Until the late 20th century nearly all homes in rural Gujarat and some homes in urban Gujarat had decorative embroidered hangings that brought cheer and grace to doorways and walls. Chaklas (square), dharaniyas (rectangular) and torans (bunting for doorways) and an assortment of quilts were some of the traditional textiles that defined each residence. Today the names are almost forgotten, and skills have been diverted to more contemporary needs and artifacts. In homes with embroidered decorations, lifestyles too followed another cultural idiom based on monsoon rains, harvests, moon cycles, the energy of the sun, valorous deeds, weddings, the birth of an heir and other such occasions. Women embroidered out of a sense of pride in their own ability, for leisure and joy.
A workshop was conducted to explain the purpose of the Akshara project was held in Sumrasar, Kutchh. Some of the women knew how to sign their names and others were adept at wielding needle and thread but were uncomfortable holding a pencil to paper, and had no idea of how to write their names.A discussion on the value of literacy revealed they would all like to learn to read and write. When asked why, they gave many reasons – that they would be able to read the electricity bill, and read the signboards on the roads when they went out.
The issue of identity was put into focus when they were reminded that a woman’s identity in secluded societies is as someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, or someone’s mother. In fact, the only identity they could claim was through their embroidery. A signature of a woman assumed great importance as a symbol and assertion of her identity. Everyone practised writing their names. Thereafter, they created a decorative pattern around it in the form of embroidery that was associated with their community. Each woman created her own signature embroidery or, rather, embroidery of her signature.
Arranged together, a collection of embroidered signatures - calligraphy by needles - formed a wall hanging that carries the memory of the day when they found a symbol of their own identity and the value of knowing how to write.
The women stitched an embroidered panel in sadhu bharat (herringbone stitch), moti bharat (bead work) and appliqué from Dwarka in western Gujarat captures the contemporary in the traditional as it celebrates a rain song sung till today in many households at the onset of the monsoons after a harsh, dry summer. The farmer, the housewife, the student, all rejoice at the renewal of the earth. Peacocks dance, as do the peacock forms in appliqué at both ends of the panel, as does the calligraphy of the Gujarati rain song.