 quilts, we plan to make 3, and let them choose the two they want. This quilt will have the same images of women’s lives as Quilt 1, but grouped around a large seated figure of a woman and child, surrounded by cooking equipment, sujni embroidery etc. Interspersed between the women’s figures will be huts, trees, livestock- even an occasional male?

Meanwhile, Kaushalya Devi, Vibha and Geeta Devi and Nirmala struggled to put together the base. The purple bordered, orange gamcha forming the centre panel with a wide markeen surround, and the purple border again running round the circumference. Yesterday, they had done the cream quilt with ease, but the corners on this one refused to sit straight. I admired tiny Kaushalya Devi’s determination: long after the others wandered off she picked and un-picked the borders, eventually hauling the whole quilt upstairs to work in peace on the machine. She is at MVSS for the first time and grabs on each new skill with a terrier-like zeal, obsessed with getting it right. She also has a lovely singing voice and an endless repertoire of bhajans!

Nirmala Devi is having problems creating a figure that has the same naif, stylised quality as the others, but is on a much larger scale. The first attempt looks like something out of a popular calendar: a busty, full frontal ‘filmi’ devi. I show her drawings in my book on Mithila painting. The next attempt is better, though it still doesn’t have the spontaneity I want. She is distracted between the whines of her little grandchild and the video camera recording every scratch of her pencil - she’s also longing for a drag! Finally, exasperated beyond control, she gives the wailing child a wallop and is horrified it’s been captured on film - as is her puffing her beedi. Her interview with Reena is a more orthodox litany, slightly by rote, of the ADITHI gospel: Money no consideration, ‘love of art’ and ‘telling the world the story of the poverty and pain of village women’ her only motivation. In real life she is a much more interesting, complex person; gauntly thin, with a difficult, sometimes tragic life that has not destroyed her wonderful, pawky humour.

In the evening, we all go for a walk to the fisher village on the banks of the ‘mand’, the man-made lake created by diverting the river. As on my last trip and in so many rural housing schemes, I am horrified by the contrast between the soulless line of cement cubes built by the Government for the new fishermen’s village, and the vitality and harmoniously integrated juxtapositions of the existing village huts, creating their own dynamic of light, shade, and privacy within central, shared spaces for community life and children to play. We decide not to go on the river this time - night is falling.

10th: Reena is maddened by the sight of Ambika and me, glowing with the ostentatious virtue and cleanliness of our early morning cold baths! She comments on the ‘normalness’ of the lives we lead here- looking, dressing and behaving just as we do in Delhi. Reading books, washing hair, changing into night clothes at night. No special rural equipment of bottled water or tummy pills, no special ‘roughing it’ wardrobe or footwear. I explain that this is ‘normal’ for us. A regular part of our working lives, month in, month out. Half-joking, half serious, I express equal shock at the peremptory way the film crew send messages to get the village loud speaker turned off, forbid people to use the hand pump, or tell the miller to switch off his threshing machine because it interferes with filming. In the city wouldn’t she consider a similar veto an infringement of her civil liberties? The alacrity with which village people respond is a sign of their warmth to strangers, but also of how brainwashed they are into thinking educated city folk have rights that they don’t.

Does the end result justify the means; how justified are all our interventions? Is the choice of sujni itself, as a vehicle to generate rural women’s employment and earning, an appropriate one? It certainly is not a solution that has arisen either out of the women’s own existing skills, or the demands of the consumer. When the women were drawing images of their lives and routines, embroidery didn’t figure in a single one! Streaming women into ‘womanly’ skills - stitching, embroidering, knitting, masala making - is the usual knee-jerk, rather patronising reaction of NGO Income Generation Programmes, but on the other hand it is a very harmonious, easy way to create employment without disturbing the traditional patterns of village life. And it needs no expensive investment or infrastructure.

The crew is off to the villages today, to interview the women in their homes. So we have a peaceful, uninterrupted day and are able to get on with the 3rd quilt. Not all the women participate in this one, as two groups are working on the other two quilts, constantly breaking in to show me their progress, anxious that they are getting the colours right. Quilt 2 (being done by Jaykali, Jamila, Rambadevi, Sumitra, Kaushalya Devi and Sindhu) is all shades of greens and browns. Within the thread combinations already selected for each quilt, the women are free to put the colours where they like, but this kind of controlled freedom is difficult for them.

