The embroiders of Kutch

The Living and Learning Design Centre in a Kutch village is about dialogue between contemporary designers and traditional artisans and about keeping crafts relevant.

Published : Mar 02, 2016 12:30 IST

Haalepotra women embroidering their characteristic bold and colourful patterns in a satin stitch.

Haalepotra women embroidering their characteristic bold and colourful patterns in a satin stitch.

“WHY here? Why a design centre of such sophistication in a small village off a highway?” The answer flashes in one’s mind at the same time: “Because that’s the most logical and relevant place for it.” The answer is validated a while later in a conversation with Ami Shroff, the 43-year-old project director of the Living and Learning Design Centre (LLDC). She explains: “My mother, Chanda Shroff, was born in a village in Kutch. She has always been inclined towards art and felt she was privileged to be able to move to a city where she could view art in museums. It got her thinking about rural India and how there is no place to view art. Art is so much a part of the lives of people and yet they cannot see the work created by others. So here it is, a museum in the middle of nowhere!”

It truly does seem that way—a modernist piece of architecture looming up just off the Bhuj-Bhachau highway near the village of Ajrakpur in Kutch, Gujarat, the LLDC was inaugurated on January 23. Ami Shroff jokes about its origins saying: “It all started on an A4-sized paper from which the idea grew. Everyone asked me what it was that I wanted. It was tougher to answer that than my school exams. Ba [mother] would say one sentence, and I would write four pages on it and ask her, ‘Is this what we are planning?’, and gradually it took shape.”

The LLDC is essentially a living museum, a place where artisans, designers, students and visitors interact and experience the 22 crafts of Kutch. It is about conservation and continuance so that artisans and their crafts have a future. The LLDC solves a problem that artisans the world over are facing: that of preserving their traditional skills and yet being contemporary enough to appeal to the market. “Many crafts were fading away because they were not economically viable for the artisans,” says Ami Shroff. The LLDC is about being an interface between the past, the present and the future, about dialogue between contemporary designers and traditional artisans, or karigar s, about keeping craft relevant and especially about karigar s being able to support their families and live comfortably off their skills.

The precursor of the museum was a bus called the Design Centre on Wheels, a mobile museum that traversed Kutch for 12 years carrying the best examples of embroidery done by women of the clans and sub-clans of the district. The bus united the women in a way that no one had imagined. Working in isolation, mothers taught their daughters traditional stitches and designs for centuries and took pride in their skills, but when the bus arrived, new worlds opened up and they saw themselves as part of a larger group of keepers of tradition and with the responsibility of keeping it alive. Chandaben Shroff says: “The LLDC was a natural outcome of the mobile bus. The bus expanded women’s vision and linked them to other women, and it had surprising outcomes like women being more open to travelling now than they used to be.”

Since the essence of the LLDC is to be an interface between karigar s and contemporary designers, understanding the way of life of karigar s is central to its success. When the building was being constructed, the architect was told that karigar s usually worked outdoors. Embroidery is usually done when the household chores are over and women gather in the afternoons to chat and work. The LLDC mimics this with large open, sandy courtyards with trees, which are the “classrooms”. The 40,000-square-foot (3,716-square-metre) structure, painted in the browns, ochres and oranges of the desert, stands on nine acres (3.6 hectares) of land. Designed by the Ahmedabad-based Indigo architects, it is built largely with natural, locally sourced materials to satisfy good architecture’s basic credo of warm-in-winter-cool-in-summer. The building also revives traditional architectural practices such as deep verandahs and patios and the use of channels and louvres to direct the breeze to cool the interiors.

Inside, the museum is a haven for handcrafted materials from embroideries to pottery and metalware. Each piece is a masterpiece and has provoked a surge of competitiveness among karigar s. “I feel like I would like my work to be displayed here,” says Ranjanben of Nani Bhamoti village in Abdasa taluk.

The concept of the LLDC as a living museum is unique in India. It is also something of a conundrum since the foundation of the LLDC’s reasoning says that to preserve tradition one has to contemporise it. This is done in an amazingly dynamic manner that brings tremendous energy to both karigar s and their art. The process is simple. Contemporary designers from all over the world sit with karigar s and tell them about trends in colours and styles, and the karigar s interpret these in their traditional way. Fortunately, this process works easily in the case of Kutch embroidery because the designs and colours have always been fluid and karigar s are open to new ideas.

