The Keepers Of Kutchi Embroidery - Homegrown

The Keepers Of Kutchi Embroidery

They say that you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been. As a theory, this makes the documentation of history one of the most crucial pieces of a society’s jigsaw puzzle. In more secluded pockets of India, history is recorded through oral retellings, kept alive through stories and traditions passed down from one generation to another. And when these cultural histories are taken right from the horse’s mouth and put into written documents, kept ripe for reference and access to all, it provides an otherwise unavailable insight that can be used for context, anthropological research, and a general social understanding.

Heritage and culture take a new definition in Kutch where people wear their cultural legacy. Here, a story, part of an intangible cultural heritage unfolds itself at every corner while one traverses through the bleak landscapes of the district, made colourful by the vibrant and ornate attire of the Kutchis. I have been here for less than 24 hours, attending the Shrujan Folk Festival and am already feeling overwhelmed with the stories that I am getting to feed upon. From interactions with embroidery artisans, different Kutchi communities to garba and musical performances with the traditional Kutchi instruments – I experience a different culture come alive on stage through performances and in tiny stalls through beautiful handicrafts.

“My mother died when I was a little girl. She wasn’t there to teach me embroidery. I feel like God taught me. Then Chandaben came along, changing my life forever.”

I read Padma ben’s quote inscribed on a board at Shrujan’s LLDC Museum (a not-for-profit organization intended for women’s empowerment and craft revival ) and let out a sigh, thinking how Chandaben changed not just her but 5000 other womens’ lives who now work as professional kaarigars. Every community in Kutch that practices a different embroidery has an interesting story to tell. Hearing and experiencing their varied traditions, the mind-boggling quirks that make up the culture of each and consequently influences their stitch and design is extremely interesting. But binding them all together is one organisation, Shrujan, whose founder, Chandaben Shroff embarked on a journey through and to the remote parts of Kutch, and gave voice to their stories and a platform for their cultural legacy to flourish. I hear her story from her daughter, Ami Shroff who now carries on the Shrujan torch.

In 1969, Chandaben journeyed to Kutch, Gujarat, with the Ramakrishna Mission to aid in drought relief efforts. Visiting the Dhaneti village, she realised that the Ahir community there was reluctant to accept handouts, insisting on being given work instead, and this sentiment was mirrored by several communities across Bhuj’s villages. Another thing that all these communities had in common, from the Jaths and the Rabaris to the Meghwaads and more, was the intricate and diverse embroidery done by their women. As Chandaben noticed this unique craft, she decided to experiment, testing the waters for what fruit they could bear. Buying 30 saris, she asked 30 different women to use the cloths as their canvas and adorn them with their embroidery. As they were put up at an exhibition in Mumbai, the 30 pieces were sold off, with demands for more. And Shrujan Trust was born.

The Late Chandaben Shroff with Kutchi Women. Image Courtesy: womenonwings.com
The Late Chandaben Shroff with Kutchi Women. Image Courtesy: womenonwings.com

“Embroidery was always a personal craft for these women,” explains Ami. As Chandaben, along with her husband Kantisen Shroff helped these women convert their art into a means of earning, she empowered them with work rather than free rations. The art of embroidery was passed down by the women in these various communities from grandmothers to their daughters and further. From 120 villages across the Bhuj region, over 5000 women now earn a living through embroidery done for the non-profit organisation. And their oral craft history is now a written memoir, painstakingly recorded and documented by the Living and Learning Design Centre (LLDC), one of the branches of Shrujan. A museum on the nine-acre spread of LLDC showcases each of the twelve different communities whose craft this organisation documents, with sixteen distinct types of stitches recorded. Complete with mannequins draped in traditional garb, interactive digital displays, and more, the museum traces the evolution of embroidery through each community’s history.

Documentation of the Ahir community's embroidery motifs (left), 16 different stitches recorded in panels together (right)
Documentation of the Ahir community's embroidery motifs (left), 16 different stitches recorded in panels together (right)

From turbans to cradles – A display for everyone

A beautifully stitched ghodiyu (cradle for newborns) hangs in the Ahir display. The Rabari community showcase holds embroideries with motifs of thorns, which are inspired by their nomadic lives journeying through deserts. Lippin mud work with embedded mirrors forms a large, circular wall within the museum. Each unique community and their craft has a whole new story to tell, linked to history, geography and culture. And some of them are just fascinating, such as the room display dedicated to pagdis (turbans), with each community tying it in a different, distinct way. The LLDC also holds a research team that has, since 2007, dedicated their lives to recording the oral history of these women, by visiting their villages regularly and noting each aspect of their craft, then cross-checking it with other women of the same community for accuracy. As Ami says, “These mothers and grandmothers were the last safe keepers of this knowledge,” referring to how new generations aren’t as interested in the local craft traditions, creating the need to collect and document this data. There is also an initiative titled Pride and Enterprise which is an integral part of the LLDC which aims to capture the memories and lives of its people through audio-video-photo-song recordings.Apart from embroidery, pottery, block printing and weaving also find themselves introduced here, with local artisans at their hand looms or printing stations for anyone to learn from. The LLDC craft school aims to create a learning experience, where the local arts of 12 distinct communities can be imparted to those willing to learn.

Hands On. Image Courtesy: Shrujan
Hands On. Image Courtesy: Shrujan

As the LLDC was inaugurated almost two years ago, women who rarely left their villages were shuttled to the large property in Paddher village, 18 km from Bhuj city, to witness their art being preserved in a museum. They also get to interact with top designers in the craft studio from time to time and visitors get to learn their meticulous art and craft at the Hands on Museum all housed at the LLDC.

A few minutes from the LLDC is Shrujan’s Threads of Life complex, where the creation of the raw material for their commercial crafts is done. As Mr Deepak Jaani explains, “Women by tradition aren’t allowed to leave their villages. So local kaarigars here create the designs, and deliver it to their doorstep with the cloth and thread.” Ever since Chandaben first started the organisation to empower these women in the face of the crippling drought through commercial gains from their crafts, she has always emphasised the importance of quality. Ami narrates, “As middlemen and traders came in, none of them had quality in mind. By the late 80s and 90s, Shrujan realised that the quality that was being sold was not up to the mark.” Slowly, each of the women was taught the importance of quality work with dedication, and they reaped the benefits of the same.

The Museum. Image Courtesy: Shrujan
The Museum. Image Courtesy: Shrujan

“In 2006, we won the Rolex award,” starts Mr Jaani. Chandaben was honoured with the award for her movement to revive traditional hand embroidery in remote parts of Kutch, as well as create a sustainable means of income for local women.

Today, the Shrujan Trust’s Living and Learning Design Centre stands as the only tribute to Kutch’s diverse crafts in terms of recording and documenting this cultural tradition, empowering women in remote villages, and providing a space for learning as well as appreciating these fascinating, intricate arts. It showcases lives and stories of women and their communities through their stitch and embroidery which have proudly found a place in contemporary textile and fashion, all because of Shrujan that has helped them find a purpose in life stitch by stitch.

To visit Shrujan’s website, click here. To visit LLDC’s website click here.

Feature image via AllEvents

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