In the eye of the artisan
MONGHIBEN Rabari is attending an exhibition and sale in Mumbai. Her traditional embroidery has taken her from Vandh, her village of mud huts and camels on the seacoast of Kutch, to India’s most cosmopolitan urban metropolis. She is thrilled by the glittering bustle, and by the customers’ enthusiastic response. She deals directly with them, as a professional artisan. And not only do the customers buy; one woman is so impressed that she wants to learn how to embroider. She engages Monghi as a teacher during the afternoon lulls at the exhibition.
We have succeeded in the transition from tradition to profession. Crafts have become viable, both economically and culturally. Women are earning fair wages for their art, and also respect. I ask Monghi how she likes being a teacher.
‘Sometimes it seems like all we do is embroidery!’ she exclaims in exasperation.
Three decades ago, would Monghi’s mother Lachhuben have harboured the same ambivalence?
Lachhuben learned embroidery in Viyar village when she was 15 or 16. By the early 1970s many Kachhi Rabaris of western Kutch had already stopped migrating more than a day’s distance. Lachhuben stayed in the village, but did not go to school. Instead, she and her friends would sit together and stitch as if in a class, intent on learning the elements that comprise the unique Rabari style. Their mothers taught them to set mirrors, then to make the characteristic tight square chain stitch. Stitches had to be even, straight, and as fine as the girls could execute. Traditional motifs consisting of geometric borders laid out in specific patterns, and bold portrayals of parrots, trees and abstract figures, each named for an aspect familiar to Rabari life, had to be learned. The characteristic colour patterning: outlining with saffron alternating with white, filling with a succession of bright accent colours, was also internalized. When the basic stitches were mastered, the girls learned the repertoire of accent stitches that decorate traditional Rabari work. The combination of stitch, colour, pattern and motif defined Rabari style.
Lachhuben became known as a very accomplished artisan, though she worked in the same conventional way as her peers. Being an artisan was part of being Rabari. Individuality, expressed in subtle variations of skill, and specific choices from among the accepted repertoire of motifs, was recognized as we recognize handwriting. Innovation was limited. Styles changed slowly over generations.
All Rabari girls were expected to embroider kanchali/backless blouses, paheranu/wrapped skirts, a ghagharo/ stitched skirt, and ludi/woollen veil as dowry pieces to be brought out at the time of marriage. Other embroideries required of the bride, including a set of household decorations, purses and bags, were brought out on the Holi after the birth of the first son. The glittering pieces that a girl embroidered for her dowry were considered wealth, a contribution to the marriage exchange. Furthermore, embroidery was often a basis for judging a girl’s capability. Lachhuben and her peers worked as artists, without thought of time, concentrating on making the most beautiful contributions they could, knowing that their work would be appreciated by community members who shared their aesthetics and values. Not only would Rabaris not think of dowry pieces and personal adornment in terms of commercial value; they feared showing them lest outsiders would try to purchase them.
Asked what problems she faced in doing traditional work, Lachhuben responds with an exclamation echoed by the women sitting with her on her mud porch. Physical troubles! Rabaris assume a pose with knees up while embroidering to support the cloth at a comfortable distance. Sitting cramped for hours makes the legs stiff and even affects the digestive system.
In the last two decades many changes have impacted traditional embroideries and women embroiderers of Kutch. Periodic droughts and spiraling inflation forced rural communities to seek supplements to the meager earnings of pastoralist, agriculturist and professional male artisan incomes. As contact with market economies increased, economics leveraged culture. Rural women began to seek work for wages. Simultaneously, embroidered embellishment came into fashion in India and abroad, and has since enjoyed a remarkably long popularity.
Commercialization of an art that was meant for the home held mutual appeal. Artisans could earn without disturbing the social order. At first, women worked in the unorganized sector. They did embroidery for shopkeepers or local middlemen. In rare instances, women also went out, picking up enough work for a group of women. They worked on ‘labour’ embroidery, whatever was given to them, regardless of material and style. But neither artisans nor customer were satisfied. Pay was extremely low, even when more was promised. When artisans did their best work, the client criticized them; it wasn’t the style expected. Deceit and disappointment abounded.
Those communities who were less culturally restricted explored their options. They found more lucrative seasonal work as agricultural labourers, in government drought relief projects, or even in construction. Women who were not allowed out-side the village had little choice but to earn by embroidering at substandard rates.
