50 Years of Shrujan: The Eye of the Needle

50 Years of Shrujan: The Eye of the Needle

Among Kutch’s most noted institutions, Shrujan that links artisanal skills with livelihood and entrepreneurial vision, begins its 50 Years celebrations this month 

Over 50 different kinds of embroideries practiced by 12 rural communities, spread over 120 villages with 4000 associated artisans…are some of the statistical stitches of Shrujan. Numbers offer perspective. But Shrujan—Threads of Life, the well-known, Kutch non-profit founded by the late Chandaben Shroff in 1969 is really the saga of a region and its craftswomen realized through threads and embroideries. That fascinating intersection when an aspect of personal life becomes a livelihood promise. When women who practice certain needle and thread rituals for individual gratification or to fulfill customary domestic expectations are enabled to use the same activity to enhance their worth as skilled artisans and become wage earners.

This December, Shrujan which finds instant recall as a brand that sells fine Kutch embroideries on various products–clothes, accessories and home décor items to footwear–turns 50. Chandaben’s children, Kirit Dave, Ami Shroff and Dipesh Shroff plan to kick off the golden year celebrations with a four-day exhibition at Coomaraswamy Hall at the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai that opens on the 21st of this month. While Dave and Ami work full time with Shrujan, as design and process interventionists, Dipesh, an industrialist-philanthropist has been the chair of the Shrujan board since Chandaben passed away in 2016.

Photo: Ajit Patel

Aerial view of the LLDC building.

What stares back in this golden year is the significance of the Shrujan Museum and the Living and Learning Design Centre (LLDC) in Kutch. A mindfully constructed, eco-positive, completely green building with chickoo and mango orchards surrounding it, a canteen that serves delicious local food and a beautifully curated store, the museum opened its doors in 2016. Once you step inside, the museum opens a riveting pastoral landscape, through photography, costumes, shawls, turbans, clay creations, musical instruments, embroideries, crafts, kitchen and storage items, footwear, audiovisual mounts and framed archives. It anthropologically narrates the lives and times of 12 Kutchi communities. Fabric mannequins dressed like Kutchi women from different communities—Ahir, Muthwa, Jat, Rabaris, Sodhas, Jadejas, among others—reveal a varying grammar of colour, mirrors, threads and beads in embroidery, contextualized through the life stages of a woman (childhood, adolescence, marriage and old age), birth, wedding and death rituals, lifestyle and religious practices. The space stokes aspiration to wear and own the embroideries displayed but because of its curatorial theme of life stages, it also becomes a reflection on human existence.

Photo: Saumya Sinha

Mannequins dressed as traditional Kutchi women from different communities at the Shrujan museum.

Kaki’s Towering Influence

“My mother Chandaben opened a Pandora’s box when she started responding to the urgent need to uplift the downgrading of local craft that was creeping in,” says Ami Shroff. “The local women told her that the embroideries will live only till their grandmothers and mothers did, after that they would fade away as the interest of younger girls was dwindling.” That led Kaki (as Chandaben was fondly called and continues to be referred to), to plan a design centre that could document, through photographs, notes and sketches, swatches and samples, the traditional work.  She aimed for a refinement of the embroideries with the use of finer quality threads, better quality fabric or other materials used as the base and through painstaking design intervention.

Kaki was a gentle, fiery and determined lady who set out to revive Kutch’s embroideries that women folk in their pastoral set ups practiced only for personal or family consumption. On the one hand, she wanted to impact lives and sustain craft, on the other she was also changing consumer experience through the beauty and finesse of embroidered products.

Photo: Shrujan

(L-R) Sariyaben, daughter of Parmaben and master artisan of Ahir Community and Parmaben, the senior most artisan.at Shrujan.

Photo: Jyoti Bhatt

Young girls of the Ahir community in their traditional wear.

Photo: Jyoti Bhatt

Meghwaad Maaru community artisans doing embroidery work.

She would travel across Kutch, spending hours, weeks and days with craftswomen to improve and improvise what they already knew. “Why are there so many parrots on this piece, why is there so much yellow—the intervention would be as basic as that in the early years,” recalls Ami.