Quilt 3 has a repeating motif of appliqué peepal leaves running round the border. Bits in appliqué patchwork were a feature of traditional sujni and we want to revive this. Several of the women are given pieces of waste cloth and I show them how to cut and fold the fabric to get neat shapes and make a rick-rack patchwork appliqué edging. The large figure drawn by Nirmala Devi is transferred onto the orange handloom, and the other smaller figures, trees, and huts transferred or drawn by hand around it. Archana, Nirmala Devi and Anju would be much happier if I dictated this process, while I am adamant that they plan and execute it. Of course there is a bit of me that is dying to be a totalitarian autocrat, especially when I don’t like what they have done - but I suppress this; reminding myself firmly that since I am always stressing I am a ‘product developer’ rather than ‘designer’, I had better live up to that role!

Ambika meanwhile does various exercises with the women: getting their life stories, and doing some gender and group-formation games with them. She also makes them draw their version of yesterday’s filming and workshop. Cameras, mikes, and equipment loom large, the humans are considerably smaller! Tunna, Vibha’s little son, sticks firmly to my side, saying little but smiling sweetly, eyes shining brightly in his absolutely spherical face, always ready for a cuddle. He and 8 year old Ujwal, his elder brother, are so lovable and bright - what will happen to them? Will they become like all the other hopeless, lumpen, semi-literate men one sees listlessly hanging around everywhere; their only highs zarda and country liquor? Is it simply one’s gender and female bonding that makes one find the women here so much more appealing - physically, intellectually, emotionally - than their men?

By evening all 3 quilts are designed, coloured up, and in progress, and we set off for a tour of the nearby villages. The bamboo and thatched roofs, set in green groves of mango and palms, give a falsely idyllic appearance to homes that are cleaner and neater than most Bihar cities, but bare and poverty stricken. A red rose creeper on the mud wall of one hut shines out like a beacon of colour and hope. Pied Piper style, we pick up a procession of children and girls as we go. Everyone wants us to visit and we have to be firm that we cannot and will not drink tea everywhere! The sujni women vary in age from 70 plus to 14 or 15; the elder ones traditional in sarees, their heads covered, while the younger girls wear salwar kameez, and even nail polish. But their aspirations and expectations of life are similar and limited; and most have the same dangerously passive dependency on some external force - be it husband, father or ADITHI - to be the dominant agent. As always, Nirmala Devi has a more robust approach: “The people who forbid us women to go outside our houses to work won’t feed us when we starve inside, so why should we bother to listen to them?”

11th: Today (our last day) we are going to Muzaffarpur, in a renewed search for interesting, local, raw material. I’m worried at the dependence of the Project on expensive, and difficult to access material bought by Dastkar from Delhi. When supplies run out they fall back on more and more quilts and cushions in that dreary markeen.

But before we leave it’s my interview time! I’ve been dodging this. I feel very strongly that Dastkar and I are catalysts rather than protagonists in the sujni process. Also I hate being photographed! But Reena is adamant. Irritating, intrusive, and inconvenient though I find the filming, I like the way she knows exactly what she wants and goes for it. And I like her very much as a person. In fact, though our separate imperatives and agendas are quite different, and equally obsessive (theirs to capture on film everything that is interesting, or picturesque, in the best possible light, place, and sound; ours not just to complete 3 original quilts but to draw the women into their creation - however slow and torturous this may be) we mercifully all get on very well together - able to tease and laugh together, even when we find each other a bloody nuisance. Discovering in the process, in a typical Indian way, an endless web of interrelated friends and connections! It’s amusing too, to see Dastkar’s work and ourselves simultaneously through two very different pairs of eyes - the urban, professional perspective, and that of rural women.

On camera, we discuss the whole business of ‘interventions’, and the differences between this and other Dastkar projects. The problems and challenges of working without an existing craft and design tradition, or the framework of a known market demand. Are we creating an new, indigenous craft tradition that will flourish and flower into the next millennium, or will sujni in Bhusara die if ADITHI and Dastkar were to disappear?

We set the women various tasks for the day before leaving - I’ve taught Kaushalya, Geetha Devi, Archana, and Ambika Devi the ornamental, sujni, squared quilting stitch the day before, as well as zig-zag, patchwork appliqué, and want them to practice it. Some are making posters for the Disaster Mitigation Institute’s International Competition in Sri Lanka (Dastkar is coordinating the Indian entries, and Nirmala Devi’s personal experience of earthquake, floods and fire results in some powerful visuals, and a wonderful feeling of movement and drama) Other women continue work on the 3 quilts - gradually springing to life as colours and elements take shape.

