This article highlights the role of women embroiderers in addressing rural poverty in the desert district of Kachchh in the state of Gujarat, western India. It features the work of Kachchh Mahila Vikas Sangathan (KMVS) or Kachchh Women’s Development Association. KMVS, a non-governmental organization established in 1989, works in several areas of development, including health, education, the environment, water management, legal and panchayat (local or village council) matters, and the crafts.
KMVS has established an international reputation for its exquisite hand embroidered goods These draw upon Kachchh traditions of dowry embroidery, re-interpreting distinctive local styles in contemporary pieces Branded under the name ‘Qasab’, which means ‘craft skills’ in Kachchh, KMVS embroideries are now found across the globe. As their reputation has grown, two overseas exhibitions have added the status of ‘museum quality’ to their retail appeal.
Apart from the economic impulse behind KMVS’s work, members of the association believe it plays an important role in preserving the embroidery traditions of the multifarious communities in Kachchh. The challenge confronting the women is to. maintain those traditions without ‘freezing’ or ossifying them. Since its inception, the embroiderers and administrative staff at KMVS have developed strategies to cope with combining commercial considerations with a sense of guardianship of local heritage and the artistic needs of the artisans. The experiences of two women in tackling this demanding work are recounted below.
|Puraben’s dress features extensive hand embroidery. The motifs, colours and combination of designs are distinctive to her community, the Meghwal leatherworkers caste||Detail of a KMVS art panel. The embroidery was done by Dhanetah Jat women in western Kachchh. The Jats are one of the Muslim clans of cattle herders|
Meena Raste, a graduate of commerce and a former primary teacher, supervises the production and development of KMVS’s embroidered goods She spends much of her time in the villages and hamlets of Kachchh maintaining links between head office at Bhuj, the district capital, and KMVS’s artisans. She is also responsible for mobilizing women to form new producer groups. Over the years, word of KMVS’s work has spread, often travelling with young women when they move to their husbands’ villages after marriage (most communities in Kachchh are virilocal) and there are now approximately 4000 members. The promise of regular work that can be done at home and accommodates domestic duties and purdah, which confines many women to the family compound, is attractive KMVS now receives regular enquiries from women throughout Kachchh about joining the association and making commercial embroidery.
However, in the early days, the response to Meena and her colleagues was very different. Initially, KMVS targeted Banni and Pachham in the north of Kachchh Sparsely populated, these remote grassland areas are home to various communities of cattle herders, chiefly Muslim clans originally from Arabia and Sindh, and Harijan communities pushed to the fringes of society by dint of their low caste status.
Suspicious of outsiders, whom they rarely encountered 15 years ago, rumors were rife among the herders as to what Meena and her colleagues were actually doing. ‘They used to think we were from the police or CID, checking on smuggling. One woman said they thought ‘we were prostitutes because we were going from village to village. How could they trust us, because we were spending every night in a different village?’
Trust is hard won, but the persistence of Meena and KMVS is gradually persuading more women and, critically, their husbands and fathers, that the work brings long-term benefits. These communities eke a living in an area afflicted by recurring drought, often lacking basic amenities such as electricity and a regular water supply, a school or medical facilities. The input of KMVS and the steady earnings of the women are helping to address infant mortality, malnutrition and disease and, significantly, children’s education.
National and international recognition of Kachchh embroidery generally and the Qasab brand in particular has grown, culminating in major exhibitions of the women’s embroidery at the Vancouver Museum in 2002 and at Bolsano, Italy in 2003. This acclaim and the women’s rising economic power is slowly starting to change their status in their communities, affording them a degree of independence unimagined by their mothers and grandmothers. Indeed four embroiderers from Banni made the trip to Bolsano to demonstrate their art in schools, museums and community centers.
|Meena Raste (left) and Puraben Meghwal working on a health banner at KMVS headquarters in Bhuj, December 2003|
Despite this, the women still have to deal with censure from their own communities. Among those who made the trip to Italy was Puraben from the Meghwal community at Khavda village in Banni. Her experiences reflect the slow pace of the gains the women are making: ‘Eighty per cent of the village thinks that it is bad – “Oh, these women are going out”, but l have good family support, especially from my husband ‘ Press coverage of the women’s return to Kachchh has stirred the curiosity of other castes in Puraban’s village: ‘People were very interested to hear my story, especially the Lohanas, those high caste people in the village. They were impressed that I had been sent to a foreign country’ The endorsement of higher castes in the village is influential and will help to promote KVMVS’s agenda.
Puraban has been critical in mobilizing the women of her own community and others in the district. As one of a small group of designers at KMVS drawn from local communities, she work, with Meena to develop new products that sustain the artistry and individuality of the women’s embroidery while meeting the requirements of the market. This has resulted in the development of art panels – one-off wall hangings featuring the finest embroidery, which breaks the tedium of making cushion covers and small bags that are KMVS’s best sellers. Women selected to embroider art panels are paid a premium and may take 6–12 months to complete the work. Meena acknowledges Puraben’s contribution to this aspect of the organization; ‘She has innovated a lot of things such as the way we do art panels She puts lots of thought into how we could do them. Puraben is part of the process of change.’
The transformation of Kachchh embroidery from an art recognized only by a few western cognoscenti to a tool for social change in India is a radical development. Stitch by stitch, women such as Puraben and Meena are achieving a quiet revolution in the Kachchh district.
My thanks to Meena Raste, Puraben Meghwal, Pankaj Shah and colleagues at KMVS for help with this article.
All photographs taken by Eilunid Edwards, with the co-operation of KMVS, Meena Raste and Puraben Meghwal
First published in Textile Perspectives 38, winter 2004