Puriben Vaghabhai Ahir

Craft, Handloom, Art, Craftspersons/ Artisanal, Interviews, Conversations

Puriben Vaghabhai Ahir: A Life Transformed by Craft

Tyabji, Laila

Last year at an World Conference in Australia, a diminutive little woman with soft, sparkling eyes, dressed in her customary handspun channia, backless choli and ordhna, stood before an international audience of environmentalists and gave them beans! Puriben is illiterate and she speaks neither English or Hindi; but she eloquently conveyed not just the poverty and need of her community, but the strength and pride of its cultural and social tradition – as well as its marginalisation and exploitation.

Her embroidery is currently touring the UK as part of a Victoria and Albert Museum exhibit; Puriben herself is a local leader and a member of the SEWA Governing Council. When the conferences and kudos are over, Puriben goes back to her one room, mud brick home in Vauva village, milks her cows, makes rotla for her family on a charcoal stove and helps bring in the harvest – in the intervals she stitches at the mirrorwork that has transformed her life.

Born 40 years ago in the desolate, dry, salty wastes of the Banaskantha desert, Puriben Vaghabhai Ahir was one of 5 children in a pastoral Ahir community forced to migrate in search of work and livelihood by periodic drought. She never learnt to read and write. “Even my brothers didn’t go to school. Since I was the eldest, I used to look after the cattle, take them their food and grazing. When I was 10 years old I started helping my father in the fields, doing weeding and at times cutting. There was no water in the village so we had to walk 3 kilometres to fetch water from the nearest well.” Her mother taught her mirrorwork embroidery as a matter of course – never imagining it had any use except to help Puriben prepare her trousseau and decorate her home in the traditional Ahir style.

At 17, she was married off to Vaghabhai, a young farmer from a neighbouring village; a marriage that has been arranged even before she was born! Forced by her mother-in-law to leave the family home, her husband and she migrated to Saurashtra as casual labour. Puriben sold her two embroidered blouses for 50 rupees to pay for the bus fare. She left the buffalo and the ornaments that had been her dowry behind with her parents. Vaghabhai and she worked in the groundnut fields for 2 years, paid a daily wage of Rs 4 per day. “We would have only one meal and that way saved some money and returned back to our village Vauva,” Puriben remembers. By then they had 2 children.

“My husband started working as a Sathe (bonded labour) for a farmer in Jakhotra. Fortunately we had a good monsoon and managed to earn Rs 1,000. I sold the buffalo my father had given me for Rs 1,500. From this 2,500 we purchased 2 acres of land and a plot to build our house. But life was not easy. Next year was a drought year. We started working at the relief work – digging earth. I was several months pregnant but still I had to work. At the relief works we were paid Rs 30 and 4 kgs of wheat on which my family of 4 had to survive. My husband had migrated again to Saurashtra and I had to look after the family. I resumed the digging work just 12 days after my son was born. Otherwise how to feed the family. Survival itself was a problem.

My eldest son who was 4 would look after the infant. We would make a cradle from my ordhna in the open. In summer to work during the day was unbearable. But if we left we would be marked absent so we worked night and day. At times there was no work. I would borrow from the money lender at 40% interest. We could only survive such difficult times with one hope: God had gifted us with life as human beings instead of dogs and cats, so why not strive hard to make it meaningful. One day certainly our hard labour would be rewarded. ”

Somehow, digging earth and breaking stones, as part of Gujarat Drought Relief road building schemes, Puriben and her family survived 7 successive drought years from 1982 to 1988. Their faith in God and their own grit kept them going. In 1989, though the rains did not come, SEWA did. That was how I met Puriben for the first time.

In early 1990, I sat on a charpai in a courtyard in Vauva, Puriben’s village. It was summer, scorchingly hot, with a dust storm blowing. All around there was a noisy press of women, accompanied inevitably by their bawling, piddling babies and small children, snot-nosed, shrilly inquisitive. On the outskirts the men stood: impassive, slightly suspicious, slightly hostile. Everyone wanted work and money, no one believed it could come from something they all took for granted.