In the auto rickshaw there are 8 of us! Apart from Kailashji, Satya Narain, and Nirmala, Ambika, and me, there is a very frail, very old, sick woman going to hospital, accompanied by her son and grand daughter. Every bump in the long, long journey must have been agony - she is all skin and bone anyway. I point out a bus called “AMBIKA - FLYING BEAUTY” to Ambika. It’s been good to spend time with her - field trips are great times to talk, and it’s been ages since we traveled together. From being the Dastkar baby, she’s grown enormously in these 2 years; beneath her gentle, quiet exterior (she was given the sobriquet of “Amicable Ambika” at her recent Gender Training Course!) her instincts are both sensible and sensitive - mercifully free of development jargon!

Muzaffarpur was a dead loss fabric-wise; though we did buy some khadi for men’s kurtas. En route and in the city we didn’t see a single woman wearing a traditional handloom weave. The dim lights, crowded, chaotic, dirty streets with tangled open electrical wires and liquid piles of garbage, derelict buildings, and unkempt public spaces contributed to our general depression. The only bright notes were a nice fish lunch, and seeing the fat proprietor of Anupam Handlooms, who’d been so rudely off-putting when I’d tried to look at fabric last time, now all betel-stained smiles, plying us with tea and paan, and personally unrolling bales of whatever caught my eye.

We didn’t get back till evening, and there was a babble of packing, final instructions, and plans for what happens next - we leave at dawn tomorrow. It’s been decided that the 3 Asia Society quilts will be completed and brought to Delhi when MVSS come for the Dastkar Nature Bazaar in mid-March. 2 or 3 embroidery women will come too, and we will have another mini-workshop, plus put any final touches needed on the quilts. It’s amazing that they now seem quite ready to come to Delhi!

Everyone then goes to watch the rushes of today’s filming, and Archana comes up for a private chat - including sex and marriage. She has decided that (like me) she doesn’t want to marry. I encourage her to be her true self, but say that for me - urban, educated, with my own home and income, part of a family and social structure where single women are taken for granted, and need not be solitary or celibate - to be unmarried is much, much easier than for her. The community in which she will spend the rest of her life is very different. She should not take categorical decisions just yet but stick out for the freedom of choice.

12th: With a target of 6 a.m. we actually manage to set off at 7, picking up Ghoshji and his newly wed wife en route. Kailashji has fever but is determined to come. Emotional farewells and hugs are exchanged, with, in the case of the film crew, an additional exchange of visiting cards, and promises to keep in touch. Vibha reminds me I have to send paper patterns, I remind her she has to send me khakas. Kaushalya Devi, Geetha Devi, Ambika Devi, Anju, and Archana, who have spent all 5 days of our stay with us, get ready as well, to go back home to their villages. Geetha and Kaushalya are at MVSS for the first time; they are taking Quilt 3 with them, and will form a new group in their village, Badokhal. While we were working out colourways yesterday, it was chilling to hear them quite casually discussing how often they’ve been tempted to kill themselves - only the thought of their children prevented them.

Our check in time is 11.30 but we want to trawl the market for fabric. When we reach Patna at 10 we discover the government handloom shops open only at 11 or 12! How on earth can a State administered like this function? All along the road there are signs showing how desperate people are for some mechanism to uplift and improve themselves. Every fourth building has a board announcing it is the Red Carpet School (Approved), or Top Teaching Temple Tutorials, or some equally ambitiously and optimistically named educational institution. They all are obviously equally impoverished and inadequate. The sign for the Bright Buds Public School and Hostel (Co-educational) proudly offers Computer Classes, Gymnasium, and an English Library - it is housed in half a tumble-down, three room villa. At least sujni (if properly used) offers the women a unique, earning skill - distinctly their own.

We’re happy to be going home - the torpid, sad squalor of Patna, only relieved by ragged pre-Elections buntings and blaring microphones, does not encourage loafing or nostalgia. But it’s been a good trip, with both the women and the MVSS organisation considerably more up-beat and involved than on my last visit. The only regret is that so much of what we had planned to do remains incomplete, with Reena and her crew also shooting their film simultaneously. Their priorities and requirements of the women and MVSS, (and us), were inevitably diametrically the opposite of Ambika’s and mine! And one doesn’t know quite when we can return. I’m dying to see the quilts completed; I’m thrilled by the change in the women - and I’m haunted by Geetha Devi’s words: ‘To work is forbidden, to steal is forbidden, to cheat is forbidden, to kill is forbidden, what else is left except to starve, sister?’

