Tradition and Transition

Advocacy, Policy, Sustainability, Sustainable Devt.

Tradition and Transition: A Crafted Solution to Development

Tyabji, Laila

All over India women sew and embroider. Their stitches tell not only their own stories, but those of their cultures and lives. Through those stitches women reach out to the rest of the world, finding markets and generating incomes for themselves and their families. As Ramba ben, a mirrorwork embroiderer from Banaskantha once said to me, “The lives of my family hang by the thread I embroider.”

Some years ago, in the mid 80s, I was doing a design workshop with a group of patchwork appliqué women in a re-settlement colony outside Ahmedabad in Gujarat. Three days into the workshop a communal riot broke out in Ahmedabad city. Arson and looting turned into mob warfare and killing and the trouble spread into the slum suburbs. The patchwork women were Muslim; most of their husbands and fathers worked in the city. They drove bicycle rickshaws, sold vegetables and groceries on small handcarts, or were unskilled labour in factories. Now they were trapped. Those who ventured into the city were drawn into the violence; those who stayed at home forfeited their daily income.

Every day people were brought into the community centre, where we sat matching colours and cutting patterns, burnt, wounded, maimed. A child’s eyes had been gouged out; the brother of one of the women had been burnt alive in his cycle rickshaw. It seemed stupid and callous to the point of crazy hubris to be sitting there making pretty patterns while people were dying – a little like Nero fiddling while Rome burnt.

Nevertheless, the income the women were making from what we stitched, was the only money coming into the community. They were, quite literally, living off the patterns of circles and squares they cut and sewed. Ironically, the disregarded, decorative activity done by the women had turned out to be the life line of their families.

This is a rather sombre note on which to begin an article on Indian hand craft and women. Nevertheless, I want to set the context in which DASTKAR and I work. A context where the beauty, authenticity, original creativity and spontaneity of the product is second to the sheer economic necessity of its production and sale. In the West these days, craft is something that people, weary of the relentless pressures and uniformity of the industrial and professional sector, turn to in search of freshness and individual self expression. In India, craft is an industry and profession.

As I write I’m haunted by the words of Geetha Devi, a sujni embroiderer with whom DASTKAR works: “To work is forbidden, to steal is forbidden, to cheat is forbidden, to kill is forbidden, what else is left except to starve, sister?” As per the present going rate for female agricultural labour in Bihar, a woman would have to work 70 days a month in order to feed her family. Geeta Devi’s slow stitches, telling stories, have become the alternative to starvation. Women used to exchange their old embroideries for utensils; one pot for embroidery worth 2000 rupees. They never thought that they had a living skill in their hands. Now they embroider new pieces and earn cash for their families and their future.

The story behind the stitches – of craft, women and development in contemporary India – is both a parable and a paradox: craft traditions are a unique mechanism for rural women entering the economic mainstream for the first time, but they also carry the stigma of inferiority and backwardness as India enters a period of hi-tech industrialization and globalization.

A Dutch diplomat visited a DASTKAR exhibition some years ago. Looking at the women’s intricate embroideries, he remarked sadly: “They are so skilled; why doesn’t anyone train them to make electronic spare parts?” An illustration of the relative values the urban educated elite places on 20th century technology versus traditional skills.

But, in India, craft is not just a production process – merely a mechanical, mindless, somewhat outdated form of earning and employment. It is a rural woman’s creative means to conquer her desert landscape and the confines of her limited income – her way of transcending the dependence and drudgery of her arduous agrarian and domestic life cycle. It is a creative skill and strength that is uniquely hers – an individual statement of her femininity, culture and being

A wonderful painting by Paul Gauguin is entitled: “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
Similarly, the work of contemporary Indian craftswomen both answers and raises these questions.

The crafts sector, where I work, is the largest source of employment and income generation for Indian women (more women work as agricultural labour, but their contribution is generally unpaid). It is also the one area of acknowledged skill, creativity and expertise (apart from child-bearing) where women are not just on par, but ahead of men. The one area, too, of economic and productive strength that Western countries have lost.

