Chanda Shroff

Embroidering the future

November 30, 2009

For the past 40 years, Chanda Shroff has headed an organization that helps women in some of India’s most severely drought-affected villages to use their traditional skills to sustain themselves. Shrujan is a non-profit organization focused on reviving the craft of Kutch embroidery, a unique and rich tradition that was fast being eroded by cheaper machine-created designs before Shroff made her first visit to the region.

“I was deeply shaken by the plight of the Kutch people and especially the women,” she recalls. “But, at the same time, I couldn’t help but be mesmerized by the traditional embroidery on the women’s clothes. After a lot of soul searching, talking and listening, I came to realize that what these strong, resilient women needed was not charity, but an opportunity to rebuild their lives.”

Today, Shrujan is a self-sufficient organization operating three shops — two in Mumbai and one in Bhuj, the capital of Kutch — selling exquisitely embroidered products, from bags, shawls and mobile-phone covers to saris, other clothing and quilts. Every year sales have increased, with current annual revenue of about US$700,000, all of which is re-invested into Shrujan.

Thanks to Shroff’s insistence that only high-quality authentic products are created, Shrujan embroidery is now much sought after by discerning customers. “We don’t even have to go abroad to sell our products — wholesalers and boutique owners from Europe, the United States, Australia and Canada come to us!” Shroff says proudly.

“Brand Shrujan has also become the benchmark that other artisans in Kutch strive to attain,” continues 76-year-old Shroff. “We find we are now not only resurrecting the traditional craft of embroidery, but those of Kutch’s weavers, block printers and silversmiths as well.”

Since its inception, Shrujan has supported many thousands of women across more than 100 villages. Each month, the organization provides at least 3,000 women with thread (primarily silk and cotton, never nylon) and collects the completed embroidered products from their homes. “Over the last 40 years I have watched the women of Kutch blossom,” says Shroff. “Their skills, previously so undervalued, have transformed these women into confident and competent businesswomen without negatively affecting their roles within the family and the village.”

Thanks to this mobile resource centre, facilitators can provide training and inspiration to women in isolated villages across Kutch. Photo courtesy of Shrujan

Shroff won a Rolex Award in 2006 to set up a mobile resource centre, a key element in realizing the full potential of Shrujan and the final phase of a two-phase project called “Pride and Enterprise”. She understood that Shrujan would be short-lived if she could not inspire the younger generation to adopt this ancient craft. The resource centre, called the Design Center on Wheels, is now up and running, and visits three villages every month, monsoons permitting.

Photo courtesy of Shrujan

Trained facilitators accompany the bus to explain the hand-embroidered display panels, intricate pieces of hand embroidery each measuring 90cm by 120cm and representing the 16 distinctly different styles of Kutch embroidery. The panels, completed as the first phase of Pride and Enterprise, both preserve and celebrate the skills of the craftswomen, and Shrujan carefully selects 30 to 50 panels from its 1,200-strong collection for each trip.

The Rolex Laureate says the seemingly ordinary act of taking the embroidery to a village has had a dramatic impact on the village communities. Not only do the beautifully framed embroidery pieces inspire pride in the work, but the craftswomen themselves are often astounded at the quality of hand-embroidery created by communities located sometimes less than 25kms away. Village-bound, the craftswomen previously worked in isolation, with little knowledge of embroidery from elsewhere.

Photo courtesy of Shrujan

The facilitators also show videos, photographs and books that are being published by Shrujan on the various embroidery styles. The first completed video, which explains the embroidery of the Ahirs (a Hindu agricultural community who practise a flowing, curvilinear style of embroidery featuring motifs such as peacocks, parrots, scorpions, elephants, flowers and, often, tiny mirrors), demonstrates the method of executing the designs and outlines the natural and cultural influences that inform the style.

While the original purpose of the video was to educate, it has also helped to increase respect for the craft, as Shroff explains: “Visitors [to Kutch] impressed with the embroidery have borrowed the video to try and learn the skill themselves. While some managed to embroider a small keepsake, those who could afford it actually bought embroidery from Shrujan as what they learned was that the art of hand embroidery requires tremendous handiwork, dedication and patience! The more people understand the excellence and quality of traditional craftsmanship, the more they appreciate the great value behind it, and want to buy it.” The accompanying book contains 400 pages of detailed written and visual explanations. The second of a 10-series video collection is due to be completed in 2010 and will feature embroidery handiword by the Mutva people, a Muslim community expert in all styles of embroidery.

©Rolex Awards/Xavier Lecoultre

The Rolex Award itself and the media interest it stimulated also significantly boosted Shrujan’s marketability. But, more importantly, the international recognition earned the craftswomen even more respect within their communities. “Perhaps for me what was most wonderful was that each craftswoman felt she herself was a recipient of the Award along with me,” says Shroff.

The Design Center on Wheels was upgraded in 2009. A larger bus was purchased to better accommodate the display panels and audiovisual equipment, as well as making it more comfortable for its passengers — neighbouring villagers the unit transports to one central location.

The best thing about the new unit, enthuses Shroff, is its large external surface that is adorned with bright graphics of the embroidery — an impressive drawcard to villagers young and old. Just as the vehicle has expanded, Shroff says, so too has the role of the facilitators: “Our facilitators are expected to answer questions ranging from how to cook a particular dish to how to grow better crops — they have come to be regarded as the village ‘Fairy Godmothers’. Prior to each return visit, the facilitators do their homework to answer these random, but important questions, as best as possible!”

Now that she has realized her dream of completing Pride and Enterprise, Chanda Shroff has set her heart on creating a “Living and Learning Design Center”. She envisages the centre as a place where all Kutch’s crafts will be exhibited and taught in a more formalized arena. Her vision is to set up a resource centre that will allow designers and artisans from around the world to come together, interacting and preparing new designs and products according to the changing needs of the contemporary world. While this, Shroff accepts, will be a process that will continue long after she is gone, she has already laid the foundations for the centre in Padhar, a small village outside Bhuj, with the first phase of the project — a museum — due for completion in 2011.

Chanda Shroff is so committed to her craftswomen that not even heart bypass surgery in 2008 could dampen her spirits. Rather, the period spent in hospital gave her time to reflect on what she has achieved, and to understand that she still has so much to do. As she explains: “When I look back at my journey with Shrujan, I realize that embroidery has proven to be a fantastic tool in empowering the women of Kutch. But there is a driving force that does not let me retire. I have found my calling, the path I want my life to take. I talked to God and told Him I thought I had done everything I needed to, but it appears it was not time for me to go….there is still so much more Shrujan can achieve.”

Alexa Schoof Marketos

For more information visit shrujan.org

 

Learn more about Chanda Shroff

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