When I wrote
both chapters in Threads and Voices I took this as an opportunity to
explore the artisans’ sense of design- in preparation for beginning Kala
Raksha Vidhyalaya. The experience was truly enlightening. What I would
like to do is review what I learned, and bring us up to date in light of two
and a half years of Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya.
about Rabari embroidery, there are two points to stress: First, Rabari
embroidery is a living tradition—still being practiced for its original
purpose, in addition to being done for sale
Rabari embroidery is an ART. While some crafts were always professional,
Rabari and other Kutchi women’s embroidery were not. We cannot
underestimate the change of concept required to turn art to commerce.
Kachhi Rabari wedding
like to see the kind of work done traditionally for sale now—and at cheap
rates. The solution is production line work- artisans working on block
printed patterns—which is how professional work in other regions is done.
feel that production line work is “improved” in addition to being cheaper!
From the art
point of view, in production line work the personal, human quality is sort
of airbrushed out. But the more critical factor is that with production
methods the value of hand work is greatly diminished. In
addition, there is the issue of creativity, which is a critical aspect of
ART. I tried to bring out the artisans’ feelings about the satisfaction of
creativity in my article. In commercial work, there is not much room for
The extent to
which artists would like to preserve their own volition was illustrated
beautifully when for a huge order I actually had to turn about fact and try
to institute production line methods. I had them cut templates for appliqué
work. Then I noticed that they were laying the cardboard pieces nearby and
cutting freehand while studying them. I pointed out that they could lay the
templates on the fabric and cut around them. To which they women stated:
“We don’t do it like that!”
This is the
scenario of commercial work, more or less from the Rabari point of view. It
is worth noting that these independent nomads have generally been more
ambivalent about commercial work than many other groups in Kutch. Rabari
women face relatively fewer social barriers and consequently have choices
for earning which range from agricultural labour to construction to drought
relief to house work (in the cities) to embroidery. Sadly, of all of these,
embroidery generally pays least.
for us, nonetheless some Rabari women do choose embroidery as a means of
earning a living. How does this impact the living tradition?
Rabari women recognize these two embroideries as separate entities, and each
has a life of its own. For traditional work, the challenge is that however
they choose to earn, women have less time for their own work. At the same
time, the demands for traditional work are actually increasing. So women
have come up with creative solutions: The Kachhi women use a combination of
machine and hand work, and the Dhebarias (for whom hand work was banned in
1995) have invented an entirely new art form: “Hari Jari,” the use of
elaborate machine applied trims.
It is most
significant that when faced with the choice of becoming a machine (working
on pre-designed, printed patterns) or using one, they choose to use the
machine and be in charge of the pattern. As Lachhuben said, outlining
(creating the pattern) is the art.
Is using a
machine wrong? Do we not live in the age of technology? Do we not use
computers- even in photography and art? The Rabari view of traditional work
is as much process as product oriented.
Traditional Work Today
The role of
traditional work today is still largely expressive of community identity.
In this, there are three aspects:
1. It is the
zone of generation gap- as it always has been. Rabari women recognize the
relativity and changing meaning of “traditional.” As one woman explained
it, traditional means “old.” When pressed for details she said with
exasperation, the description would vary according to which generation.
2. It is the
realm of expression of fashion as well as identity. Young women approach the
designing of their own new work with great creativity and enthusiasm.
Someone comes up with a new idea—it catches on—and everyone wears it, until
the next idea.
3. And today,
traditional work has also become the focus of a community struggle to
maintain and express a unity based on economic equity- wherein the elders
officially attempt to regulate the amount and even placement of work in
traditional work is subject to the insidious pressurizing that we all
a Kala Raksha meeting Ramiben said, “All embroidery is work. Work is what
we have to do.”
disclosed that girls now do dowry under duress, in fear of in-laws. And
doing commercial work has put a new spin on this. When women don’t bring a
lot of embroidery in their dowry, they are chided: You spent all your time
earning for your parents and didn’t think of your in-laws! “I liked working
as a child when there were no worries or pressures,” Lachhuben said . “I
remember I made a toran just as I liked, while wandering with the herds. I
did not sell it, and I will Never sell it.”
Lachhuben and Judy in NYC
of Kala Raksha
It may be
that handwork will vanish from the realm of tradition. That will be the
decision of the community members. What Kala Raksha has tried to do is
create a realm in which the life force, in addition to the form, of
tradition based art is sustained. Kala Raksha tries to engage the joy and
creativity of ART in commercial craft to insure that it lives at least in
This rests on
creating value in terms of
Appreciation/ respect/ status
artisans get money and appreciation, their ART (but not necessarily craft)
We try to
nurture the creative capacity of the artisan by engaging artisans in the
surface design of products, in museum based design workshops, and by not
using production line methods. Each piece is produced by an individual and
still has a distinct personality. At a lull in a bazaar, Lachhuben goes
through the pieces, reviewing them and she can name each artist by her hand.
