Chanda Shroff

A guide for future generations

December 6, 2010

The dramatic and intricate embroidery of village women in an isolated region of India has been documented in a lavishly illustrated book that will serve as a guide for future generations of embroiderers.

Under the Embroidered Sky: Embroidery of the Ahirs of Kutch, which was recently released with a set of three DVDs, illustrates in detail the ancient, rich and elaborate handiwork of the women of the Ahir community in Kutch in the state of Gujarat, north-west India. This drought-afflicted area produces some of the world’s most beautiful embroidery.

Chanda Shroff, winner of a Rolex Award in 2006, has published the book after persuading “the Ahir grandmothers to help make a record of their art and history as a gift to their daughters and granddaughters. They believed this would help the younger generation realize the importance of their past and encourage the young girls to embroider,” Shroff explains.

This 77-year-old Indian woman is the founder of Shrujan, an organization dedicated to preserving the craft of Kutch embroidery and empowering the women of local communities.

Shroff used funds from her Rolex Award to pay for some of the research for Under the Embroidered Sky, a 374-page book with hundreds of full-colour photographs showing the bold Ahir style in close-ups, along with many portraits of Ahir women wearing garments featuring the embroidery.

Under the Embroidered: Embroidery of the Ahirs of Kutch Sky is the first of a set of six volumes and up to 10 sets of DVDs documenting the very diverse embroidery techniques of nine major communities in Kutch. While the book provides a general overview of Ahir culture and embroidery, the DVD set gives detailed demonstrations of how to create each stitch.

Although there is still much work to be done, Chanda Shroff remains undaunted by the task. “Working with the women of the communities motivates me,” she says. “The grandmothers’ expressions when they see the book are so gratifying – they look so pleased and proud.”

No matter how large the task, “I believe that anything is possible if approached with determination and heart,” she says.

The book was three years in the making and involved 17 people, but the most difficult part was finding funds to publish it. “The project had been ready for two years, but none of our investors believed in it enough to give us funding. They told us that if we could find someone who did, then they would match the funding we received – that someone was Rolex.” Shroff’s Rolex Award gave her not only the “courage to move forward”, but also the endorsement she needed to gain additional funding from investors to complete the project.

Embroidery is a key element in the daily life of Ahir women. The Ahir people have been farmers and cattle herders for centuries, as well as worshippers of Krishna, and pastoral and religious elements are strongly present in their embroidery style – a style that has the largest encyclopaedia of motifs among all the Kutch communities. According to Shroff, an Ahir woman “can look at the embroidery on a garment a woman is wearing and can detect her approximate age, marital status – with or without children – and the region she comes from”.

Under the Embroidered Sky captures the Ahirs’ rich culture and craftsmanship for the first time, not only preserving it, but also making it readily available to younger generations “who do not have Ahir mothers and grandmothers from whom to learn”, says Feruzi Anjirbag, a writer who conceived the form of the book, created the narrative and contributed explanatory text. Now, anyone “can find a way to access, appreciate and be blown away by this big, bold, in-your-face – and, at the same time, highly endearing – embroidery of the Ahirs” , she says.

For the girls and young women of the Ahir community, the book and DVDs give recognition to their culture at a time when it is being challenged by western values. “Shrujan is focused on preserving this craft tradition while attempting to make it more contemporary so that it continues to be a source of livelihood for the craftswomen,” Shroff says.

Available for purchase in Shrujan shops throughout India, the book and DVD set can be purchased separately or together. The book Embroidered Sky: Embroidery of the Ahirs of Kutch costs Rs. 3500 and the first set of DVDs costs Rs.1200. To buy the book and/or DVD set from abroad, contact Chanda Shroff’s daughter, Ms Ami Shroff:

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