Over time, new opportunities in embroidering for wages came. Rates improved, but even when women are allowed to set their own wages, they rarely earn as much as they could by other means of manual labour, because the accepted perceived value for handwork is still low. Relativity to possibility has most probably kept the wage for handwork down. Women of many communities still have few options to earn and will thus work for whatever is offered. Asked if she could earn as much embroidering as doing drought relief work, Monghi calculated and replied, ‘if we get up early and don’t wash our hair that day.’ Even when rates are similar, women may prefer manual labour. Embroidery is tedious, as Lachhuben pointed out, and physically demanding.
Where women have chosen to embroider for a living, they make a clear bifurcation between commercial and traditional handwork. The two are different entities, and do not directly overlap. Rules and standards for each are distinct. Yet, working with the market does affect how a woman feels about herself as an artisan and as a member of her society.
The first and perhaps biggest impact of commercial work is the separation of design, or art, and craft, or labour. Artisans are asked to make what someone else tells them to make, rather than work from their own sense of aesthetics. When presented with a set of four alien coloured threads, Rabari women balked. ‘If we use these, it won’t be Rabari,’ they said. In traditional work, there is no distinct separation of colour, stitch, pattern and motif; these work together in units. Design intervention separates these elements and juxtaposes them in new ways.
The result often disempowers artisans because it is done without explanation or means of access. After several months of working for wages, one senior artisan attended the sorting of products. Observing, she became increasingly agitated. When her own piece went into the reject pile, she visibly resigned, exclaiming, ‘then just tell me what to do; I don’t know what you want.’ In another instance, a group of women who do cross stitch embroidery and had been working commercially for some time refused to take on new work without a pattern printed on the cloth. They had given up their confidence in their traditional art, which of course is worked out by counting. When design is reserved for a professional designer and craft is relegated to the artisan, the artisan is reduced to a labourer. In effect, she is correct in her assessment that there is no difference between construction work and commercial embroidery.
While in the embroidery work-place, a woman’s sense of herself as an artisan may have diminished, her sense of worth as a member of her society has strengthened. Professional embroiderers have become acutely conscious of labour, time and the connection between them. In the work-place, they have learned to value time over aesthetic and have, consciously or not, learned to analyze their own work in order to maximize their efforts. When an embroiderer increases the distance between stitches by a hairsbreadth, or eliminates one of ten mirrors, she is intelligently extending her capacity to earn. Earning from embroidery began as part time, often sporadic supplementary income for the family. But as families realized that they could depend on this income, they began to regard earnings and earners with more respect. Small adjustments in domestic patterns enabled women to devote more time to embroidering for cash.
In producer groups in which embroiderers are given the opportunity for input, mutual responsibility and a sense of professionalism has grown. In Kala Raksha, we have observed instances in which work is given priority over social obligations. Lachhuben and Rajabhai postpone their daughter’s wedding because the date suggested conflicts with the annual exhibition in Delhi. Even after her wedding date is fixed, Kamlaben defers work on her dowry because she wants to win the annual prize for top earner. Miraben’s husband cooks the noon meal so that she can work as production assistant – and after work they send out for bhajiya because neither one feels like cooking and they can afford it. In the context of conservative societies characterized by strict adherence to prescribed behaviour, customs and roles, these are small but revolutionary changes.
Awareness of their capacity to earn gives women the sense of options. But the ensuing social change is not necessarily good for society or individual. On Environment Day a group of embroiderers offered to pay someone else to do their civic duty of cleaning the common ground, because they could afford to. Finally, professionalism can bring to bear the ills of the urban world. The same Miraben silently endured a painful illness for a week because she dared not shirk scheduled duties in the workshop to go to the doctor.
Over time, some women have determined that the reliable income and comforts of working at home compensate for relatively low wages, and greater changes have quietly taken place. Nomadic Rabari women no longer have to migrate. ‘Because we can rely on earning through our embroidery,’ they say, ‘we no longer have to toughen our hands and blacken our skin in the harsh desert sun.’ Jat women, chronically in debt, can now think of facing the bank and one day paying off their loans.
The massive earthquake that devastated Kutch in January 2001 precipitated unimagined changes in the economics of handwork. Nascent social changes accelerated exponentially. In Kala Raksha, we initiated a programme of distributing rehabilitation funds in the form of matching grants against wages. The incentive of earning double, meant to encourage women to participate in their own rehabilitation, in addition unequivocally illustrated the importance of good wages in productivity. Women worked more. Their production capacity doubled! They also worked better. No longer feeling they needed to increase the distance between stitches by a hairsbreadth, or eliminate one of ten mirrors, they produced embroidery of excellent quality. The small domestic adjustments went public. Family members gladly helped with cooking, cleaning and child care to enable women to maximize their embroidering time, now doubly valued.