While international agencies, economists and activists agonies over the conflicting interests of unemployment, the depletion of natural energy resources and the degradation of the environment through industrialization, craft continues to be a viable alternative. With a simple, inexpensive, environmentally friendly needle, palm leaf, spindle or loom, and the inherent skill of her hands, a woman can both support her family and enrich the national economy and export trade.

Many Asian countries have the same un-tapped strength – of literally lakhs of women whose discounted but extraordinary skills give us a cultural and aesthetic identity uniquely our own. But, because these women are village bound, unorganized and illiterate, their voices and needs are never heard in international forums. The raw materials they depend on – yarn, bamboo and cane, lac, leather – are being exported abroad or diverted to the industrial sector. Financial credit, social security schemes and investment ignore them.

Their priorities – both on spending international resources, and on the issues themselves, might well be different from politicians, bureaucrats, and other movers and shakers who prefer to move into the 21st century to more technologic tunes. But we must listen to those voices and give them space – even when we disagree.

We are all super-sensitive to vestiges of colonialism and exploitation, but we practice a cultural imperialism of our own: dominance by virtue of education, language and profession. “We may be wage earners but we are still walking on someone else’s feet. Because we lack the tools of education and language we are still dependent,” said Shiva Kashyap, a DASTKAR craftswoman from Bihar. Expertise has its own class system: the designer dominates over the craftsperson; the urban management consultant dictates the rural development process.

Having got the DASTKAR craftswomen out of their veils and villages into the international market place we should help them take that next difficult but vital step – out into the street, into the election process and Government forums – being their own spokespeople, celebrating their own identity, setting their own agendas.

Some years ago, I sat with a group of mirrorwork craftswomen in Lakhu ben’s mud and thatch house in Gadda Village. They were part of the Rabari women’s embroidery group that is the nucleus of the DASTKAR Kutch Project, and we were working on a mirrorwork panel that would go to the Women’s Conference in Beijing.

None of the women quite knew where Beijing was, or what it was all about. But they liked the idea of thousands of women getting together to shape a new world, and they wanted to be part of the action. Working collectively on the piece, deciding its design, and sending it out to the international forum of women as their message of strength, creativity and independence seemed to mark their coming of age.

They bank their payments and earnings and have started a cooperative Loans & Savings Scheme. Reacting to the exploitation of illiterate women by both village men and urban tradespeople, they have taught themselves to read and write and do simple accounting. This time, Lakhu ben had gone one better – her Work Issue Register had each woman’s name written in English! She had got her son to teach her. Coming to Delhi had made her aware, she said, of the importance of being able to speak and make bills in English. They have realised that a pen is no more complex to handle than a needle.

Ten years later, Kutch was the epicentre of India’s most devastating earthquake in living memory; an estimated 80,000 people lost their lives. Kutch is the epicentre of India’s richest concentration of craftspeople – over fifty-two thousand, according to the 1995 NCAER census. Government figures estimated that 22, 8000 artisans were severely affected by the quake, losing their families, their homes, and their livelihoods.

In Kutch, in an otherwise barren, drought prone environ, almost every household is dependent in some way on the production and sale of craft. Village after village of once prosperous, self-sufficient crafts communities were now reduced to rubble. But that same spirit which made Lakhu ben learn English impelled the craftspeople not to buckle under. Visiting Kutch in the aftermath of the earthquake, seeing mile after mile of devastated villages and shattered, grieving families – counting their losses and their dead, it was moving to see that no one was begging, or passively waiting for dole.

“It is God’s will – it is a time to test us,” said an old Rabari artisan in Bhujodi Village. Ironically, craftspeople, who had no pensions, insurance schemes or social security, were the first the recover from the terrible trauma of the earthquake – through the inherent skills in their hands.

Almost 9 years ago, a young woman in Rajasthan killed herself, I knew Dhapu well. I was living and working in her village at the time. We were neighbours. She soaked herself in kerosene and set herself afire. We were only a few houses away but the drums of a wedding procession drowned her screams. By the time we reached her and broke open the door she was dead. Later we heard she still owed the village shopkeeper for the kerosene.

Dhapu was bright, young, lively, beautiful, the mother of 5 children. She killed herself because she had so many skills but no opportunities.

