This is the story of how a group of women in rural Gujarat in western India, in need of work and water, found each other, formed craft cooperatives, and a built a museum.
The Hansiba museum is named after the woman herself: Hansiba, our major inspiration. She grew cotton in her own field, hand spun it, got it woven, hand dyed the cloth, and embroidered 16 different kinds of stitches.
This is our “Hansiba” museum’s embodiment. The women treasure their family heirlooms; the skirt that belonged to her great grandmother, or the blouse embroidered by an aunt who was renowned for the fineness of her stitches. Yet life and life-styles are changing - educated young girls get office jobs that demand urban clothing. So the women decided to build a museum and named it after Hansiba, one of the oldest craftswomen at SEWA.
Far from being unskilled, SEWA found the women to be highly skilled in traditional crafts. They constantly sewed, embroidered, and created works of textile art as dowries for their daughters. During tough times, they were forced to sell their precious embroideries to traders for a pittance, just to survive. If the women could come together, they could generate employment for themselves. By forming a producers’ collective, they could pool their resources, use their traditional skills to make products, and SEWA would help the collectives find markets for their products.
The women belong to several communities; chief among them are Ahir, Rabari, Kanbi, Mochi, Harijan, and Chaudhary Patel. Each community has its own craft tradition. For example Mochi women do leather work; Harijan women weave, and do applique. Both Ahir and Rabari women embroider, but their stitches and their mirrorwork is different.
The Ahirs, considered as the descendents of Lord Krishna are predominantly a pastoral community. One of the largest communities with over 10,000 members, the Ahirs practice an embroidery style locally called 'Soi Bharat'. Soi embroidery is known for the various shaped mirrors embedded in each design. Popular motifs include the peacock, parrot, scorpion, elephant, the milk maid and flowers.
The Rabaris are known for their distinctive embroidery style which comprises of bold shapes and a generous use of glass mirrors in various shapes: round, lozenge, rectangular, square, triangular, and beak shaped. To this, at times, they add appliquéd motifs in bright colours. Approximately 500 craftswomen in this region continue the tradition, handed to them over generations.
The rabari men always had a white turban on their heads. It was a long piece of cloth and hence, when tied, looked huge on their heads. Rabari is a nomedic community and migrating with their cattle to the green area from dry area in summer and have relaxing time during home stay in monsoon and winter. The Rabari men relax in locally made Chharpai-bed.
Hansibaben, for being an inspiration.
Text: Reema Nanavaty
Online exhibit setup: Parul Sagarwala, Tejas Raval, Neeta Trivedi