Shrujan was started in 1969 after a four-year drought in Kutch when my mother, Chanda Shroff, volunteered in a relief kitchen at Dhaneti village. It began with 30 women belonging to the Ahir and Meghwad Gurjar community. My mother got 30 saris embroidered by them and held an exhibition sale in Mumbai.
Over the next decade, my mother and her niece Ranjan Shroff travelled to remote villages and brought in women from five more communities, each with its own indigenous embroidery. Soon, nearly every community with a heritage of hand embroidery was working with us.
The women from the community who were pre-drawing artists, Arekhni artists, were roped in to draw out designs on urban products like kurtis, halter tops, or purses, and these, along with embroidery threads, were distributed at the women’s homes. They were paid for completed pieces. As orders increased, stencils were created from a design bank of motifs. The Arekhni artists became the creators of new designs while stencils were used to create the pre-drawings.
The next decade saw big changes in Kutch. A series of droughts in the late 1980s and early 1990s saw government interventions in the craft sector to ensure alternative streams of income for the people involved. As entrepreneurs and NGOs landed in Kutch in droves, it had a detrimental effect on the quality of the embroidery. My mother felt that as the person who had turned this skill into a means of income, she was responsible for the loss of quality and would have to device a solution to reconnect the women to their own heritage.
She went about procuring pieces of old embroidered fabric of high quality and came up with the idea of a mobile museum of sorts, where she would display these pieces and choose 20 to 30 women from each community to recreate the old embroidery designs and quality. There were 12 communities and 16 styles of embroidery. The project began in 1997. The next five years saw 500 women turn into master artisans. It saw the recreation of traditional designs and the creation of many new designs. The women’s incomes went up tenfold and the quality went up 20 times.
After the earthquake, roads came to Kutch. It gave us the courage to invest in a bus to house a mobile museum. We then had 1,194 panels and 400 embroidered pieces in our collection and Design Centre on Wheels (DCOW) was ready to take off. We would choose a school or community hall to house the display, contact the sarpanch and senior embroidery women in each village, and arrive in a bus with bright graphics and a loudspeaker blaring songs on embroidery.
The women would be fascinated with embroideries that did not belong to them. A lot of these communities do not allow their women to travel and since Kutch is so large, many of them had not seen other styles from the district or met others who shared their culture of embroidery.
The project led to many innovations in motifs, designs, and scale; to a complete turnaround in many embroideries; and the creation of high-end, high-value products.
In 2004, we realised that a huge gap was opening up in the cultural and oral history traditions of these communities. As the women focussed on using their skills for income, they lost the knowledge of the role embroidery had once played in their lives and the vocabulary of their craft. Thus began our second project called “Pride and Enterprise”—to document the oral history connected to embroidery in Kutch. The project continues to this day. Over the years, more than 30 young girls became a part of the journey. We have published one book covering two communities; research is on for six more.The women never practised their craft for it to undergo documentation, and the process to find oral historians for all the different aspects is painstaking.
In 2006, we also realised we would have to build a stationary institute to house the collection, do research, have a studio for interns, a library, and a teaching institute. This dream, the Living and Learning Design Centre (LLDC), was opened in Ajrakhpur, Kutch, in 2016. Today, it has three galleries, a cafe, and a museum shop.
The mobile museum has so far done four visits and the response has been huge. We constantly tweak each visit to ensure they see things unknown to them. We also add demonstrations and hands-on work with crafts practised by men, such as pottery and weaving. A big digital board shows the LLDC campus, pieces from our collection, short interviews of master artisans, photographs, and a few museum games. We hope this version of DCOW becomes even more popular than the first.
Ami Shroff is the present managing trustee of Shrujan, a social enterprise for crafts in Kutch, started by her mother Chandaben Shroff.
- Shrujan was started by Chanda Shroff in 1969 after a four-year drought in Kutch.
- Chanda Shroff She went about procuring pieces of old embroidered fabric of high quality and came up with the idea of a mobile museum of sorts.
- She wanted to display these pieces of fabric and choose 20 to 30 women from each community to recreate the old embroidery designs and quality.
- It saw the recreation of traditional designs and the creation of many new designs. The women’s incomes went up tenfold and the quality went up 20 times.