Something extraordinary happened in a dusty, arid village in Kutch earlier this week. About 1,400 women, some of whom had never stepped outside their villages, crossed the threshold to visit a new museum on the outskirts of Bhuj. The women, and not any politician or local celebrity, were the stars during the museum’s opening week.
“Because this place is for the karigars. And because it is Shrujan, there’s ownership of the place by the women,” explains Ami Shroff of Shrujan Trust which commissioned the Living and Learning Design Centre (LLDC). “It is for them to come and see the work they do and verify it with what their predecessors did.”
The newly-built Centre in Paddhar village, about 18km from Bhuj, is an animate tribute to the crafts practised by the various communities in Kutch. As its name suggests, the nine-acre campus is a place designed to impart training, conduct workshops, delve into research, explore new designs and showcase and exhibit the works of artisans and craftsmen practising embroidery, bell metal works, wood carving, toy making, etc. “In five years, we want this place to be the hub for all 22 crafts of Kutch,” says Ami.
Already, the Rs26-crore Centre is a treasure trove of the region’s embroidery. The first of LLDC museum’s three galleries, which will open to the public on January 25, alone showcases 16 styles of embroidery practised by nine different communities. The embroideries serve as identity markers for each community. For instance, the Ahir community’s embroidery, called Ahir, has particular stitches such as the saankdi (chain) stitch, the baavadiyo stitch, the aabhlo (mirror work), the dhungo flower motif and so on. Likewise, the Meghwad Maaru community does the soof embroidery whose geometric and floral motifs are based on a triangle and done in satin stitch.
A major component of the gallery are 3ft x 4ft panels that have been exquisitely embroidered by master craftsmen based on each community’s traditional designs; the panels are juxtaposed alongside a living exhibit, say a ghaghra, that has the same kind of embroidery. “Each panel best represents the overall embroidery, the finesse of the work and the skill of the artisan,” says Abhishek Ray, the architect who has designed the museum galleries. “So each panel, essentially a slide of an artisan’s work, would be studied not only for its motifs, borders and stitches, but also for its density, colours, stitches per sqm and so on.”
The panels currently on display are just a handful of the 1,000-odd commissioned by Ami’s mother and Shrujan founder, Chanda K Shroff or kakiji as she is fondly called throughout Kutch. “The panels were primarily made between 1997 and 2002, by which time a lot of the original and traditional designs were being compromised or lost because mothers and grandmothers would teach these orally to their daughters,” recounts Ami, who is Shroff’s daughter. “My mother knew that in an urban area, one has access to museums, galleries and exhibitions. But what access does one have in rural areas?”
How a bad famine led to a lifetime of livelihood
Shrujan Trust was born soon after Chanda K Shroff went to Kutch in 1969 to volunteer for drought relief efforts. She saw that the people in Dhaneti village, mostly from the Ahir community, were reluctant and unwilling to accept dole or even free food. So when she noticed that the women were engaged in doing very bright and colourful embroidery, she and a relative pooled in their savings, bought 30 saris and asked 30 women to embroider them. These saris were put up for sale at an exhibition in Mumbai and sold out within hours. The money earned was distributed among the women. The women had never imagined that the craft, which is an intrinsic part of their daily lives, could turn into an income-generating activity. Today, Shrujan Trust works with nearly 4,000 women of multiple communities in 100 villages across Kutch.