Since 1969, Chanda Shroff has made it her life’s mission to preserve the traditional techniques of hand embroidery from Kutch in western India, while raising the social and economic status of the women who practise this intricate craft. After almost five decades, she has finally succeeded in opening a museum featuring their beautiful work.
For almost half a century, in an isolated region in India’s Gujarat state, a quiet revolution has been going on. Women embroiderers, many of whom have never have been beyond their remote villages, have become proud artisans, winning respect in their communities, financial reward for their work and growing renown in the wider world.
Their empowerment has been largely due to the efforts of Chanda Shroff, who has dedicated herself to reviving the ancient craft of hand embroidery in the Kutch district of Gujarat state. In doing so, the 83-year-old Rolex Laureate has helped transform the lives of thousands of women, creating sustainable sources of income and removing many of the social and cultural barriers they previously encountered.
Geeta is one of these craftswomen, eager to pay tribute to Shroff’s commitment and perseverance on their behalf. “We now understand how important it is that the memory of our grandmothers and mothers and what they used to do and wear is still alive,” said the 35-year-old. “We are very happy and proud to be a part of this larger-than-life work. Chandabhen [Shroff] gave us a means to counter rising living costs and this way we kept the craft alive, too.”
In January, Shroff celebrated the opening of the Living and Learning Design Centre, a craft education and resource facility located near the village of Ajrakpur in the state of Gujarat. It was a milestone in her campaign to ensure the survival of traditional embroidery. She shared the occasion with several generations of the women she has worked with these past five decades, including 93-year-old Parma Ben, who reminisced with Shroff about the early days of their journey.
Kutch embroidery is noted for its intricate, diverse designs. Craftswomen primarily use silk and cotton, taking painstaking care to create high-quality products for fashion and decoration, including for wedding dresses and dowries. The craft is a means of personal, social and spiritual expression, adding beauty to a harsh land bordered to the south by the Arabian Sea and to the north by immense salt deserts.
Amrutba, just 19, also acknowledged a huge debt of gratitude and a willingness to continue Shroff’s mission to preserve the 16 distinct styles of Kutch embroidery. “I first began by helping my mother and sister, and I learned embroidery. Now I am working myself and I am a master artisan,” she said at the opening of the centre. “Kaki [as Chanda Shroff is affectionately called] started work in the area to help us out and it is now our responsibility to take it forward.”
Shroff still takes an active interest in the work of Shrujan (Sanskrit for “creativity”), the trust she founded in 1969 near Bhuj, the capital of Kutch, to help drought-afflicted communities, and is excited about the next stage of her project: to reinforce support for the craftswomen and promote their embroidery to an international audience. But she is also proud to see the younger generations take the reins of responsibility, including her daughter Ami and son Dipesh, who have played key roles in developing the Living and Learning Design Centre.
“My children are on the right path,” she said after lighting a lamp to inaugurate the centre. “They will now ensure that the embroidery heritage of this land will always remain alive and will evolve to bring into its fold new urban designers from all over the globe to create a cross-cultural multi-dimensional place for artistic and creative people.”
The Living and Learning Design Centre, built with funds from Shrujan and two other charitable trusts, as well as from Shroff family enterprises, comprises three buildings, housing a craft museum and spaces for training, workshops and research, spread over a three-hectare campus. It is the biggest development in Shroff’s visionary project since the major upgrading in 2009 of the Pride and Enterprise mobile resource centre, a bus laden with teaching materials and panels displaying the fabulous array of embroidery styles from across the ethnically diverse region of 1.2 million people. Funded by her 2006 Rolex Award, Shroff and her volunteers criss-crossed Kutch, giving thousands of women, many of whom are not permitted to leave their villages, the opportunity to connect with craftswomen in other parts of the district and from other castes and religions, encouraging a sense of sisterhood and stimulating a wave of creativity through the sharing of techniques and designs.
Shroff had already spent decades travelling through the region, inspiring its women to recognize the richness of their craft, which had fallen into decline in the 1980s when the demands for speed and profit had encouraged the use of machinery and synthetic fabrics. The travelling panels were a revelation, prompting women, young and old, to look at themselves and their skills in a new way, as the custodians of a significant art form that had the potential to improve their station in life. National recognition and the income from sales to outside customers sourced by Shroff are lifting the status of the women in their communities, enabling them to buy land and pay for health care and more nutritious food for their families.
Over the years, Shrujan’s work has directly benefited more than 22,000 women from some 120 villages, but its focus will now extend beyond the region. The centre will reach out to urban designers, for example, who will be invited to come and work alongside the local kaarigars [artisans] to explore the potential of the crafts.
The focal point of the new campus is the crafts museum, showcasing traditional and contemporary panels from a collection of almost 1,200. Hand embroidery will be the primary subject of all the museum shows, and the display will change every six months. “The museum is primarily for the kaarigars and for rural youth,” Shroff’s daughter Ami said. “Its artefacts will inspire them and make them proud of their rich craft heritage.”
The centre will also be a place of learning, with master kaarigars mentoring younger colleagues. A crafts school with fully equipped working studios is planned for the next phase of the project.
Shroff’s son Dipesh said the aim of the centre was to make Kutch crafts marketable in the modern world through innovative design and sound business practices. “It will aim to ensure the long-term survival of the crafts and create a cadre of skilled young kaarigars.”
Shroff’s children and the younger generations of kaarigars are keen to carry on her work, which Chanda Shroff once described as the “intersection of conservation, education, enterprise and empowerment”.
But her vision will remain the guiding light. “Take responsibility for the work you do, find a way out of your problems, focus on quality and lead by example,” the Rolex Laureate told guests at the centre’s opening. “This has always been my mantra and will always be at the core of the work we do.”Learn more about Chanda Shroff