Crafting Rabari Lives

Craft, Handloom, Art, Craftspersons/ Artisanal

Crafting Rabari Lives

Frater, Judy


When I wrote both chapters in Threads and Voices I took this as an opportunity to explore the artisans’ sense of design – in preparation for beginning Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya (KRV). The experience was truly enlightening. What I would like to do is review what I learned, and bring us up to date in light of two and a half years of Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya.

Background for KRV
When thinking about Rabari embroidery, there are two points to stress: First, Rabari embroidery is a living tradition—still being practiced for its original purpose, in addition to being done for sale

Second, Rabari embroidery is an ART. While some crafts were always professional, Rabari and other Kutchi women’s embroidery were not. We can not underestimate the change of concept required to turn art to commerce.

From Art to Commerce
People would like to see the kind of work done traditionally for sale now—and at cheap rates. The solution is production line work- artisans working on block printed patterns—which is how professional work in other regions is done.

Many people feel that production line work is “improved” in addition to being cheaper!

From the art point of view, in production line work the personal, human quality is sort of airbrushed out. But the more critical factor is that with production methods the value of hand work is greatly diminished. In addition, there is the issue of creativity, which is a critical aspect of ART. I tried to bring out the artisans’ feelings about the satisfaction of creativity in my article. In commercial work, there is not much room for personal creativity.

The extent to which artists would like to preserve their own volition was illustrated beautifully when for a huge order I actually had to turn about fact and try to institute production line methods. I had them cut templates for appliqué work. Then I noticed that they were laying the cardboard pieces nearby and cutting freehand while studying them. I pointed out that they could lay the templates on the fabric and cut around them. To which they women stated: “We don’t do it like that!”

This is the scenario of commercial work, more or less from the Rabari point of view. It is worth noting that these independent nomads have generally been more ambivalent about commercial work than many other groups in Kutch. Rabari women face relatively fewer social barriers and consequently have choices for earning which range from agricultural labour to construction to drought relief to house work (in the cities) to embroidery. Sadly, of all of these, embroidery generally pays least.

Social Impact
Fortunately for us, nonetheless some Rabari women do choose embroidery as a means of earning a living. How does this impact the living tradition?

Rabari women recognize these two embroideries as separate entities, and each has a life of its own. For traditional work, the challenge is that however they choose to earn, women have less time for their own work. At the same time, the demands for traditional work are actually increasing. So women have come up with creative solutions: The Kachhi women use a combination of machine and hand work, and the Dhebarias (for whom hand work was banned in 1995) have invented an entirely new art form: “Hari Jari,” the use of elaborate machine applied trims.

It is most significant that when faced with the choice of becoming a machine (working on pre-designed, printed patterns) or using one, they choose to use the machine and be in charge of the pattern. As Lachhuben said, outlining (creating the pattern) is the art.
Is using a machine wrong? Do we not live in the age of technology? Do we not use computers- even in photography and art? The Rabari view of traditional work is as much process as product oriented.

Traditional Work Today
The role of traditional work today is still largely expressive of community identity. In this, there are three aspects:

  1. It is the zone of generation gap- as it always has been. Rabari women recognize the relativity and changing meaning of “traditional.” As one woman explained it, traditional means “old.” When pressed for details she said with exasperation, the description would vary according to which generation.
  2. It is the realm of expression of fashion as well as identity. Young women approach the designing of their own new work with great creativity and enthusiasm. Someone comes up with a new idea—it catches on—and everyone wears it, until the next idea.
  3. And today, traditional work has also become the focus of a community struggle to maintain and express a unity based on economic equity- wherein the elders officially attempt to regulate the amount and even placement of work in traditional objects.

Increasingly traditional work is subject to the insidious pressurizing that we all experience.
Recently, in a Kala Raksha meeting Ramiben said, “All embroidery is work. Work is what we have to do.”

Lachhuben disclosed that girls now do dowry under duress, in fear of in-laws. And doing commercial work has put a new spin on this. When women don’t bring a lot of embroidery in their dowry, they are chided: You spent all your time earning for your parents and didn’t think of your in-laws! “I liked working as a child when there were no worries or pressures,” Lachhuben said . “I remember I made a toran just as I liked, while wandering with the herds. I did not sell it, and I will Never sell it.”

The Role of Kala Raksha

It may be that handwork will vanish from the realm of tradition. That will be the decision of the community members. What Kala Raksha has tried to do is create a realm in which the life force, in addition to the form, of tradition based art is sustained. Kala Raksha tries to engage the joy and creativity of ART in commercial craft to insure that it lives at least in this realm

This rests on creating value in terms of

  1. Appreciation/ respect/ status
  2. Money

Until artisans get money and appreciation, their ART (but not necessarily craft) is endangered.

