Life | Crafting A Revolution

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Crafting A Revolution
Text by Mala Vaishnav
Published: Volume 17, Issue 8, August, 2009

Tribal embroidery weaves its way onto head-turning bustiers, dresses and skirts. While global fashionistas revel in some vibrant ethnic comfort, local village artisans find themselves empowered and gaining new respect with the help of SEWA’s Trade Facilitation Centre, observes Mala Vaishnav

Last year on a trip to Ahmedabad I found myself engaging in a warm handshake with a boardroom biggie. She was a tall, handsome woman, garbed in a swirling mirrored skirt - that swished across solid beaten silver anklets - a heavily embroidered choli, and a multi-hued dupatta, pushed back from her forehead to reveal a toothy grin. Gauriben Ramabhai Brahman, the vice president (and shareholder) of STFC (SEWA Trade Facilitation Centre), is an artisan from the barren district of Patan in Gujarat. The 44-year-old mother of five was earlier part of a delegation to US, Brazil and Chile and has been instrumental in making almost 15,000 rural women economically self-reliant by ensuring them a steady livelihood.

Reema Nanavaty, the centre’s soft-spoken director of economic and rural development, makes some more introductions. For chattering behind Brahman is her merry band of workers, all from neighbouring villages, come to collect the ‘kits’ that they will distribute to their charges back home. Fabrics and threads and patterns that will return in a cohesive package of exquisite tribal embroidery. With Mona Dave, CEO, leading the way, I am taken on a fascinating tour through thick rolls of cloth, dyeing machines, ironing bays, tailoring units and a design room fitted with the latest technology. Mannequins draped in trendy bustiers and fitted dresses with ethnic embellishment, line the corridors while NIFT graduates in jeans and tees drift in and out of their work spaces, no doubt giving the Indian silhouette an international edge.

And then I am caught off-guard. A rust-coloured kurta, tailored in form-flattering style and enhanced with vibrant Ahir embroidery is in the process of being labelled. I stare at the little rectangular piece being stitched on – it’s the name of a popular Indian brand available all over the country in its large plush stores. This could well become a thing of the past I learn, for STFC has through the year, busily been promoting their own retail outfit, Hansiba. Named after mothership SEWA’s (Self Employed Women’s Association) first rural artisan, Hansiba Dattarana, now all of 93 years, the Mumbai outlet recently saw US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, stop by to have a 45-minute chat with SEWA founder Ela Bhatt, shop extensively for daughter Chelsea and receive a precious hand embroidered toran from Gauri Brahman. Precious, since the crimson runner was a family heirloom that took a decade to complete.

The STFC was born in May 2003 and raised as the commercial arm of SEWA in the handicrafts and textiles sector. A non-profit business enterprise with more than 1,500 artisans involved at every step of the supply chain, and providing employment to more than ten lakh women, it follows a unique model that even has Harvard University curious about these self-made little entrepreneurs!

Puriben Ayar, daughter of Hansiba, shares interesting anecdotes during our break for dhoklas and chai. Smoothing the napkin on her skirt and placing her teacup carefully on the coaster, she recalls the early days when women were barely seen behind their ghunghats, leave alone heard. The bolder ones who sauntered out of the village and returned with work packages for the rest were frowned upon, even berated by the elders and menfolk. But when wages began to trickle in, bringing with them, more food on the table and material comfort, even the conservative elders reluctantly relented. Nanavaty comments on a reversal of roles. “I have visited some homes in the hinterland where the man of the house serves the tea and snacks while we women are immersed in work-related stuff!”

“There is a new respect,” agrees Puriben. “We walk with our heads held high and we educate all our girls.” Also, there are far less families faced with compulsive migration due to lack of jobs.

As society moves on and new aesthetics rule the fashionable world, a taste for nationalism, for what is local, often keeps making a comeback, albeit with a modern take: be it on empire cuts, figure-hugging corsets or traditional motifs on a swishy gown. STFC, while empowering several thousands of rural women, ensures that whatever the outcome, their dignity, their skills and their commitment to their craft keep a rich heritage always alive, while consistently improving the lot of rural Indian women. In fact as one worker and shareholder put it, ‘The life of my family hangs by the thread I embroider.’


Ela Bhatt – founder (Padma Bhushan and Magsaysay awardee; trustee, Rockefeller Foundation).
Reema Nanavaty – director, economic and rural development (IAS 1986 batch).
Renana Jhabvala – national coordinator, SEWA Bharat (economist from Yale).
Mirai Chatterjee – coordinator, healthcare and insurance (Harvard graduate).
Ramilaben Rohit – president ( farm worker from Anand, Gujarat).

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