In Kutch, one project looks at documenting, reviving 50 styles of embroidery practised by 12 local communities
The Living & Learning Design Center is India's first craft museum, which has thrown the spotlight on embroidery techniques practised by Kutch's local communities | #FirstCulture
Driving through Bhuj, the capital of the Kutch district in Gujarat, the arid land stands out and is a constant reminder to its people that they are at the mercy of Mother Nature. The people of the region have made their peace with its drought-prone nature, and the fact that Kutch stands on at least seven major fault lines, making it prone to devastating earthquakes like the one that rocked it in 2001.
But from this hardship, one enterprising lady would find an art form that existed among the Kutchi communities for generations, and would ensure that it did not die a natural death as is the case with several traditional art forms.
In 1969, Chanda Shroff, arrived in Dhaneti, Kutch along with the Ramakrishna Mission to help in a free kitchen. The region had seen five years of drought by then. What struck her is that the people were too proud to accept charity and even the women engaged in hard labour, such as road building work, just so that the food they received was not for free.
Here she saw the beautiful embroidery work done by the women in their free time. An identity marker of sorts, she realised that this technique of adorning outfits varied with each community, and each had a deep cultural history associated with it. Chanda tried to convince the ladies to use the skill of their hands, rather than toil away on the roads. This was a hard sell, considering the women did not see commercial value in what they did, did not recognise it as an art and certainly did not look at themselves as karigars (artisans). To convince them, Chanda took with her 30 embroidered sarees which she had commissioned, and their quick sale proved to be a turning point.
Chanda began to obsessively discover and document embroidery forms from the many communities that were part of the Kutchi cultural fabric. Little did she know that the Shrujan Trust, which she founded for this purpose, would soon culminate into a project that would be the first of its kind in the country – The Living & Learning Design Center (LLDC), India’s first craft museum. Today, the organisation has 50 different styles of embroidery by 12 different communities of Kutch.
The embroidery styles have been passed down through the generations, but none of the stitches or motifs have names. Painstaking discoveries, followed by in-depth conversations with the elderly women of each community, have helped put together a reference book for each style.
Right from the mid-60s through the 70s and into the mid-80s, Chanda spent her time finding and documenting embroidery forms. Take the first two communities that began it all –the Ahirs and the Meghwaad Gurjars who are said to have followed the path of Lord Krishna. These two communities share embroidery styles and refer to their motifs as Bharat. Ahir embroidery is always brightly coloured and dense, and the designs are inspired by nature. A conversation with the community folk will have lot of references to Lord Krishna, as though he walks among them even to this day.
The Mutva community has five styles of its own. Their work is characterised by tiny stitches and the use of small mirrors. They use just one primary stitch to make their entire motif. This main stitch is broken into two kinds, Pakko and Kacho, based on the tightness of the stitches.
A uniquely embroidered quilt that Chanda once came across led her to discover the Meghwaad Marwadas and the Haalepotras. While the embroidery done is unique to the Haalepotras, their women were never allowed to step out of homes at all. The Marwadas, tradesmen by profession, learnt the Haalepotra style of embroidery to cater to the demand for it, and that is how this school of embroidery earned popularity.
It was after the 1974 Indo-Pak war that Chanda found a particular form of embroidery and set out to find the community that worked on it. This led her into the refugee camps in the region where she found one lady doing what is called Soof embroidery. This form of embroidery is based on a triangle called Suf, which is counted on the warp and weft of the cloth. These symmetrical designs are intricate and involve immense detailing. Everything is done manually and with no instruments.
Another discovery were the Jat Garasiya – a Muslim community that had migrated into Kutch. Persecuted by leaders in the Middle East, they fled to Turkey, fought with the ruler there, moved to Sindh and then to Kutch. Their community does not allow for embroidery to be sold, yet they came to Chanda for help.
Chanda convinced them to take up embroidery as a means to earn a livelihood. As farmers, they perceived the cloth as their field. They preferred to use their own implements to stitch, and so the work by them was considered the fruit of labour in the fields. For this too, they had to take their community leader’s permission. But today, the art form persists.
The story of the Rabaaris and their embroidery is an interesting one. In the early 90s, a ban on embroidery came into effect in the community. Previously, a custom dictated that brides would not go to their husbands' homes till their trousseaus, which they would embroider themselves, were complete. Marriages were solemnised when the girls were 15 years old, with the intent that they would be ready to leave the home at 25. However, the women would embroider in anticipation – for the house that they may own, for the children they may have and for cattle that they made add to their livestock. As a result of this, women began staying back at their parents' houses till they were in their 40s. This did not go down well with the elders, which is why the ban was enforced.
A generation or so went by without the art form being passed down, but this was changed when its commercial benefits were reiterated. Rabaari embroidery uses lots of shapes and patterns, all done in a cross stitch. The colours used are vibrant and a decorative back stitch called bakhiya is used in the outlines as well.
Today, all of these and more have been documented at the LLDC. What began with 30 women in 1969 has grown to a network of 4000 women and counting today, over 120 villages, who work on their respective embroidery forms through an elaborate process created by the Shrujan Trust. Their products are known for their quality and are sought by buyers all over the country. “While other crafts have been passed on across generations as a means of income, embroidery was an unorganised sector which was raised to international levels with the work we have done," says Ami Shroff, Managing Trustee, Shrujan, and Chanda’s daughter, "these are products made by hand – and the kaarigars' work is valued. We are happy that we are able to preserve a form that would have otherwise disappeared into the night."
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