We try to nurture the creative capacity of the artisan by engaging artisans in the surface design of products, in museum based design workshops, and by not using production line methods. Each piece is produced by an individual and still has a distinct personality. At a lull in a bazaar, Lachhuben goes through the pieces, reviewing them and she can name each artist by her hand. We also try to develop a market which will appreciate the creativity so that there is adequate income.

Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya

This approach led to the founding of Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya, a Design School for artisans.
We realized that a major difference in engaging the creative capacity of artisans was that the commercial product will be appreciated by an unknown clientele with uncertain understanding of the art —a world away from doing something artistically daring or difficult for a group who can immediately appreciate what that is.

The idea of KRV was to engage the creativity of the artisan with an understanding of the market and contemporary tastes and methods—to raise the value of art and artisan by learning to innovate appropriately for distant clients, as they do for themselves.

Where are we now? 
In November 2006, the first class of Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya, including 14 Rabari women aged 17-55, graduated. The reflections they articulated indicate that the experience had a profoundly positive impact on their sense of themselves as designers and artists. Again and again, they stressed that they felt empowered to use their own ideas, and that they felt confident, energized and educated.

Devalben- “I never knew I could use my own ideas! I just embroidered and didn’t have that much interest. But when I did the windmill, I discovered my ability. I got first place, and it really encouraged me.

Ramiben Rama- “If it is our own design, we put more into it. 

Deviben: “I only went to 4th grade, but now I feel educated. I learned a lot- how to talk, how to write. I corrected what the Mentor wrote on the blackboard!! Now, we can each correct each other because we have reached a level of education.

At the graduate show held in Delhi last January, the animation and engagement of the artisans in showing their work to customers was remarkable.

One very important outcome of KRV is the artisans’ increased sense of their worth.

When pricing their final collections, the Rabari women from Vandh said they would form their own pricing committee, rather than use the existing Kala Raksha committee. These women clearly stated that they wanted RS 100/ day- the rate for local manual labour.

And where are our Threads and Voices heroines? 
Lachhuben has graduated. When she went to New York for a Kala Raksha program, I asked her what she had learned? She answered, “Collections! I saw collections everywhere! I realized that collection is an organizing force.”

Pabiben is now living with her in-laws and has a very active 2 year old son. She hesitates to make a new product, to initiate, though she says she has thought of some ideas.

Steps to enable independence
Pabiben’s mother, Tejuben, is currently a student at KRV. Tejuben and her Dhebaria colleagues Meghuben and Devalben throw themselves into their assignments. They embroider with abandon wildly creative and dynamic motifs until there is no fabric left showing.

Stop! We cry.

“It’s not done yet!” they answer.

The patterns are new, the colours reflect the themes they have taken. Yet, Tejuben confides to Pabiben, “I can’t get the meaning of all of this.”

That is our real challenge. The women participants still hesitate to choose their own fabric, to plan (if not execute) the construction of products. None of these activities are new. Compare this to the vigorous, excited planning and creating of their own personal dowry collections! For their own products, they go to the bazaar, decisively choose fabric, thread, trims, and stitch or have stitched the product.

What is the barrier? A history of spoon feeding. The real inability to take financial risks.

The fact that the client is unknown. Really, how could you make something which has always been so personal, for an unknown recipient? It would be like making a gift and not knowing for whom.

The other piece is that in reality it is still a far reach even for the feisty Rabari women to imagine themselves dealing directly with their new markets. And the same force that motivates the elders to make rules restricting traditional embroidery also applies here: no one should stand out from the group too much, particularly in economic terms.

Some intermediary steps must be devised. Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya is planning financial incentives for design initiatives. In the third year of classes, KRV graduates are serving as salaried mentors. Perhaps guided projects- in groups- for clients, such as NID and NIFT students do would provide needed exposure. In July 2008, KRV will inaugurate funded internships for eight Rabari women. As suggested by advisor Dr. Ismail Khatri, the involvement of Rabari men in developing small businesses would be a culturally appropriate method.

I am very happy to report that Tejuben did grasp the meaning of what all this is about, and went on- at age 55! To win the award for “Best Collection” at the Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya Conovation of January 2008. She served as a Mentor for the fourth class of this year, earning respect in her community. Lakhiben observed that she gave them a goal to which they can aspire. And Damyantiben added, “Before I came to KRV, I had no dreams…

We will strive to nurture the creative spirit of Rabaris and other artisans in Kutch—to keep art at the forefront of this traditional work. It is a high ideal, but we must keep in mind that
the prices of art are investable, while the prices of craft force artisans to haggle over getting Rs. 50 a day.

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