She lived in a part of India that is semi-desert – dry, desolate, deprived. The villages in that area had been re-settled as part of a Government scheme to create a tiger park. Dhapu and her family were small herders who depended on access to the forest for firewood, fodder and water for their herds. Now that was gone. 5 years of drought had created further hardship.

Life was incredibly hard. Dhapu’s daughter Indira was about to be engaged. She had saved desperately to put together a dowry. Then disaster struck. Her husband’s elder brother suddenly died. Dhapu’s husband’s sense of family honour was greater than his income as an agricultural labourer. He told her that his brother’s widow and her 4 children would come to live with them. There were 5 more mouths to feed. Indira’s dowry would have to be given to his brother’s eldest child. It was too much for Dhapu. She killed herself for lack of an economic alternative.

Dhapu’s death had a profound effect on me. The tragic irony haunts me still. The group of us who rushed to save her from the flames was working to create economic opportunities for women just like her. Dhapu’s daughter Indira, her widowed sister-in-law and her niece became among the most prosperous women in Sherpur village – among a group of 100 women whom DASTKAR has trained to earn their own livelihood through their own hand skills – patchwork, tie-dye, embroidery and printing. Dhapu’s daughter didn’t need a dowry; she was sought after as a bride by everyone – because she was bringing in her own income.

Today, Rameshwari, Raeesan, Shameem, Badam, Farida, and the other women recall those first early days in the tiny DASTKAR room in Sherpur village nine years ago, and the fear and suspicion with which they had greeted the idea that something they made with their hands could sell in the Delhi market, the disbelief of receiving their first earnings. They thought I had come to kidnap their children! Today they are the leaders of approximately 100 families in the area who make and sell products through DASTKAR – crafting quilts, soft furnishings, garments, mobiles, toys and accessories for both the local and urban market. Their daughters, Bina, Mumtaz, Laado, are also learning the old skills as well as new ones – reading, writing and ciphering form the first part of the morning for both mothers and daughters.

In the wasted, deprived landscape around Ranthambhore, where the only water and forest has been reserved for the tiger, craft is the practical use of waste and found materials: a means of recycling and value-adding reeds, old paper, cloth scraps, and the debris of the forest. Vegetable dyes, block printing, and tie-dye enhance simple handspun cotton; patchwork or sewing sequins is something a comparatively unskilled woman can do while she rests from her work in the field, in between tending her children.

Income generation is not, by itself, a synonym for development, but it can be the key and catalyst to development’s many processes: education, health, community building, the repudiation of social prejudices, the empowerment of women.

As we sew together, I ask the women what they will do with their money? Some silver jewellery but also better seeds and a buffalo. The ability to send their children by bus to a fee- paying school. Medical treatment and their tubes tied at a ‘proper’ hospital. A new well in the village. They have their own bank accounts to prevent misappropriation by drunken or gambling husbands. They all want ‘pukka‘ houses. Rameshwari is a widow and is saving for her children’s weddings.

Methods of birth control are canvassed along with colour combinations; old women learn that writing their names is no more difficult than threading a needle. Children who wander in are conned into blowing runny noses – and running errands! Wholesale dealers coming to deliver our orders become an informal weekly market where women can make purchases without an expensive trek to the town. Cotton rather than synthetic, traditional block prints rather than mill-printed roses have become the in-thing again, both to make and to wear. In the evenings, songs and stories and folklore are swapped for political gossip and revolutionary ideas of social change. The women have set up their own savings and loans micro-credit group. They are money lenders to the whole village.

DASTKAR products range from table linen, cushions, and throws to jackets, kurtas and stoles sarees. All represent a more or less traditional usage of motifs, stitches and techniques, in pieces that incorporate themes and motifs familiar to the women; and use materials that are locally accessible or hand-woven by other DASTKAR crafts people; combining these familiar elements into in contemporary soft furnishings, accessories or garments re-designed for the urban Indian consumer.

Though they are functional objects of everyday usage – articles designed for daily wear or the home – their motif and colour, as in most Indian craft objects, however utilitarian, have a significance that is deeply rooted in socio-cultural and votive traditions, that we have tried to respect, even while adapting them. Including the craftswomen in the design process: helping them understand the end usage and methodology, sharing the fun of experimenting with new layouts and a different colour palette, is an integral part of Dastkar’s development of new products.

