Chandaben Shroff, or kaki, as she is affectionately known all over Kutch, is the founder of Shrujan, a charitable trust that assists craftswomen in Kutch. Like many great ideas, this one too started out of a tragedy. Chandaben tells the story of Shrujan from when it started as a tentative response to women in distress to the present, when it is a towering presence that ensures dependable and substantial earnings for the craftswomen.
The year was 1969 and Kutch had suffered years of drought. There was famine everywhere. Chandaben had gone to her native Kutch from Mumbai to help with relief work. In the village of Dhaneti, while talking to the women, she noticed the beautiful embroidery on their clothes. She recalls the women as proud and refusing charity. The women told her they had “sold all their prized possessions to put food in their children's mouths… but had held on as long as they could 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.”
On her return to Mumbai, she invested Rs.5,000 in saris, took them back to Dhaneti and asked the women if they would embroider them. Thirty of the best craftswomen were made to work on the saris, which were then taken back to Mumbai and sold. The women were given the proceeds, and Shrujan, meaning creation, was born.
“From helping 30 women, we have, over the last 40 years, helped more than 22,000 in 120 villages… and revived the art! For the women the greatest advantage was that they could earn without leaving their homes. 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.”
Once the livelihood aspect and the survival of the art were established, Chandaben moved on to the next stage: setting up the “Pride and Enterprise” project. This was initially called the “Design Centre on Wheels” and was a travelling museum that displayed some of the exquisite pieces of work to all the villages.
The aim was to rekindle a passion for the skill. The response was tremendous. Old motifs were revived and new designs were created. It took six years to create the travelling exhibition, and it now has 1,082 panels, each three feet by four feet (0.9 metre by 1.2 m), embroidered by more than 600 master craftswomen belonging to nine communities of Kutch. As a design bank it is possibly one of a kind in the world.
“Over the years a contemporary relevance was introduced into Ahir embroidery. We have certainly guided them a lot because we needed to make changes so that there was more of a global appeal. The Ahirs, for instance, never used pastel shades, but people in Europe love these. So we brought these colours into their designs,” says Chandaben. The women accepted all this as a learning process...
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