Stitching A New Course In History

In a remote village in Kutch, Gujarat, Chanda Shroff (82) is seen sitting under a shade guiding a group of women embroiderers. Founder of the NGO Shrujan, she has turned rural craftswomen of 120 villages in the backward Kutch and Banaskantha districts of Gujarat into entrepreneurs engaged in embroidery work.

These women embroider kurtas, sarees, quilts, bags, skirts, tops, mufflers, shawls and even mobile/ laptop covers. Today, Shrujan is operating two showrooms in Mumbai and Bhuj and two home-shops in Mumbai and Ahmedabad, selling exquisitely embroidered products. They also organize exhibitions in different cities of India.

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Shroff first visited drought-affected Kutch in 1968. There had been no rainfall there for three years. Ramakrishna Mission of Rajkot was running a free kitchen in Dhaneti village. Chanda Shroff and her husband volunteered to help. The situation was desperate as there was no food but the women were very reluctant to accept charity. They were ready to do any work but there was no work to be found, not even manual labour.

“I did not want simply to feel sorry for them. I wanted to help them find a way out,” she reminisced. Shroff was drawn to the exquisite hand embroidery on their traditional clothing. I thought, “These women are so skilful. What if their skill could lead them out of helplessness?”

She asked the women if they would embroider some saris using their traditional stitches, colours, motifs and designs. Back in Mumbai, she bought 30 hand-woven cotton and silk saris and boxes of silken threads. Shroff and her close relative Ranjan Shroff took these materials to Dhaneti. They paid the women for the embroidery on the saris. A few months later, they returned to Dhaneti to pick up the embroidered saris.

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A small exhibition in a gallery in Rampart Row, Mumbai followed. All the 30 saris were sold within no time. Some more exhibitions followed. They had two important outcomes: the women realized they possessed a rare and unique skill and Shroff realized their skill could become their lifeline. Thus started the journey of Shrujan.

In 1968, Shroff lived in Mumbai and visited Kutch only thrice a year. She used to indicate her requirements through postcards, sent and received materials through parcel post and made payments by money order. A local facilitator, usually a master craftswoman, distributed the work, checked quality and dispatched the embroidered work to Mumbai. Shroff and her husband moved permanently to Kutch in 1996.

For the financial year 2013-14, Shrujan’s turnover was Rs 4.85 crore. “When we extend our reach to more villages, the concern of how we can be of help to the women far outweighs the concern of how we will market all the extra embroidered textiles. That is why our production is always higher than our sales,” pointed Shroff.

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Recipient of the Rolex Award in 2006 and the Amodini Award in 2012, she has recently published a 374-page book ‘Under the Embroidered Sky: The Embroidery of the Ahirs of Kutch’, which illustrates in detail the ancient, rich and elaborate handiwork of the artistic women of the Ahir community in drought-affected Kutch. The book comes with a set of three DVDs. A film too was made on this embroidery. Each aspect of this embroidery was demonstrated in great detail in the film.

Shroff used funds from her Rolex award to research for the book, which is a treat for avid readers. It has attractive colour photographs showing the step-by-step bold Ahir style of embroidery in detail. Several Ahir women wearing traditional garments are featured too.

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The second book and film about the embroideries of the communities residing in Banni area is underway. This is a remote area in the north-western corner of Kutch, close to the Indo-Pakistan border. It also fringes the salt desert. The book will focus primarily on the Mutva community of Banni. This is a small community that lives in about seven villages. Their embroidery comprises 18 different styles. The Haleputra and Meghwad Marwada communities are famous for two embroidery styles called Khudi Tebha and Kambiro.

There are about 12 different embroidery communities in Kutch and each community has its own embroidery tradition, its own repertoire of stitches, mirrors, motifs and designs. Shrujan’s team is engaged in participative field research with all these embroidery communities. The research is a long and intensive process. It generates the data that is used in the creation of the books and films.

There was much persuading to do. “I convinced the craftswomen the need to pass on the talent to the next generation,” she said. Shroff’s efforts are not limited to reviving the art of embroidery but also extend to empowering women of local communities in Kutch.

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When the craftswomen started earning, their self-esteem received a boost. They realised they have something valuable to contribute, something people are ready to pay for and use. They became courageous. Within the first 30 years of Shrujan’s existence, 18,000 craftswomen gained economic self-sufficiency, elevated the educational and health status of their families and earned the respect of their communities. Some craftswomen also went on to win national and international awards.

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The NGO does not take help from government but uses own funds for all activities. They took a loan when Kutch was devastated by an earthquake in 2001. Most of their craftswomen lost their homes. At that time, Ahmedabad Kutir Udyog offered them a loan of Rs 1,17,00,000 at an rate of interest of 4% but the NGO had to use the money to provide work not only to their existing family of craftswomen but also to another thousand women. The Shrujan family expanded from 2200 to 4000 craftswomen. They repaid the loan within 10 years.

Over the years, Shroff found in herself the capability to guide an enterprise that has 3000 craftswomen living in 120 villages and staff of 70. She has developed long-standing relationships with her customers.

Their Living and Learning Design Centre (LLDC) is a multi-dimensional craft education and resource centre dedicated to all the different crafts of Kutch. LLDC also houses an international-level museum. They plan to start a crafts school too. “This will strengthen craft practices and enable the artists to earn a dignified livelihood,” she said.

Now the focus is on improving their lifestyle and living conditions. Building toilets within the premises is the latest trend. The younger generation feels proud of being able to take care of their own wedding expenses, including making their trousseau, pointed Shroff.

She has always believed that determination is all that is required for success. Awards only provide the ‘courage to go on’. “Shrujan is focused on preserving this craft tradition while attempting to make it more contemporary so that it continues to be a source of livelihood for the craftswomen,” Shroff said.

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Shroff hopes the future generation of Shrujan will extend their work to other regions of India that boast of many more embroidery forms that are crying for attention and keep the craft alive.

From time to time, Shrujan organizes eye camps in different villages of Kutch. The women get their eyes checked and get spectacles, if needed. All the craftswomen send their children to school and colleges. They also conduct embroidery training workshops. Their customer base is not as much fashion conscious as is art-and-craft-conscious. “I am happy traditional textiles and crafts have become fashionable again,” said Shroff.

Shroff enjoys the whole-hearted support of her husband, children and extended family as well. They feel proud of her. “My daughter Ami has assumed a lot of my responsibilities and my sons have no choice but to fund the projects that are dear to me and dear to them as well,” she said smilingly.

For more information visit shrujan.org

Resident of a once-sleepy, upcoming town called Navi Mumbai, Falguni Banerjee always wished to study in Pune, the cultural capital of Maharashtra. She studied journalism from Pune University and began her career in the media industry there. She later worked with top media houses in Mumbai and Nagpur and has been felicitated for her work. Falguni is multi-linguistic and enjoys painting in her free time. A voracious reader, she boasts of a personal collection of an odd-2000 books!

Readers can write to her at pinksworth.com@gmail.com

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