We also try to develop a market which will appreciate the creativity so that
there is adequate income.
led to the founding of Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya, a Design School for
that a major difference in engaging the creative capacity of artisans was
that the commercial product will be appreciated by an unknown clientele with
uncertain understanding of the art —a world away from doing something
artistically daring or difficult for a group who can immediately appreciate
what that is.
The idea of
KRV was to engage the creativity of the artisan with an understanding of the
market and contemporary tastes and methods—to raise the value of art and
artisan by learning to innovate appropriately for distant clients, as they
do for themselves.
2006, the first class of Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya, including 14 Rabari women
aged 17-55, graduated. The reflections they articulated indicate that the
experience had a profoundly positive impact on their sense of themselves as
designers and artists. Again and again, they stressed that they felt
empowered to use their own ideas, and that they felt confident, energized
Devalben- “I never knew I could use my own
ideas! I just embroidered and didn’t have that much interest. But when I
did the windmill, I discovered my ability. I got first place, and it really
“If it is our own design, we put more into it.”
Deviben: “I only went to 4th grade, but now I
feel educated. I learned a lot- how to talk, how to write.
I corrected what the Mentor wrote on the blackboard!! Now, we can each
correct each other because we have reached a level of education.”
At the graduate show held in Delhi last January, the
animation and engagement of the artisans in showing their work to customers
important outcome of KRV is the artisans’ increased sense of their worth.
their final collections, the Rabari women from Vandh said they would form
their own pricing committee, rather than use the existing Kala Raksha
committee. These women clearly stated that they wanted RS 100/ day- the
rate for local manual labour.
are our Threads and Voices heroines?
graduated. When she went to New York for a Kala Raksha program, I asked her
what she had learned? She answered, “Collections! I saw collections
everywhere! I realized that collection is an organizing
now living with her in-laws and has a very active 2 year old son. She
hesitates to make a new product, to initiate, though she says she has
thought of some ideas.
mother, Tejuben, is currently a student at KRV. Tejuben and her Dhebaria
colleagues Meghuben and Devalben throw themselves into their assignments.
They embroider with abandon wildly creative and dynamic motifs until there
is no fabric left showing.
done yet!” they answer.
are new, the colours reflect the themes they have taken. Yet, Tejuben
confides to Pabiben, “I can’t get the meaning of all of this.”
That is our
real challenge. The women participants still hesitate to choose their own
fabric, to plan (if not execute) the construction of products. None of
these activities are new. Compare this to the vigorous, excited planning
and creating of their own personal dowry collections! For their own
products, they go to the bazaar, decisively choose fabric, thread, trims,
and stitch or have stitched the product.
What is the
barrier? A history of spoon feeding. The real inability to take financial
The fact that
the client is unknown. Really, how could you make something which has always
been so personal, for an unknown recipient? It would be like making a gift
and not knowing for whom.
piece is that in reality it is still a far reach even for the feisty Rabari
women to imagine themselves dealing directly with their new markets. And
the same force that motivates the elders to make rules restricting
traditional embroidery also applies here: no one should stand out from the
group too much, particularly in economic terms.
intermediary steps must be devised. Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya is planning
financial incentives for design initiatives. In the third year of classes,
KRV graduates are serving as salaried mentors. Perhaps guided projects- in
groups- for clients, such as NID and NIFT students do would provide needed
exposure. In July 2008, KRV will inaugurate funded internships for eight
Rabari women. As suggested by advisor Dr. Ismail Khatri, the involvement of
Rabari men in developing small businesses would be a culturally appropriate
I am very
happy to report that Tejuben did grasp the meaning of what all this is
about, and went on- at age 55! to win the award for “Best Collection” at the
Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya Conovation of January 2008. She served as a Mentor
for the fourth class of this year, earning respect in her community.
Lakhiben observed that she gave them a goal to which they can aspire. And
Damyantiben added, “Before I came to KRV, I had no dreams…”
strive to nurture the creative spirit of Rabaris and other artisans in Kutch—to
keep art at the forefront of this traditional work. It is a high ideal, but
we must keep in mind that
the prices of
art are invest able, while the prices of craft force artisans to haggle over
getting RS 50 a day.