DASTKAR and I had been invited by Elaben Bhatt, the Gandhian women’s activist who had founded SEWA, to help use the women’s embroidery as a means to employment and earning. They had sold their inherited, old, mirrorwork pieces to itinerant traders for money but no one had told them that the skills in their hands could generate new products that could capture a permanent market.

As Puriben recalls, “From that day I am doing embroidery. I easily earn over 800 rupees a month. Now I don’t go to work in the fields – even during the last drought. Now the men also respect us as we bring home an assured income.” She was one of the most responsive to new designs and colours.

But being an embroiderer and an earner brought its own responsibilities. SEWA (which stands for the Self Employed Womens Association, and is a Womens Trade Union and development NGO) believes in self help, not charity. Working as part of a 1000 women, spread over 14-15 villages in a radius of 300 kilometres, Puriben has had to learn to be an entrepreneur and an organiser. She was selected as an agyavan or leader. With her customary quiet determination she took on the new challenge. “By 1991 I had organised more than 300 women for embroidery work in my village”, she remembers:

“Though I was used to embroidery since childhood I had never done such work before. I was assigned the task of distributing work, preparing the new samples and monitoring production and quality control. I built up courage and took the responsibility. I used to learn when the organisers came. I made mistakes but was determined to learn.

The men used to resist. The elders would say, “Does it look good – your roaming around in the village from house to house?” Gradually SEWA starting inviting me to attend the meetings at the Radhanpur office. It was like going to a foreign country. I did not know what is a meeting, how would it be. My husband refused. “You cannot sit in a jeep and go Radhanpur.”

Today, Vaghabhai, Puriben’s husband, is quietly supportive. Their new earning power is the carrot and the stick with which the women have conquered male chauvinism and community prejudice. Usually when the Caste Panchayat met once a year the women did not join in the meeting but instead cooked food for the 100-odd community leaders – all men. One year the women did not cook as they were busy completing an order. So the Panchayat decided to ban the women from working. Going to the Radhanpur Craft Centre and SEWA meetings became impossible. Puriben, as the group leader, approached the Sarpanch and said, “During the drought who is going to protect us and give us work? We have to be regular in our work. This order is important. It allows us to stay at home and look after our children. Otherwise we will be forced to go out and dig earth.” The men in the Panchayat were convinced.

The story is typical of Puriben. Struggling to bear children and wrench a living out of the arid earth has given her a steely strength; it has also taught her how to combat the forces of nature. Other women in the community are more raucously vociferous and aggressive, but it is Puriben who actually gets things done: It was she who got her village selected for Watershed Development, hoping that land and water conservation would lead to better agricultural yields – checking the migration of male members from the villages. But the village Headman (who happened to be Puriben’s own brother in law!) was miffed at his role being taken over by a woman and refused to give the necessary documents.

Puriben rounded up the entire village as allies. She stood before the village and her community elders – all men – and presented the case and demanded action. Her latest crusade is drinking water and better education. She mobilized and leads the campaign with around 3000 women from her neighbouring villages.

In the meantime, she continues to embroider – her work is the same mixture of tradition and innovation, of quality and style, as she is. Its design inspiration is based in her Ahir roots, its imagery and message original and distinctively her own.

In 1999 I got a letter from Reema Nanavaty, the General Secrerary of SEWA. “information empowers”, she said; “but real life examples of such empowerment are rare, especially from poor and rural members.”

SEWA’s grassroots leader in Vauva village, Puriben Ahir has bought a private telephone connection from her earnings accumulated by her embroidery. Puri ben says:

“Earlier, I used my savings into buy gold ornaments. This year I decided to get a telephone. Why not? I have direct and faster communication with the SEWA office, my group members in other villages, and our Banascraft shop in Ahmedabad. I can also call up Reemaben on my own.”

As Reema said in her letter, “While we as a development agency have yet to think of how we relate to this upcoming and unavoidable information revolution, Puriben has made a choice that she must participate in it. Excluded from the social and cultural mainstream in a far off desert village, she found her own way of joining.” She ends, “ I pray may a thousand telephone ring!”

This article was written on 25th December 1997

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