The products do not merely showcase the skills, creativity, and strength of Indian textile craftswomen, and the beauty and range of their craft. They attempt to show how both women and embroidery can adapt and change as society and markets change, while still remaining true to their own aesthetic and tradition.

They illustrate Dastkar’s belief that the continuing existence of an extraordinary diversity of craft traditions and producers is one of India’s unique strengths as it searches for its own identity in a world that is increasingly uniform and technological.

It is extraordinarily exciting to work with the traditional hand skills of women, used previously to craft products for themselves and their families, now gradually changing into a contemporary, urban, market-led product, still strongly reflecting the cultural identity and individual skills of the makers. They also tell the story of women, subtly changing themselves in the process. Everywhere, the energy of a source of new employment and earning binds together and revitalizes communities that were as deprived and denuded as the desert around them. This is particularly true when one works with the latent skills and strengths of women. They suddenly discover their self worth, seeing themselves as active participants in the community rather than passive recipients of welfare. Wells are dug, children educated, social prejudices and taboos are thrown away when women discover their own power.

What has using their inherent craft skills as a tool of empowerment done to these and the many other crafts women? The process is not without conflicts, but it is invariably catalytic. Like a kaleidoscope, familiar elements, transposed, take on a new, dynamic pattern.

Lucknow in northern India is a city where Hindu and Muslim culture, language, and religion mingle in a polyglot, stylized, slightly decadent muddle. Tucked into the dingier corners of its elaborately curliqued stucco-work palaces and arched gateways are narrow, winding, overpopulated lanes, and dark, squat houses, inhabited by women who are themselves enveloped in gloomy, black veils and desperately poor – oppressed not just by economics but by their own social and domestic circumstance.

Illiterate, devoutly Muslim, locked into marriages and family structures that allow little room for individual expression or creativity, they produce one of the most subtle and sensitive of India’s myriad embroidery traditions. The delicate, pristine white-on-white of chikankari, the epitome of fastidious refinement and esoteric elegance, emerging from these dim, dirty, tenement dwellings – children, chickens and goats squabbling, squealing and defecating in every corner, cooking pots smoking, is one of the paradoxes and puzzles of Lucknow.

In 1985, I went to Lucknow to work with a 100 chikan embroidery women. They were in purdah, illiterate, house-bound, and previously totally dependent on the local Mahajan to fetch their work – or pay them for it. Sitting together embroidering, teaching them new skills and designs, we naturally talked about everything under the sun. They were stunned that I, a well-brought up, believing Muslim woman, could also be liberated, happily unmarried, earning my own living -traveling the world, untrammeled by purdah or convention.

Our first argument was when I was furious with them for signing, unread, a petition about the path breaking Shah Bano judgment, just on the say-so and a biased and retrograde interpretation of the Koran by local male chauvinist Maulvis. They listened to all this chat, wide-eyed, slightly disbelieving, slightly envious, slightly shocked. They certainly didn’t relate it to the realities of their own lives. When six of them bravely agreed to come to Delhi for the first chikan exhibition, the men of the mohalla threatened to burn down the SEWA Lucknow office, accusing us of corrupting their women’s morals.

Today, those 100 SEWA women have grown to over 7,000 They travel all over India, happily doss down and sing bhajans in a dharmasala, or cook biryani at the Bombay Salvation Army Hostel. They interact with equal ease with male tribals from Madhya Pradesh and sophisticated buyers from HABITAT; they march in protest against dowry deaths as well as Islamic fundamentalism; demand financial credit and free spectacles from the Government; self-confidently refuse to give the most powerful local politician or bigwig a discount! They earn in thousands rather than hundreds, have their own savings bank accounts, and have thrown away centuries of repression and social prejudice along with their burkhas.

