Threads of Life

Edwards, Eiluned is Victoria and Albert Museum/London College of Fashion Joint Senior Research Fellow in Textiles and Dress. She has been researching the traditions of textiles and dress in India since 1991 and has worked extensively with the farming and herding communities of the Kachchh district, in Gujarat, documenting styles of dress and embroidery. She has also worked with artisans in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh and is presently working on a book on the traditions of textiles and dress in Gujarat.

July 2008, Craft Revival Trust
Over the past thirty years there has been a considerable expansion of income-generation projects based in economically depressed areas of India. One such project, The Shrujan Trust focuses on embroidery, which it aptly promotes as the 'threads of life.' Based in the Kachchh district m western Gujarat, it also works with women in other parts of the state. Shrujan has developed a range of high quality goods that feature traditional embroidery but appeal to urban consumers, Indian and foreign. Working for Shrujan has given thousands of women a regular income, often making them the family's main breadwinner. Importantly, the work does not bring the women into conflict with the social code of their communities and is compatible with their domestic commitments.

Shrujan aimed to address rural poverty, but the choice of medium - embroidery - has forced the organisation to address issues of heritage, tradition and identity. The market for the traditional embroideries of Kachchh, which were made for dowry, has developed in tandem with new, commercial work. Little old work is left as dealers bought container loads of embroideries for the tourist centres of Rajasthan, Delhi and Mumbai, and overseas. Selling a dowry bag, or a quilt, or a wedding blouse brought immediate but meagre returns. Distress sales have caused the accumulated dowries of generations of women to disappear.

Shrujan started in l969 when Kachchh district was enduring its seventh consecutive year of drought. Chandaben Shroff and her husband Kantisen, who are supporters of the Ram Krishna Mission, were asked by the Mission to visit the district to see what they could do to help. Although long-time residents of Mumbai, where their family business Excel Industries is based, both have their roots in Gujarat. Underpinning the teachings of Ram Krishna, a Bengali mystic born in 1836, and his disciple Swami Vivekananda, is a practical concern with poverty. This, allied to the pan-Hindu notion of sewa, or service, provided the ideological foundations on which Shrujan has been built.

Conditions in Kachchh, afflicted by a recurring cycle of drought and floods, are harsh. Historically, the people were animal herders and artisans. Each herding community has its own style of embroidered dress which constituted an important aspect of group and individual identity. Embroidery traditions were sustained by the dowry system which required a prospective bride to produce a substantial embroidered trousseau. It was this aspect of the material culture that caught Chandaben's eye: a gifted embroiderer herself, Chandaben responded to the beauty and variety of the local embroidery and felt that it had some commercial potential.

During the drought of 1969, the Ram Krishna Mission provided the Ahir community in the village of Dhaneti with 'relief work' and it was here that Chandaben started her project. Initially, she asked the women to embroider a single motif so that she could gauge their capabilities. For this they received between 25 and 50 paisa. The women enjoyed the work, which they could do in the comfort of their own homes, preferable by far to digging ditches for five hours a day for the Mission. Through this initial project Chandaben heard of Parmaben Ahir, an artist/embroiderer whose skills were held in high regard by her community. She asked Parmaben to contribute designs for the project.

From the first batch of samples Chandaben came up with the idea of embroidered sari borders that could be sold to her family and friends in Mumbai. Traditionally, Ahir embroidery was worked with cotton thread that the women plied themselves on coarse khadi (cotton cloth hand-woven from hand spun yarn). This was unsuitable for an urban market, so Chandaben brought mercerised cotton threads and fine silk and cotton fabrics from Mumbai. Parmaben distributed the raw materials, maintained quality control and arranged for the despatch of work to Mumbai. Sales were Chandaben's domain and initially these were organised from her own home.

Within only two months of starting work in Dhaneti, the workforce had grown from a handful of women to 150. Word was carried to other Ahir villages by women who had married and left Dhaneti to join their husbands. A successful exhibition in 1969 increased Parmaben's and Chandaben's workload considerably. Chandaben was helped by members of the Shroff family, including professional expertise from Excel Industries. Parmaben, likewise, drew support from her family: her eldest daughter Sariyaben, also a skilled draughtswoman, was recruited to help. Her younger daughters Laxmiben and Rajiben joined the workforce too.

Satisfying the intellectual needs of the individual artist has been a particular challenge. There was a steady income from repeat sales of cushion covers and bags but the women found this repetitious work irksome and wanted to make larger pieces allowing them greater creative licence. In 1995, Shrujan started the Design Centre on Wheels. Housed in a converted bus, this is a travelling archive of embroidery commissioned from 400 of Shrujan's most accomplished embroiderers. It allows - women whose movements may be restricted by strict rules of purdah to see examples of the finest traditional styles. A commercial line of 'art panels'has also been developed. These feature sixteen different local styles of embroidery, worked in various colourways. Women selected to contribute to this popular development are paid a premium rate and may take several months to complete one piece. The affectionate and respectful relationship between Chandaben and Parmaben, now of 35 years' standing, was critical to the development of Shrujan. From its foundations in the Ahir community, Shurjan gradually extended its work to include artisans drawn from Muslim herding communities such as Mutwa, Raisputra and Haliputra in the Banni region in north Kachchh and now involves over 3000 women in 85 villages. It has a permanent base at Bhujodi village in Kachchh and runs regular training schemes to enhance the women's design skills and keep them up-to-date with new products and colour combinations. To date, upwards of 18,000 women have undergone training. Occasionally, graduate designers are brought in to develop a new range of products, in conjunction with village- based artists such as Parmaben whose expertise is interpreting the traditional motifs that are at the heart of Shrujan. Her abilities, recognised and encouraged early on by Chandaben, have established her as a widely respected designer, teacher and entrepreneur. Although now retired from full-time work, she remains an important role model for younger generations of women.

In January 2004 a purpose-built Design Centre was opened in Bhujodi village. This houses an archive of traditional and contemporary embroideries, workshops and offices, an exhibition area and a retail outlet Rising from ashes of the original Shrujan complex, destroyed by the earthquake of 2001, this centre embodies the aspirations of thousands of women, not least those of Chandaben Shroff and Parmaben Ahir. In practical terms, it is a hub of creative and commercial activity sustaining life in one of India's harshest environments.

Notes: Elson, Vickie C. Dowries from Kutch, Berkeley: UCLA, 1979

The author thanks Parmaben Ahir, her daughters and grand daughters and others for their help with this article.

First Published in Textile Perspective, Summer 2004

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