Ami Shroff On Her Mother Founding ‘Shrujan’ To Empower Women Artisans Of Kutch Through Their Craft
- IWB Post
- June 15, 2019
In the year 1969, when the Kutch area of Gujarat was suffering from drought, several NGOs and volunteers had gone out to help. One of the organizations was Ramkrishna Mission, and with them volunteered a dynamic young woman.
She went from village to village to distribute the help packages, but in some areas the communities refused to accept help in the given form and sought work instead. During the same time she also learned about the unparalleled craft and embroidery skills the women of these communities possessed – a smart strategy and experiment later, she came about to find Shrujan.
The woman was Late Ms. Chanda Shroff, popular as Chandaben or Chanda Kaki, and she founded Shrujan in the year 1969 with a mission to empower the women of Kutch by making them revive their generation-old art form. Fifty years down the line, today Shrujan is headed by Chandaben’s daughter, Ami, who in parts narrated to me the story that I just shared with you.
Ami joined the organization in 1998 as a project coordinator intern and with time went on to learn the various facets of social entrepreneurship from her mother. The country’s oldest non-profit organization working on embroidery and craft, Shrujan also has a Design Centre (LLDC) and Museum, and till date functions without charity. Speaking about which, Ami said, “We will never take donations, our artisans wouldn’t approve of it.”
At some point in the conversation, while fondly remembering her mother, Ami talked about Chandaben’s witty and righteous attitude. So the daughter inherited it from her mother, I prompted. “Ah, my brother did actually. If only I’d taken more from her!” said she.
Not to disclose more of Ami’s story already, but you should be able to ideate the nature of path she has come tracing from the fact that she measures her success not by awards and praise, but from the sense of acceptance that the women artisans of Kutch greeted her with!
I absolutely loved talking to Ami, and can’t stress enough on how much I learned about the badass empowered women of Kutch. Time to spill it out for you. Read on:
Let’s go back to the time when you joined Shrujan as an intern. How was it working with your mom?
You mean having mom as boss? We were buddies! The reason why it worked out so well, otherwise I would have left very soon, she laughed. I had joined as a project coordinator and slowly went to learn about all the other departments, which is the one special trait of Shrujan – you are never doing just one thing. In the initial years I was involved in the product line and today I’m handling purchase, HR, and networking more actively.
What are some of your first memories of the times you visited Kutch with mom?
As a kid every time I visited Kutch with mom, I’d see women doing all the work and men relaxing and smoking, and contrary to it, in my family I saw my grandmother, grandfather, dad, and mom, all working professionally. So for the longest time, I lived with the perception that fortunately my grandfather and dad work, but otherwise it is only women who work. Our family never cultivated the concept of gender inequality, and I am the third empowered generation. And looking from that window of conditioning this whole scenario of “women’s empowerment” appeared bizarre to me. The way I saw my mother function, there existed no question of women not being empowered.
There must have been so much to learn from her.
Oh, definitely. One important advice of hers that I can never unlearn is to never take a social issue head-on. She’d say, “Find a way around to learn about the situation and the concerned bodies and people, and take the necessary action only after a thorough inspection and understanding.” She followed this policy throughout.
On that note, would you share a little about the problems you see women facing in Kutch?
When mom began to work with them, which was in the late 60s, she also began to teach them to educate girls, but they misinterpreted it as ‘educate girls only’. As a result, now the young smart girls are getting married off to first class idiots, which is making them lead either a disturbed life or commit suicide.
But the setup of communities in Kutch is very different from the largely known rural scenario. Their society may be patriarchal but it is regulated by matriarchy. Women work and earn money, run the house, and they take all the decisions, too.
I once interviewed a very senior woman artisan from the Rabari community of Kutch, and she happened to tell me about how the custom of women having to embroider their own trousseau ended up taking them decades to go to the husband’s house. And how as a consequence of it, they were banned to embroider anything for themselves.