For the Asia Society
15.2.98.
BACKGROUND:
In December 1996 Laila Tyabji and Veronica George of Dastkar spent 6 days in Bhusara conducting a design and production workshop and evaluating the organisation and the women’s needs. The objectives were to get to know the MVSS organisation and staff and understand their work structure, to assess the skill levels and potential of the group, to develop a new range of products and designs and source local fabric for the group to use as raw material, to work with target women from all the MVSS villages and develop their own design skills, as well as to oversee production for the forth-coming DASTKAR Bazaars and evaluate MVSS's production capability and product ranges for future marketing interventions, including export. At the end of that first 1996 workshop Laila wrote:
“The apathy and lack of involvement was catching. I have seldom felt less creative, enthused or motivated myself - the lack of reciprocal energy was like a stone wall. One longed for the creativity and opinionated gutsiness of the Kutchi Rabaris, the tenacity and determination to learn and earn of our Ranthambhore women, the pride in their own skills and curiosity about others' of the Sandur Lambanis.”
DASTKAR, a Delhi based NGO for Crafts & Craftspeople, provides a variety of support services to traditional artisans - including training, credit, product development, design and marketing - working with over a 100 grass-roots producer groups all over the country. Dastkar strongly believes in craft and the alternative sector as a social, cultural and economic force of enormous strength and potential. Helping craftspeople, especially women, learn to use their own inherent skills as a means of employment, earning and independence is the crux of the Dastkar programme.

Laila is a founder member and Chairperson of Dastkar; she is also one of the in-house Dastkar designers. Her specialty is textile-based crafts, especially embroidery and appliqué, using the traditional craft skill and design tradition as a base for products with a contemporary usage and appeal. Projects includes design and skill development with the chikan workers in SEWA Lucknow, Ahir and Rabari mirrorwork in Kutch and Banaskantha, Madhubani painting, sujni, lambani and kasuti embroidery in Bihar, Maharashtra and Karnataka. A major project is the Ranthambhore Artisans Project in Rajasthan - turning traditional materials and skills into employment and earnings for village communities around the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve.

Part of Dastkar’s artisan programmes are an annual series of Exhibitions and Bazaars held through the year, both in Delhi and other Indian cities. At the Dastkari Bazaar craftspeople (many of them in the city for the first time) bring and sell their own stocks of goods directly, make their own bills, book future orders and learn the ways of the urban marketplace. The use of the Bazaar as a training ground in marketing, consumer trends and the importance of correct costing and sizing, design and quality control is a core component .Groups are helped to design and plan production in workshops prior to the Bazaar and to evaluate sales and customer feedback after it.

The Bazaars are a testing ground for new products and better sales, but also an affirmation of the strength, skill and sustainability of Indian crafts and craftspeople.

MVSS has been attending DASTKARI BAZAARS and interacting with Dastkar since 1994. It also supplies stock to the Dastkar Shop in Delhi, run on a cooperative basis.

SUJNI quilted embroidery
Mahila Vikas Sahayog Samiti, Bhusara Village, Muzaffarpur District, North Bihar.


Slow stitches - telling stories
Muzaffarpur district in Bihar is deceptively green and lushly serene. The media reports of violence, corruption, exploitative political and inter-caste tensions seem at such variance with the passivity and karmic calm that are also a feature of rural Bihar. The women embroiderers in Bhusara and their sujni quilted embroidery are a paradigm of similar paradoxes and contradictions: The meticulousness of the thousands of fine stitches contrast with the apathy and casualness with which the women work; their indifference to earning higher wages by more systematic production a denial of their poverty and need.

MVSS (Mahila Vikas Sahyog Samiti). is a small, autonomous Society supported by the Patna-based NGO, ADITHI under the leadership of Kailashji, a social worker who had worked with Jai Prakash Narayan in the Land Reform Movement, before returning to Bhusara, his native village. MVSS is centred in Bhusara, a village of about a 1000 families, but spreads out to 350 sujni craftswomen in 10-15 villages in the environs. Other MVSS and ADITHI projects in the area, include agriculture, health, education and fishery. (Bhusara is perched on the banks of a lake.) Anju and Archana, two young, partially educated local girls, are in charge of coordinating production, and are paid a salary. Others, including Nirmala Devi and Vibha, who trace the designs, are paid on a piecework basis.

MVSS's objective is to reach all sections of the community, and the beneficiaries are both the upper-caste, homebound women who traditionally did sujni, and women from the really needy, desperately poor hutments on the outskirts of the villages who work in the fields and otherwise never handled a needle. There are middle-aged women looking to supplement family incomes, as well as very young girls, ‘passing time’ before marriage.

