The painstaking and beautiful craft of hand embroidery dates back several thousand years. One of its traditional homes is Kutch, a corner of the Indian state of Gujarat. Known for its intricate and diverse styles, Kutchi embroidery has, since the 1960s, suffered a decline due to a modern emphasis on speed and profit, and a growing reliance on machinery and synthetic fabrics. An Indian woman, Chanda Shroff, aged 73, has worked tirelessly and voluntarily for almost four decades to reverse this decline.
Determined that the traditional techniques of Kutchi embroidery will be handed down to future generations of women, Shroff will use the funding from the Rolex Award to create a mobile resource centre to promote the embroidery. This constitutes the second phase of a two-phase project, aptly called "Pride and Enterprise", which has its roots back in 1969 when Shroff set up Shrujan — Sanskrit for "creativity" — a non-profit organization dedicated to helping the drought-afflicted communities of Kutch. Virtually an island, Kutch is bordered to the south by the Arabian Sea and to the north by immense salt deserts. Descendants of immigrants and invaders, its 1.2 million people represent a highly diverse range of ethnic groups and cultures. Yet all these cultures share a rich tradition of embroidery.
An Ancient Craft
For the people of Kutch, embroidery is more than just decoration for household goods: it is an important means of personal, social and spiritual expression. Each piece of intricate embroidery brings creativity and beauty into daily life, providing a welcome foil to the harsh climate and austere landscape. Traditionally, embroidered articles formed an integral part of a girl’s dowry, while for royals and nobles these articles were symbols of status and wealth.
Today each ethnic group and community retains its own distinctive motifs and lexicon of stitches, handed down through the generations in 16 distinct styles of embroidery. While many of the stitches are universal, the craftswomen create unique combinations with a great degree of complexity. Rabari embroidery, for example, is vigorous, with bold shapes and designs taken from mythology and inspired by the desert surroundings. Ahir embroidery is, by contrast, curvilinear in style, animated with motifs such as peacocks, parrots, scorpions, elephants and flowers. Soof embroidery, on the other hand, is a counted thread style which uses a single stitch to create highly geometrical designs. Other styles use mirrors or a form of quilting, and colour selection also differs: Rabari embroidery features earth tones and white, while Ahir embroidery is characterized by dark violet, gold and red.
The Art of Instilling Pride
Shroff, who has a teaching diploma in crafts, started 38 years ago by providing 30 women from one village with raw materials and assistance with designs. With the establishment of Shrujan, women who had never had occasion to mix began working together; over time they found common ground, initially in the sharing of embroidery techniques and designs, and later in shared personal experience. Today Shrujan, based near Bhuj, the capital of Kutch, has directly benefited more than 22,000 women from 120 villages and all castes across Kutch. "Little shoots of inter-caste acceptance have begun to sprout," Shroff explains. "Just a few years ago, Rajiben, a master craftswoman from the Dalit community [previously considered to be 'untouchables'] would not have been allowed to step into the homes of the higher-caste women of the Ahir and Sodha communities. Today, after a painful struggle on both sides, Rajiben is accepted by them as their teacher. The women all sit and work together in their homes, exchanging ideas and even food."
A cornerstone of Shroff’s vision has been an unswerving commitment to the quality that is central to the Kutchi embroidery tradition, despite the conditions in which many of the people live. "I was deeply shaken by the plight of the Kutchi people and especially the women," she says of her initial encounters with them. "Here were a people reduced to utter helplessness and dependency, even while they possessed in their hands and minds skills such as few others could claim." Rejecting the modern preference for synthetic materials, the craftswomen primarily use silk and cotton to create high-quality products for fashion and decoration. Each craftswoman is encouraged to stitch her name into each piece of embroidery, and, in doing so, her role as artist and guardian of a unique cultural heritage is reinforced. The national recognition they now receive and the income from the sale of the embroidery have brought them deep respect in their communities. The steady flow of revenue from outside customers whom Shroff has found to buy the products is slowly uplifting the status of women, allowing them to invest in land, pay for health care and improve their families’ nutrition levels.
Passing on Tradition
Pride and Enterprise was conceived when Shroff realized that Shrujan would be short-lived if she could not inspire younger craftswomen to recognize the richness of this ancient craft: "I needed a big idea, an idea at the intersection of conservation, education, enterprise and empowerment; an idea that could light a fire, especially in the hearts of the younger generation."
The first phase, completed in 2004, was the creation of 1,200 hand-embroidered display panels representing the different styles and carefully stored in the basement of Shrujan’s headquarters. About 600 rural craftswomen took part in the work, creating 90-centimetre by 120-centimetre display panels, each designing between one and four panels. The artists included 85-year-old Parma Balasara, one of the first craftswomen of Shrujan, and about 400 women under 30, with the older artisans mentoring the younger ones.
Each panel took between three months and a year to complete, depending on the complexity of the design, with some incorporating long-forgotten motifs. This resource is a celebration of the skills of the craftswomen, a mirror within which they can see themselves as custodians of an artistic heritage. Richard Franklin, a former head of design at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Asian Art in Washington D.C., said of the panels: "These are works of great artistry, and the collection is a breathtaking testament to the aesthetics and vision of the artisans who created them and the tradition they embody.”.
Overcoming Social Isolation
The mobile resource centre that Shroff is setting up will take selected panels to the craftswomen, many of whom are not permitted to leave their villages. Trained facilitators will accompany the unit, and videos, photographs and monographs will be prepared for each embroidery style, including demonstrations on how to execute the designs, explanations of the natural and cultural influences that inform these styles, and biographies of the craftswomen.
A preliminary collection of 50 panels has already been taken to nine villages. "This seemingly ordinary act has had a dramatic — almost explosive — impact on the village communities." Shroff explains. "Exhibiting the panels led the women, both young and old, to look at themselves and their skills in an entirely new way. That Kutchi embroidery could be so rich and diverse in expression, that such exquisite work is possible in present times, that women like themselves could produce such high-quality work – this has been a revelation to the villagers."
Shroff is also organizing self-help groups to train the craftswomen to gradually assume the roles of designers, saleswomen, entrepreneurs and teachers. To date, there are 19 self-help groups made up of 380 women. "I am convinced of the need to develop systems that will eventually allow for the decentralization from the mother organization Shrujan," says Shroff. "I would be most happy if there were no longer only one Shrujan, but instead many mini-Shrujans all over Kutch." Informal craft schools also feature in Shroff’s plans to overcome the social isolation of the women and to stimulate innovation in the craft. Groups of 15 young women attend the schools for a three-month cycle.
Preserving a Legacy
Shroff, who was chosen as a Laureate of the Rolex Awards for her plan to ensure the survival of an exquisite art form in a way that creates a sustainable source of income for the women of Kutch, recognizes that her vision is an ambitious one. But, having spent more than half her life working with the craftswomen, she speaks confidently of what they can achieve. "The women of Shrujan are like my own family. We have been through so much together — a war, cyclones, droughts and, most recently, the earthquake [in 2001]. We have learned from one another and always we have found solutions together." She is determined to make Kutch once again a rich source of traditional embroidery, to bequeath a legacy that will survive for thousands of years to come, a magnificent art form that provides, in her words, "a support system for home-based women, as well as a reminder of the creativity and potential inherent in all women".
Alexa Schoof Marketos
Published in 2006