This augmented role – being entrepreneurs, saleswomen, executives; as well as housewives and mothers – the additional weight of responsibility, independence and experience – has changed women, even if it hasn’t materially changed male attitudes. Sometimes the added stresses and pressures have destroyed them; sometimes it has made them stronger and more self-confident. In our Project in Ranthambhore (where Dhapu’s daughters now work) the local doctor says he can recognize a DASTKAR craftswoman from half a kilometre just by the way she walks and holds her head.

It has changed their attitudes to society, caste, marriage, purdah. They are more able to objectively evaluate the gospel as preached by men. Initially, in Sherpur village, women of different castes and religions wanted separate timings to come to the room where I lived and worked. The first time a harijan woman came for work she crouched outside the door. It was she herself, not the upper caste women, who explained – with shocked disbelief at my naiveté – that she could not enter. I had to literally pull her in. When a Muslim child pee-ed on the floor, the Hindu women fled in horror and wanted the whole place lippai -ed! Today, the 100 men and women in the Project work, travel, cook, eat and drink together, marveling at the folly that kept them separate for so long. At the annual picnic the men made the women sit, and served them – Hindus and Muslims, harijans and upper-castes alike.

The changing woman has changed some (a few!) male mind-sets. The same men who threatened to burn down the SEWA office now help pack the exhibition stock, and escort their wives to night school. Money power is a most amazing thing. But the men at the picnic did make it plain that this was only once-a-year! Normally the women cook for and feed their menfolk before they come to work and on their return, even now when they are the principal earners in the family. They are still expected to gather the firewood, work in the fields, care for the children, in addition to being entrepreneurs and wage earners.

It would be simplistic to pretend that the shifting balance of power and the new self-worth of the women have not created enormous family strains: between husbands and wives, mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, between self-realization and traditional mores. It would be foolish to ignore that it is the woman who always has to bear the burden of this. Also, that her inherent tendency to silently take on more and more, rather than scream with rage and rejection, often makes the burden well-nigh unbearable. Naive too, to think that without the carrot of cash payments, women would voluntarily rise up and change the status quo. There is a security in being inferior yet protected; the burkha veil can be a comfortable and addictive escape route from the adult responsibilities of an independent life. But the changed confidence of the women – their ability to take and make decisions, to disagree with their husbands, to plan their own and their children’s future – is not a once in a blue moon phenomenon that is going to go away.

Sawai Madhopore was once the centre of dabu indigo printing. When we tried to revive it (initially only as a means of getting interesting, locally-made raw material for the women’s patchwork) the one surviving craftsman, although he had no male karigars left to fulfill his mushrooming orders – refused to teach women to block print. He felt extraordinarily threatened by the thought of women entering his all-male bastion; and of sharing his expertise with those he’d previously regarded as inferior. He feared, rightly, that once women left their traditional place, they would never quietly return to it. Their new economic strength and earning power has changed their ability to implement their dreams and aspirations. Even more importantly, I think, it has given them the strength to dream. Women who had nothing, whose highest aspiration was a husband who didn’t beat them or drink away his earnings, can today educate themselves and their children, save for a house or a cow, invest in their daughter’s future.

Recently, working on creative panels for an exhibition in Sweden, Dastkar craftswomen were asked to represent their lives and their dreams. Stitching away, their vision was of themselves as a group, not as individuals. The “I” as heroine or single protagonist is not a concept rural Indian women understand. Even in the village they are always Ramu’s wife, or Karsan’s mother – never called by their name. Their dreams and aspirations were also collective ones. Health, education for their children, a good harvest, social status – expressed by images of spreading trees, an aeroplane soaring in the sky, a girl child reading a book – were what they wanted. Not for them the intangible “Happiness” and “Love” for which most of us wish.

The American writer, Tennessee Williams, said “Make journeys, attempt them. It’s the only way…“. For the Dastkar craftswomen, their journey from their villages in Gujarat, Karnataka and Bihar to India’s urban marketplace has been not only a physical journey, but a voyage of inner and external discovery – a reaching out to new horizons of the mind and spirit.

Indira-ki-maa, Kalu-mian-ki-aurath – so-and-so’s mother, so-and-so’s wife – have turned into Rameshwari, Nafeesa, and Azeezan. Their ability to influence the lives of their families and community has altered and grown, and they have altered and grown with it.


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