What transforms a young shepherd from Kachchh, Gujarat into a successful businessman, respected for his expertise? Over the past decade and a half, Vanka Kana Rabari Vankabhai and his wife Ramiben have established a successful business dealing in Rabari embroidery and traditional woollen textiles from Kachchh. Vankabhai has collaborated with academics and museum staff from all over the world, including the Textile Museum in Washington DC, the Museum of International Folk Art at Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Calico Museum of Textiles at Ahmedabad and most recently, De Montfort University and the Leicester Museums Service. .
The societal structure of rural Gujarat is, to a large extent, still organised according to caste. In accordance with tradition, the Rabari are animal herders. Typically, Vanka Kana Rabari followed in his father’s footsteps and looked set for life as a herder. A disabling accident, a lucky break, and a passion for embroidery took his life on a very different course. He tells hrs own story.
‘I am a native of Bhujodi, a few kilometres from Bhuj. The village was built on land given to Rabaris by the Rao ruler of Kachchh about five hundred years ago as a reward for loyal service.
‘Rabaris have always been maldharis (herders) and our children learn these skills from an early age. Of course, that is changing but we are still known as camel herders, shepherds and dudhwalas, keepers of cattle/milkmen. As a small boy, I went with the dhang migratory group to help my father with his animals. I attended school for a year when I was about nine and finished only the first book (i.e. first standard).
‘When I was about fifteen, my parents arranged for me to be married to a girl from Nakhatrana. We had been engaged since I was two, which is our custom. After my marriage, I took other jobs to help make ends meet. Both my wife and I worked in the salt industry in south Kachchh: it’s very hard work and makes your hands bleed. When our sons, Peto and Veja, were born, my wife stayed in Bhujodi and I took a job in a sawmill in Mundra.
‘On 2 October 1976, I had an accident at the mill and lost all the fingers of my right hand. I was not able to work for many weeks and my treatment was expensive. My wife sold all her dowry jewellery to cover the doctor’s bills and the cost of my medicine. This was shaming for her: without these symbols of a married woman, she was treated as if she were a widow and such women are considered to be inauspicious. I was ashamed as well: I could not provide for my family and had to rely on my wife for my keep.
‘Once I had recovered from the accident, I worked as a chowkidar (caretaker) at a farm in Gujarat. Four years later my father died and I sold our sheep and goats and bought dairy cattle. They gave a much better return. Eventually, I sold the cows and went to work for a Jain merchant in Mumbai. This was a position of trust: my duties included collecting money from my employer’s businesses and taking it to the bank. Here I taught myself to read and write, practising each day by reading the newspaper. I also learnt to speak Hindi. It was during this time that I first saw Kachhi embroideries being sold on the markets of Mumbai.
‘After seven years I returned to Kachchh. In 1989, my aunt was invited to the National Crafts Museum at New Delhi to demonstrate embroidery at a crafts fair. Jyotindra Jain, then director of the museum, had done a lot of work in Gujarat, and wanted to feature Rabari work. The invitation was extended to include me: according to mariyada (modesty code), our women cannot go anywhere on their own, and I was useful because I knew Hindi.
‘I knew that this was a good opportunity. I borrowed 2,500 rupees from friends and relatives and bought 40 embroideries to sell at the fair. When I returned to Bhujodi, I had a clear profit of 4500 rupees and the start of a business idea. Back in Kachchh, I started to work as a pheriyo collector for one of the big embroidery dealers in Bhuj. Sometimes he would ask me to act as a guide for tourists who wanted to see where the embroidery came from as well as buying it. I did this for two years before I set up on my own.
‘I had learnt the basics of the business and knew what other dealers were charging but I had my own values, and I worked according to them. Vishwas (trust) is very important in my community. I visited many villages collecting embroidery. If I had enough money, I would buy a piece outright; if I didn’t, I would agree a price and pay up once it was sold.
Gradually I built up a reputation. I am genuinely interested in Rabari work: I grew up with it, understand it and have feeling for it. When a woman begins a new piece, she puja prays to Ganpati (Lord Ganesh) to make a good start – not with agarbatti / incense but in her heart, between her and God. In embroidery there is faith in God, it is religious.
‘Since I began my business, Dhebarias Rabari subgroup have banned embroidery and Vagadias Rabari subgroup are making much less. Many women from my community Kachhis are doing shawl work for the weavers, commercial mirror work embroidery on shawls that are sold throughout India and for export. Today embroidery is market driven. Women used to embroider because they thought it would look beautiful in their homes or on their children. The motivation has changed and the stitches are coarse.
‘All the old work has gone and there isn’t any new work being made. Business has been hard since the earthquake and September 11th: visitors are not coming to Kachchh anymore. But in other ways I am fortunate: things are difficult now but sometimes it’s like that. I have faith, Bhagwan moto chhe, God is great.