Ela Bhatt: Thread that binds


Ela Bhatt: Thread that binds

Indian embroidery is often discussed in the context of luxurious lehengas but the SEWA founder saw its unique potential as a tool of resistance and sustenance

A day after Ela Bhatt passed away in Ahmedabad, I searched for voices among India’s crafts practitioners, grassroots luminaries, co-followers of her Gandhian way of life to write obituaries about her exemplary life.

Thousands of women and men had been touched by Elaben’s easy-to-describe, hard-to-imbibe Gandhian spirit. Her empowerment of women through non-aggressive protest and forming the world’s largest, informal trade union SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association) as a tool of social resistance changed an entire community. However, in most obits, there was very little emphasis on her vision for the potential of embroidery skills of rural women. Embroidery is a granular but powerful detail. Both as a practice and as metaphor. It is that thread, drawn from the luminous, thick fabric of Elaben’s life that forms the skein of this piece.

Raised in Kutch, Ela Bhatt’s “crafts x women connect” was emblematic of both water and steel for me. She saw activism as a labour right and crafts as a cultural right. Channelling embroidery was not the sum total of her life’s work but worth a lot of admiration. Ditto for Dastkar chairperson Laila Tyabji, who along with the late Chandaben Shroff, founder of Shrujan in Kutch, now a 53-year-old institution, and Ela Bhatt of SEWA stood out because of their intervention in the lives of female embroidery artisans.
To get facts in order, as Tyabji informs, it was Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, Prabha Shah, Swatantrata Prakash, among others, who were the first to nudge the post-Partition resurrection of crafts traditions. Some are unsung names. They do not include those who concerned themselves with textile reinvention and revival. In setting up the reach and profits of rural embroidery, however, Elaben and Chandaben were visionaries. SEWA organised women but needed direction and skill-guidance towards market knowledge to make the creations saleable and market appropriate. Dastkar and Tyabji were invited to lead that part of the movement.

Embroidery from Kutch and Banaskantha in Gujarat, Lucknow’s chikankari, the intricate needlework of Kashmir and other sui dhaaga skills often get discussed as luxury creations, for bridal lehengas, in the context of global-local market aesthetic or in hand versus machine arguments. But only a craftswoman can tell you how soulfully significant embroidery is for her. It is a therapeutic sanctuary, like yoga, meditation or witnessing a professional rudaali.
It is distinct from stitching, sewing, weaving or spinning. And this is not an argument for its superiority among hand-skills. However, its practice as a rhythmic symphony of needle and thread, is unique. It carries forward community skills but essentially it is a personal expression in the way the eye of the needle is threaded to how the cloth is stabbed. It unfolds a grammar of repetition, alternation and needlepoint intricacy. It mixes colour, the delicate durability of the thread with memory of knowledge passed down orally. The rapport between needle and woman has been witness to happiness and rage, sighs and signs of lives less ordinary. It may be a piece for the craftswoman’s own dowry (as is the practice still in Kutch), a decorative cloth for a pastoral hut or one made for a fashion designer — embroidery is a private little lens. After all, we know a Hansiba (the name of the oldest artisan of this SEWA initiative) from a Pabbiben (an embroidery artisan, the face of Kutch’s Kaarigar Clinic) for the way she choreographs her sui and dhaaga.

More than a few craftswomen I interviewed in the past have spoken about how embroidery helps them cope with anxieties, reconcile with bereavement and resist patriarchal powers. Often, women in villages embroider a bedsheet or a sari collectively while expressing joy or sharing their struggles against dominant discourses. Some sing and embroider as a community. After the shattering losses of the 2001 Kutch earthquake, organisations like Qasab and Shrujan in Kutch urged karigars to return to work. While product outflow and business had been greatly compromised, this was first a therapeutic solace.

As a student of narrative psychotherapy, I have lately been studying embroidery as a metaphor of psychological expression — how stitches and patterns mirror difficulties, trauma or psychological dilemmas and why it is therapeutic. Embroidery may be done on high count, hand-spun or vegetable dyed organic cotton for a “global market” but essentially for the craftswoman (or man), they mirror ways of being and doing. Some may be “too traditional” for urban buyers but for the embroiderer, that stitch and pattern may be about healing, belongingness, shared roots, home and community. Old stitches, persistence of motifs, the way pink and green threads, for instance, sit well together in a craftswoman’s eye is an understudied aspect of rural design as therapy.

Elaben had the vision to see the economic potential of embroidery skills. Paying homage to her sewa (service) would be incomplete without remembering that embroidery is a soulmate and therapist for rural women.