Yes, and it still is banned for them. Earlier the girls got married at the age 10 or 15 but would not end up going to the husband’s house for as long as thirty years also. They had to embroider everything in their trousseau by themselves, which was an extremely slow and tedious process, but they’d go to the extremes of knitting things for their future children also. Much late, the community elders collectively put a ban on this custom and women were restricted from embroidering anything for their personal use. But as a consequence of it, where the first generation was really skilled in their craft and embroidery, the second generation completely scrapped it off, and the third (current) generation began to see it as a taboo and bad thing. One of the agendas that we are constantly working on is to make them understand the reality and push them back into learning their art.
And what have you learnt from them on a personal level?
The confidence and independence these women have is something that I really admire them for. In an attempt to learn how they’d react in a situation where a man misbehaves (eve tease) them, I asked one woman about it. At first she didn’t understand why would a man even do that, but on my elaborating the issue, her response was, “I will look him into the eye and break his courage right there, and if needed, give him a tight one using my armour-like hand jewellery.”
Speaking of the rather strong position of women in Kutch, would it be correct to say that they do not have to deal with any taboos and stereotypes?
There might be. For instance, women don’t do the work of block printing and pottery, and are not called “karigars”. Those jobs are only for men, strictly. And in some communities, women still do purdah. So they aren’t untouched by the issues of gender stereotyping and such.
Hmmm. Having been running Shrujan successfully for so long, what is your opinion on the direction that ‘social entrepreneurship’ should take in India at the moment?
Majority of India is rural, and anything done in and for the rural areas is termed as social entrepreneurship, unless one is an industrialist who employs people from rural areas. And needless to say, a lot of work needs to be done; Indians can spend on our own produced goods. Today the World wants India as a market, but Indians themselves don’t want.
Shrujan finds 90 percent of its market in India. They have their head office and a store in Mumbai, and keep doing independent and collective exhibitions and pop-up shows.
Tell me a little about how the organization works to blend together the two missions of art preservation and women’s empowerment?
Mom founded Shrujan with the idea to help the women revive, preserve, and grow their craft, and to make a sustainable livelihood on their own. It wasn’t to feed them with the idea of empowerment simply – that was and is a by-product of Shrujan’s mission.
Your mother made you become a part of Shrujan, is the next generation following the same path?
I don’t have children, but all three of my brother’s children are involved in varied capacities. It makes for a huge support.
Shrujan also has a Design Centre (LLDC – Living & Learning Design Centre) that incorporates a museum, too. Tell me about the collection, do you have a favourite or a piece that you treasure the most?
Too many we have. Initially, we would buy things from our artisans for the museum or use the ones that for some minor fault could not be sold. But when they visited, the very concept of it left them mesmerized. It was new for them and they felt so happy seeing their products on display that gradually they began to gift and contribute by themselves. It’s been an overwhelming experience.
And you must have some Shrujan-exclusive pieces in your own wardrobe, too?
I have a lot of beautiful things made by the lovely Kutch artisans in my wardrobe and at home. Mom always kept a track of which family member was buying what and when, and on seeing that someone had not bought anything in a long time, she’d come and remind us about it.
Aww, that’s sweet. Getting back to the organization with that, how has the team expanded over the years?
Currently, we have two trusts running and about 40 people working in total. And about 60 craftsmen and one head in the old organization. In terms of scale, the museum is mammoth and in terms of reach, Shrujan. But we do not take charity and donations, and our model is not one that generates income, there are various government restrictions, too.
And lastly, if asked about your ‘success story’ beyond awards and accolades, how would you define it?
For me, success came in the form of acceptance from the women of Kutch who work with Shrujan. They listen to me and seek my advice not because I run the organization, but because they trust me, and that will always remain unmatchable.
Our conversation ended there, but with a promise to meet soon in Kutch. Ami has promised me a guided tour around Kutch and a meeting with them beautiful artisan women of Shrujan! *excited already*
This article was first published on June 7, 2018.