Women used their matching grants to improve their families’ nutrition, repair homes, plant fields, seek timely medical attention, implement time saving and income generating activities, and pay off loans. Clearly, women know what to do with their income. The fact that they do not usually spend on better food or invest does not mean that they do not know how to use money, but simply that they do not have enough to use. Earning more enabled women to dare to reach for what they want.
The earthquake provided these women with the opportunity to experience their ability to significantly improve their standard of living. Time will tell if they value these changes enough to continue the trend even when wages are no longer double.
As the women of Kala Raksha began to value their work more seriously, embroiderers all over Kutch realized that they too had to. Sadly, the enormous need for reconstruction in post-earthquake Kutch and the astounding outpouring of funding for that purpose, were coupled with greed. Instead of offering day labour jobs to local villagers who critically needed the income, construction coordinators brought in cheap adivasi labour. Suddenly, unskilled earning options for both men and women of Kutch closed. Artisans know it is likely that this new low-rung labour force will resettle in Kutch and take up the agriculture, drought relief and construction jobs of which they and their husbands once availed.
Whatever means of earning they have pursued, women now have limited time for traditional embroidery. Yet, the cultural demand for embroidery is intact, and in some communities even increasing. Coping successfully with the contemporary commercial world does not preclude maintaining a tradition. Women now have to balance multiple demands on limited time, and time is suddenly a critical issue.
Communities are dealing with this issue in creative ways. But in nearly all cases, the sacrifice is the timeless sense of art. In traditional work, created with an artisan’s best skill to satisfy her own sensibility, time can never be a factor. Artisans themselves cannot afford the luxury of sentimentality. Ever practical, they predict that only if a girl’s father is well off can she afford to do her own embroidery. In their assessment, otherwise, there is little hope of saving traditional work. Ultimately, the need to earn will ruin and end traditional embroidery.
The emergence of the concept of time has brought a consciousness of labour to the home as well as the workplace. Embroidery is art, and it is also labour. These aspects, once integrated like the elements of colour, stitch, pattern and motif, are today delineated. Now, the focus is on the labour aspect of embroidery. In their traditional work, women look for ways to minimize effort. Among some communities such as Sodha Rajputs, Maru Meghvals and Garasia Jats, certain objects traditionally embroidered have been made obsolete, and a woman’s personal efforts on cultural pieces are concentrated on a few essential masterpieces.
Among Rabaris, whose traditions are still vital, the embellished items brought in a dowry are increasing. Two subgroups of Kutch have responded in different ways. Kachhi Rabaris have combined time saving machine embroidery and ready-made elements such as rick-rack with hand work in their traditional style. The elders of the Dhebaria Rabaris banned the use of handwork completely in 1995, and women substituted ribbons and trims appliquéd elaborately to emulate their rich handwork traditions.1 Subsequently, other communities found this an excellent idea, and the use of ribbons and trims to substitute or supplement handwork has become fashion throughout embroidering communities of Kutch.
Fashion, like time and labour, has emerged as a concept in rural Kutch. Communities have always adhered to share styles of embellishment and dress. And these traditions have always evolved in response to social and cultural impacts. But fashions change rapidly. This is an essential difference between fashion and tradition.
The minimization of labour in traditional art has allowed entry of new elements and enabled more rapid execution. Changes can take place more quickly, and they do. In rural fashion, as with tradition, styles continue to be shared by an entire community. It is the elements considered acceptable, the rate at which acceptability changes, and the concomitant constant requiring of cash expenditure that are contemporary.
Contact with the market did not directly bring fashion to rural Kutch. Rural fashion does not draw on commercial work. The only instance I have observed is Maru Meghvals using muted ‘English’ colours as occasional novelty. Nor have the habits of commercial craftsmanship crept in. Women welcome time saving devices, but not compromises in craftsmanship. Within the community, fine skill and sensibility are still a matter of personal worth.
What contact with the market did was to bring women in touch with a vast array of new materials, colours and patterns. As a result, artisans have become receptive to changes in style. In their own world, however, they choose new elements according to their own, still vital sense of aesthetics.
The other major impact of the market on traditional art is, once again, increased earning. Money has enabled women to participate in fashion. Money buys time saving elements. It is a fair exchange, especially with the increased valuation of time.
