Embroiderers of Kutch lose their 'Kaki'

Print edition : September 30, 2016

Chandaben Shroff.

CHANDABEN SHROFF (1933-2016), founder of the NGO Shrujan Trust, passed away on August 23 in Ahmedabad. Through Shrujan, Chandaben resurrected the embroidery styles of Kutch, created a new rural economy by employing women who worked from their homes and initiated change in the role women in society in the region. So pervasive was her influence that the artisans she worked with often set aside their prejudices and interacted freely with women from all castes.

For 46 years Chandaben Shroff ran Shrujan like a successful business enterprise, but without the soullessness that many such ventures declined into. She not only turned the women’s skills into considerable earnings but also became a part of their families, a person whom they turned to in despair and in joy. It was only natural that she was called Kaki, or aunt, by all. The women of Kutch told stories through their embroidery—about whether a girl was married or unmarried, whether a woman was pregnant, about one’s social position—and Chandaben Shroff understood all this and revelled in it in her own quiet, restrained manner. Though passionate about the work, she was not sentimental. Not for her the excuse of poor work under the guise of handmade or village craft. If an artisan turned in shoddy work, she would send it back, thus gradually setting up a system of quality control that has made Shrujan respected internationally.

Her work received international recognition in 2006 when she was made a Rolex Laureate and received the Rolex Award for Enterprise. The award is meant for “inspiring individuals who carry out innovative projects that advance human knowledge or well-being”. And Chandaben Shroff received it for “preserving this unique heritage [of embroidery] while promoting an exquisite art form and empowering women in highly conservative societies”.

The money from the award was used to set up a mobile resource centre in order to promote embroidery. This was in continuance of Pride and Enterprise which, though not named so at the time, started way back in 1969 when Shrujan was set up to resurrect the dying skills of embroidery in the region. It was a point of great happiness and satisfaction for Chandaben Shroff to see the final phase of this ongoing project when the Living and Learning Design Centre was formally inaugurated in January this year. The centre is a living museum of the 22 crafts of Kutch.

The story of Shrujan started in 1969 when Chandaben Shroff had gone to Kutch to help in drought relief. In Dhaneti village she noticed the beautiful embroidery on the women’s clothes.

Recounting this a while ago, she had told Frontline: “The women said they had sold all their prized possessions to put food in their children's mouths… but had held on to their embroidered garments and decorations. But the drought had been so severe that a day had come when they had to let go of their embroidered heirlooms as well.”

The women were too proud to accept charity, so Chandaben Shroff came up with a plan. She invested Rs.5,000 in saris and asked the Dhaneti women to embroider them. The finished pieces sold rapidly among her friends in Mumbai and all the proceeds went to the Dhaneti women. And Shrujan, meaning creation, was born.

Reminiscing at the inauguration of the design centre, she said: “From helping 30 women, we have, over the last 40 years, helped more than 22,000 women in 120 villages and revived the art. For the women... it’s been more than an earning. It has helped their self-esteem, dignity, positioning in the household. Their health is better. Their children are educated.”

She is survived by her husband Kantisen Shroff, son Dipesh, and daughter Ami.

Lyla Bavadam

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