In the early years, the Shroffs and designers who worked with them like Sudha Patel, Datta Sawant, Jai Bhatt and Swati Dalal among many others from the in house team would find that local communities were rather cloistered—they barely knew about the crafts and skills of other communities even if they lived just 20 kilometres away.

Before and After the Bhuj Earthquake

The devastating Bhuj Earthquake on the Republic Day of 2001 that wiped away lives, livelihoods and entire villages was a complex inflection point. It triggered the reconciliation of nature with culture, forcing communities to think beyond the needle they would wield as a personal pursuit.

Poignant recollections come up. Till the old Shrujan store and campus building in Bhuj crumbled completely about six months after the earthquake, more than a few people risked their lives, along with Chandaben, says Ami, to retrieve embroidery archives, panels and books worth saving. That paved the path for the Shrujan museum.

Photo: Saumya Sinha

Images of the cobbler or mochi community doing embroidery work called Aari displayed at the Shrujan museum.

About 2,200 women artisans worked with Shrujan before the earthquake. The number went up to over 5,000 within three months as the women sought to involve themselves in community activities. “After the earthquake, women stopped doing embroidery for personal use and began exploring it for commerce,” Ami explained in a report I wrote some years back. She had added that every spare second during the rebuilding of Kutch was spent by women artisans on embroidery. She remembers women, perched on the rubble, singing as they worked deftly on embroidery.

Shrujan created 560 master craftsmen over five decades. Among the karigar community, the names of Parmaben, Rajiben and Mahmudbhai keep cropping up when you talk about Shrujan in Kutch.

The Karigars’ Wishlist

Through dialogues, design workshops, exchange of skills, the design centre (with no real roadmap initially to become a stationary museum), Ami says a karigars’ wishlist was created. They wanted to learn about enterprise, display, business and design, conserve their craft, improve it, were curious about what other communities did and were, for the first time, willing to teach it to students of craft or other learners outside their community. They understood that before a craft dies, someone must take over to sustain it and keep it going. While embroidery is primarily practiced by women in rural communities, even men from the local communities despite essentially being farmers or Maldhari singers and workers began identifying themselves as weavers, printers or dyers as Shrujan’s work and worth spread.

Photo: Rolex

The late Chandaben Shroff (in white sari) along with other laureates at the Rolex Awards in 2006.

Chandaben would go on to win the Rolex Award in 2006 as the first Indian laureate to win this prestigious award for enterprise given to innovative thinkers who shape future. The award opened possibilities of funding and research for Shrujan. For the celebrations, Shrujan reached out to all kinds of craftspeople in Kutch: Ajrakh printers, wool weavers, tie and dye artisans, metal and wood carvers and so on. It was of the region and for the region.

While the research and experimentation work in crafts other than embroidery had begun in bits and starts in 2003 and then 2007, it took many years for the LLDC and museum building to be ready. During that time Ami says that the veteran artisans of the region would drop by to ask if everything was under control. They felt a sense of belonging. Especially the Ajrakh artisans who had travelled abroad for exhibitions and had repeatedly come back with the realization that the finest crafts of India lived in museums in other countries as “India could not take care of them”. They wanted the story to change.

Fifty Candles and A Needle

And it did, slowly, stitch by stitch. While the construction of the museum and LLDC was complete in 2014, it would take another two years to ready the galleries inside as the right lighting for the conservation and display of crafts needed more funding.

Today LLDC is a research and design institute that welcomes crafts practitioners and students from any discipline to work and learn here. A new gallery added this year hosts displays and exhibitions beyond Kutch craft. It could be miniature paintings from Rajasthan or zardozi creations from different parts of North India and West Bengal.

Photo: Saumya Sinha

Samples of the various embroidery styles found in Kutch at the museum.

Surely the Shroffs and Kaki’s many legates across Kutch would define 50 Years of Shrujan in at least fifty different ways. But the point where it influences the story of Indian crafts and their revival-survival-sustenance in the post-Independence century is how Shrujan enabled the re-imagination–through market and meaning–of artisanal inheritance. Why embroidery so deeply sewn into the identity of Kutch crafts must survive beyond community, family and gender.

For those like us watching from the sidelines, Shrujan holds the gaze of course through its museum. But it also channels thought. You can see the eye of the needle.

Banner: The late Chandaben Shroff with artisans from the Rabaari community.

Photo courtesy: Neela Kapadia