For example, the master aarekhani (pattern drawing) artist Rajiben plays around with new ideas in her work while embroidering the classic tree of life pattern. Rajiben says: “In Gujarati, the tree of life is called aambo , which literally means mango, but never had I seen a tree of life with mango fruit on it. So I thought, why not add the aambo . Then, I thought, if there is fruit, then the gadar , the worm, also has to be there. So I added one or two of these tiny creatures.” Parmaben, of the Ahir tribe, is one of the earliest karigar s that Chandaben worked with. She too loves experimenting with designs. Her interpretation of the tree of life is traditional with its central trunk, balanced branches, parrot, peacock, sparrow and elephant. Then, one’s eyes alight on a horse, a monkey, a dog and a crow. None of these motifs has any association with the classical tree of life and are not even part of the Ahir repertoire. But Parmaben’s brilliance as well as her seniority allows her to be as unconventional as her heart desires.

Likewise, among the Mutvas the use of many colours stems from practicality and is therefore open to change. Mutva women observe strict purdah, and it is the men who do all their shopping. One woman laughingly said: “They bring back whatever colour threads they can find in the market so that we don’t complain and say, ‘You didn’t buy a red or a blue.’” The Mutva women rarely leave their enclosed compounds, generally going out only for festivals and family gatherings and then, too, closely shepherded by their men. They do not come out of purdah even to do their household shopping.


The embroidery of Kutch has contributed to family incomes for more than three decades. It all started during the famine of 1969 when Chandaben set out to do some relief work along with the Ramakrishna Mission of Rajkot. She realised at once that besides immediate relief the area needed some long-term effort. The outcome of her thinking and work was Shrujan, which means creativity in Sanskrit, a not-for-profit organisation formed to revitalise the ancient craft of hand embroidery. Initially, Chandaben purchased everything and sold it to her friends in Mumbai. The work spoke for itself, and her efforts went from strength to strength, even earning her the Rolex Award for preserving cultural heritage in 2006. Her work resulted in the identification and documentation of 42 distinct styles of embroidery practised by 12 different communities. From starting with a handful of women, Shrujan now has 3,500 regular karigar s on its rolls in 120 villages, and over the decades it has trained more than 25,000 women. Its work is now being taken to a new level by the LLDC.

The LLDC is so many things. Primarily meant to be a dialogue between karigar s and designers, it is also a storehouse of tradition and of changing trends. Research on the Mutvas showed that they definitely had five styles of embroidery with the possibility of two more styles, but all these had faded away. The pade no bharat , a style used for borders, was discontinued largely because the two items that it was done on, mosquito nets and ghaghra s, were no longer in use. Although this style is big and bold, it still managed to look refined because of the quality of the work, but the endless yards of material it required resulted in it being phased out. After discovering the style, Shrujan persuaded the Mutvas to resurrect the work but on smaller items such as purses. The Mutvas also had a style called bido , which was a plain black-and-white design done by a groom’s sister for her sister-in-law-to-be. They stopped doing it when their reputation for fine work grew but restarted when they saw in it the potential to make money.

Secrets in designs

Embroidery work has contributed so much to women’s well-being that one clan was even persuaded to go against its religious beliefs and sell its work. The Garasiya Jats worship Mai Bhambi, who they believe gave them the gift of embroidery centuries ago with the caveat that it should never be sold or given. So particular are they about their promise that once a piece wears out they either cast it into flowing water, an abandoned well or bury it. For centuries they stuck to this, but when they saw the economic advantages embroidered items bring, they approached Chandaben to find a way to involve them. After much consideration she came up with a graceful solution, telling them she was supplying them with the cloth and the threads and was just paying them for the labour of their work. Technically, since the materials belonged to Shrujan, the Garasiya Jats were not selling their embroidery but receiving payment for their labour in the same way they did when they worked in someone else’s fields.

Happy with the logic, the women set to work. As members of Shrujan worked with the Garasiya Jats, they realised that the Garasiya Jats sew small secrets into their designs that reveal personal details about the embroiderer to those in the know. “There may be more designs but so far we know of four,” says Zeenat Engineer, research head at the LLDC, speaking of the intricate embroidery patterns that reveal whether a woman is married, unmarried, widowed or pregnant. Interestingly, if a piece is badly done, Shrujan always returns it, but when the Garasiya Jats embroider the widow design, they refuse to take it back even if it is badly done because they consider that inauspicious.


The story behind the Rabaris is as fascinating. Twenty years ago, Rabari elders ruled that their women could no longer wear embroidered garments or jewellery. As a result, women stopped doing embroidery. This punishment was actually an intervention to save the community from late consummation of marriages and a subsequent decrease in the size of the community. The cause of the problem lay in another traditional practice. Although Rabari women were married off at a young age, they would not go to their husbands’ homes until they had finished their aanu , their own embroidered trousseau. A girl decided her aanu before she married, and it reflected what she was passionate about.