Among elders, fashion is seen as a breaking down of tradition. The elements of traditional style that were thought to define it are being replaced. No longer need a young Rabari woman wear wool or even black. No longer need her embroidery be done by hand – nor even be embroidered at all!
In a classic generation gap, young women see tradition opening up. Fashion is the new tradition, and they can consciously shape it. Among the Kachhi Rabaris, for example, it is the young engaged and newly married women themselves who have increased the dowry requirements in an artful one-up-manship. When a bride arrives at her in-laws’, con-temporaries ask aloud how many kanchali/blouses she has brought? The new bride makes a point to wear a new kanchali each day and everyone inspects and reports on it with excruciating detail. Bonding with peers is essential; thus fashion becomes critical.
Why is Monghi, now immersed in preparing her dowry embroideries, ambivalent about embroidery? For young artisans of Kutch today embroidery has multiple dimensions. It is a means of earning a livelihood, increasingly important for the family, and it is an increasing social obligation. Perhaps Monghi is right: embroidery is all she does.
Lachhuben regards her daughter working with intense concentration on her dowry. Monghi no longer likes the elaborate patches she did for her ludi/veil. They are no longer in fashion; she has a new idea. Now she needs to do a cupboard curtain, too, because some other girls have added that to their dowry. ‘Sometimes I wish our elders would ban our embroidery, too,’ Lachhuben confides, ‘then we would be released of this obligation.’
But embroidery is still an important means of expressing creativity. Perhaps herein lies the source of ambivalence. Monghi loves the designing aspect of the new traditional work. By focusing on the labour aspect of embroidery, and eliminating some of the tedium of handwork, women in all communities have shifted the focus of creativity. Different skills have become important in new fashion traditions: choosing from the array of available materials, conceptualizing patterns and, in many cases, sewing (in addition to embroidering). The new styles, in fact, allow women to focus on design rather than execution.
With this, the sense of the individual has emerged. In the slow evolution of traditions, individuals were rarely credited with innovations. Nor did they wish to be. In traditional societies conformity is critical. Subtle changes in motifs or patterns were welcomed, but initiation was under-played, and the designs were quickly dispersed among the group. Now, women take credit for their contributions. They will quickly point out, ‘I came up with that pattern!’ Others will say, that is ‘Daya’s design.’
Monghi has a sudden inspiration: she will embroider a whole border for her ludi/veil, rather than the two patches in the corners that have been current fashion. She chooses a bold diagonal pattern, and adds holography sequins instead of mirrors, to lighten the weight and dazzle the eye. As a flourish in a raga, her idea elicits a spontaneous ‘wah!’ among her peers. Everyone is impressed, and Monghi has the great satisfaction that she has started a fashion trend. It will be beautiful, and it will be attributed to her. The two borders take time, but the ratio of time to result is culturally cost effective.
Embroidery in rural Kutch is in transition. It plays two roles, that of income generation and that of expressing culture. From Monghi’s point of view, professional embroidery is becoming viable both economically and culturally. Women have more status in their societies because they are earning. But they also have more responsibility and much less time. The wages for commercial work are less than desirable; the work is not creative. In fact, women are investing in commercial work the labour that they are eschewing in their own embroidery. Monghi knows there are other options. Awareness of options is one of the goals of empowering women through income generation. Dissatisfaction and struggling are a part of understanding choice.
The very pressure of balancing two types of embroidery has actually forced artisans to take creative leaps in their own work, to find ways to minimize tedium and focus on the art of craft. In a sense, the elder artisans’ prediction that the need to earn will end traditional embroidery is true; tradition as they know it is radically changing. How it changes is in the young artisans’ hands. Less bound by narrow concepts of tradition, more focused on design and innovation, embroidery for expression of culture has the potential to become more than ever an art form, and a source of confidence and satisfaction. The artisans alone can decide. Only when women create out of choice can it remain art.
1. For more information see Frater, 1999 and Frater, forthcoming.
Judy Frater, ‘ "This is Ours": Rabari Tradition and Identity in a Changing World’, forthcoming in Nomadic Peoples.
Judy Frater, ‘Rabari Embroidery: Chronicle of Tradition and Identity in a Changing World’, forthcoming in a Crafts Council of India publication.
Judy Frater, ‘When Parrots Transform to Bikes: Social Change Reflected in Rabari Embroidery Motifs’, Nomadic Peoples (NS), vol. 3, issue 1, 1999.
Judy Frater, Threads of Identity: Embroidery and Adornment of the Nomadic Rabaris, Mapin, Ahmedabad, 1995.