MVSS operates from a small two-storey house in the middle of Bhusara village - it is more of a home than an office. The women and young girls sit around on the floor and verandah, stitching the quilts, bedspreads, and garments in an amiable but desultory way characteristic of Bihar. They like the human contacts and ease of the work they do, they enjoy the end product, but feel no involvement with it. Chinta, her husband, and four young children live off a couple of hundred yards of cultivated land; she earns an average of a couple of hundred rupees - but she appears to nurture neither ambition or greed.

Anju, just married, has a supportive husband and in-laws who are happy to have her work. Sarita was married at 11 to a husband who is a deaf mute. There are many similar tragic, but familiar stories. Drunk, disabled, absentee or otherwise unemployable husbands, wicked mothers-in-law, property that has been mortgaged away to pay debts. Nirmala is everyone’s surrogate mother; widowed, always complaining but endlessly energetic, she is the driving force that keeps the organization going.

Most cushions and bedcovers are made on white `markeen' Coloured mull or handloom is used for sarees, kurtas and dupattas and, when the group can afford it, tussar for stoles and jackets. A Dastkar objective is always to use, if possible, locally available raw material as the base for any products it develops. This serves 2 purposes:

  1. The raw material is easily accessible by the group, thus cutting down costs, delays and dependency.

  2. The product has a distinctive, regional identity, differentiating it from other products in the urban market.


Muzaffarpur, (an hour and a half away by auto rickshaw) is an unpromising source of interesting, indigenous fabrics. The shopkeepers, with characteristic North Bihar lethargic disinterest, appear reluctant, almost hostile, to attempts to persuade them to show anything. However, there are Bhagalpur silk-cotton spreads, rough spun handloom khadi for cushioning, tussar, and even a 115" width markeen fabric for double bedspreads. Thread shades other than egg yellow, acid pink, sky blue and viridian green, are equally difficult to find.

Sujni is a labour-intensive but simple embroidery, similar to the kantha of Bengal, but with a more limited stitch repertoire. Tiny running stitches cover the entire fabric, which is traditionally white or red, with the main outlines of the motifs highlighted in a thick chain stitch. Filling stitches inside the motifs are done in coloured thread, those outside are done in white or the colour of the base fabric. The fabric is generally lined with a finer muslin backing before embroidering, giving a quilted effect to the design. Motifs are of figures, flora and fauna, done in naïf, pictorial style, often illustrating folklore and religious iconography. Sujni had almost died out in Bihar, replaced by much cruder appliqué patchwork and chain stitch fabric pictures in jute and poplin. ADITHI and Viji Srinivasan's enthusiasm for the craft was instrumental in reviving it. Its simplicity of technique, yet delicacy and detail, the stylized, contemporary look, and the range of products to which it is can be applied, make it a craft with potential both in the market-place and as a mechanism for women's earning and employment. 3 or 4 women often work on the larger pieces together, further enhancing its community aspect.

The women do not create their own designs, which have been developed by ADITHI or Dastkar and are traced or drawn onto the cloth for them by two of the girls who have been trained in this work. Many of the products developed by ADITHI use the sujni quilt as a vehicle of social comment - a sort of comic strip poster illustrating social issues like Family Planning or dowry. The Dastkar design principle was to preserve sujni's unique quality and the spontaneity of its traditional design style, almost like a child's drawing, while incorporating new elements and motifs into it, and varying the colourings and usages. Each spread or saree is made up of different small elements and motifs put together and linked by freehand drawing, so each is unique in itself. Designs developed by Dastkar consist of:

  1. a collection of large stylized flowering plant motifs to be used on sari pallav and dupattas, bedcovers, etc.;

  2. a series of larger animals and birds derived from tribal wall paintings, and in the same naïf style, as an addition to their existing trees and animal motifs;

  3. all-over jaals with abstract or geometric motifs, to be used as borders or central fillers for dupattas and spreads.

Nibha, one of the MVSS girls, was recently awarded one of the Delhi Crafts Council Young Craftsperson of the Year Scholarships - it includes a monthly stipend and a watch. The sujni bedspread developed at a Dastkar workshop, now in London, on which she was still working, was exhibited at the award ceremony in Delhi. It was 17 year old Nibha’s first visit to Delhi, but she seemed to prefer sitting in DASTKAR, stitching on her spread, to sight-seeing!



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