For instance, if the girl believed she would have four children, then she would make embroidered pieces for all of them and went to her marital home only after she had made them all. Since there was no real time limit on this, women had gradually begun to delay the completion of their aanu and subsequently their entry into their marital homes. The women had also begun bargaining with their husbands. They would say things such as: “I like your sister’s bracelet. Till she gives it to me I will not come to your house.” But the ban created its own problems. The elders had not realised just how much time women spent doing embroidery and how it affected them. After their chores women would sit with their embroidery in groups and chat. The ban effectively disrupted their harmonious routines. The women sought out Chandaben, who again found a solution. She suggested to the elders that the women be allowed to sell their work but not wear it.

Earnings vary greatly and depend on the amount of time a karigar is willing to put in. Young girls manage to work up to eight hours a day and their income can go up to Rs.6,000 a month. There is also a grading system that rates their work, from A++ to C, and the women take great pride in being competitive.

“In fact, Shrujan has become a point of reference,” says Zeenat Engineer. In January, most of the karigar s of Dhaneti village had taken on embroidery work for a trousseau that had been ordered by a Shrujan client. When another organisation asked them whether they could take on more work, they refused, proudly declaring: “We cannot because we are doing marriage work for Shrujan.”

The organisation has undoubtedly changed domestic economies in thousands of homes, and this is apparent in the interactions between Chandaben and karigar s. They crowd around her with a touching mixture of reverence, gratefulness and affection. Bringing money into their homes has instilled a new confidence in the women. Zeenat Engineer says: “They all want workshops in their villages, but it’s difficult to hold so many. So sometimes the women try and strike bargains with us. We prod them to finish their jobs faster.… ‘Where’s the embroidery?’ we ask. ‘Where’s the workshop?’ they reply!”

Talking about Shrujan’s long journey, Sandhya Jadeja, a researcher with the LLDC, says: “There was a time when karigar s would chase us out of their homes with sticks if we tried to photo-document things. But now, they not only welcome us but are happy to be photographed too because they understand what we’re doing.” Indeed, as a part of the LLDC’s inauguration, karigar s’ portraits were shot and printouts were given to them immediately. “It’s taken a while but now we have their trust and understanding,” says the photographer and film-maker Neela Kapadia, whose company White Cloud made a documentary film on the LLDC.

Talking of the origins of the LLDC, Ami Shroff recalls the master ajrak artisan Ismailbhai and the master weaver Arjunbhai Valji saying that while travelling around the world to sell their crafts they had heard people saying that Indians did not appreciate their own crafts and that masterpieces produced here were best preserved in museums outside India. “They were ashamed to hear this,” she recalls. Talk about starting a museum became more serious after such conversations that sprang straight from the artisans themselves.

The time was also right to teach karigar s soft skills such as pricing, quality standardisation and how to display their items.

Ami Shroff says: “We’ve learnt so much along the way. For example, we cannot presume that all the children of artisans will have the skill or desire to follow in their family’s traditions. There was this block printer’s son who was uninterested in learning the art. The family tried to persuade him, but he ran away to Mumbai and worked in a shop. We got him back and talked to him. It turned out he was interested in the business aspect of things, so that’s what he does now for his family and he’s terrific at managing it.”

Of course, the LLDC also focusses on documenting all the crafts of Kutch before some of them fade away. One such fading “patient”, as Ami Shroff refers to the dying arts, is the skill of discharge printing, which is a heat-induced method that particularly enhances colours. The method requires extreme precision, and parameters such as extent of heat, right amount of steam, heat of the sun and even geographical location need to be taken into consideration. Hassanbhai is the last craftsman in Kutch who practises discharge printing. His sons are not interested in the skill, choosing instead to practise tie and dye. If no one practises it, the art will die out but it will, at least, have been documented and preserved in the LLDC.

The LLDC means a lot to karigar s. Geetaben, who practises Ahir embroidery, is moved by the museum and says: “It is an inspiration. I feel responsible for carrying on our traditions. In my village we try and get in about eight hours of embroidery every day.”

“This is such a dynamic place,” says 93-year-old Kantisen Shroff, co-founder of Excel Industries, as he watches Chandaben, his wife, chatting with the Garasiya Jat women dressed in their trademark flaming red. These women and those of other clans came from all over Kutch for the inauguration of the LLDC. They were obviously quite excited but even more apparent was their deep-felt relief and thankfulness that their crafts have a future.

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