An Ancient Form of Embroidery Turns Into New Income For Indian Women

Chanda Schroff saw how hand-embroidered silk and cotton, a source of local pride in remote India, could generate income for scores of women.

Over 45 years ago, Chanda Shroff was part of a volunteer drought relief mission in India’s isolated northwestern Gujarat state, which had suffered a half decade of drought.

Many local villagers in the state’s Kutch district were near starvation but, staying true to cultural tradition, refused donations or free food. Shroff couldn’t convince them to take handouts.

Then she found herself marvelling at the unique, intricate beauty of local Kutch hand embroidery, a skill that had been handed down from mother to daughter for centuries. Shroff, who had a teaching diploma in craft making, thought she could help empower artisans by helping them turn items for personal use and home decoration into marketable, income-generating fashion products.

Shroff (center) meets with embroiderers in the Rabari community of Lodia.

Shroff bought 30 saris and sought 30 women to adorn them with embroidery. Returning to her home in Mumbai, she organized a sale at an art exhibition. They sold out within hours and generated interest for more orders. Schroff distributed the money to the women and soon set up the Bhuj-based Shrujan Trust, a nonprofit that has since helped more than 22,000 women earn money for their embroidery—and revive an ancient art form.

The trust, considered a model for social entrepreneurship, now supports about 3,500 women in more than a hundred villages and has helped give Kutch embroidery to become a global cachet. (Products range from belts, mobile phone covers, and skirts to quilts and wall hangings).

A new embroidery design comes to life at the hands of Parmaben, an Ahir craftswoman.

“We have shown how traditional craft can be revived and transformed into an enterprise that enables rural women artisans to earn a dignified and sustainable livelihood,’’ says Shroff’s daughter, Ami Shroff, who heads the Shrujan Trust.

In the months before her death at age 83 in July, Chandra Schroff and her family established the Shroff’s Living and Learning Design Center, India’s biggest crafts museum. The nine-acre facility near Ajrakpur includes a crafts training center designed to preserve traditional Kutch crafts and showcase embroidery styles unique to different communities.

Schroff was recognised for her efforts in 2006, when she became the first Indian to win a Rolex Award for Enterprise. The Rolex award funded the Pride and Enterprise mobile resource center, a bus that helped connect craftswomen across Kutch to share embroidery techniques and styles.

National Geographic produced this content as part of a partnership with the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.

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