The women of Dandkala village in Kolayat administrative block of Bikaner district in Rajasthan are a class apart. Although they are refugees from Umerkot district in Sindh province of Pakistan, they have fought displacement by taking ownership of their traditional embroidery skills, which has enabled them to be breadwinners for their families.

Located 140 km from Bikaner city in the Thar desert, which is harsh, arid and tough with shifting sand dunes and extreme temperatures, life in Dandkala is not easy by any means. But it has not stopped the women artisans from earning a living with dignity.

Before being settled here in the 1980s, the villagers had stayed in refugee camps in Barmer and Jaisalmer for nearly 17 years after fleeing Pakistan during the 1971 war. The Rajasthan government had allotted them land to cultivate, but in 1987, western Rajasthan suffered its worst drought of the century. Bikaner was one of the worst-hit districts. Lack of food, water and fodder left thousands of families desolate and wiped off about half of the livestock. Faced with extreme conditions, the villagers either migrated to cities or earned a pittance at road construction sites.

Artistic heritage

“When my husband was allotted 25 bighas of land at Dandkala, we were living in abject poverty,” said 58-year-old Paaro Bai. “When we came first to settle in the village from the camp in Barmer, we were shocked as it was entirely a tough dry patch without trees, shrubs, shade or water. We, like other 250 families in the village, had no option but to cultivate the virgin land, which had never been cultivated earlier.”

The drought in 1987 only aggravated their problems. “It was difficult to get a square meal a day,” Paaro Bai said. “It was so miserable that we could not bathe for months together. My son and daughters were full of lice and used to stink badly. In that terrible condition, to earn a livelihood, I used to accompany my husband wherever the contractor took us to work for road construction, our infant children in our laps. Most of the women like me who came from Sindh province of Pakistan, this was the only skill we had.”

Paaro Bai was referring to Kashida, a special kind of embroidery that encompassed various styles such as taanka bharat, soof, pakka, kambiri, kharak, kachcha and sindhi. “At our camp in Barmer and here in the village, middlemen took advantage of our situation as most of us were illiterate, unorganised and in need of money,” she said. “The middlemen were exploiting us for a long time by giving us very less for our exquisite hand embroidery.”

Sitting nearby, Santosh, an activist with Urmul Trust who has been working with the women artisans, said, “The village falls in the command area of Indira Gandhi Canal and in 1988, the Urmul Trust expanded its activities in these areas. Urmul Seemant Samiti was formed at Bajju in Kolayat block to work in 113 villages.” Urmul Trust is a “family of organisations” that works to improve the socio-economic conditions of the people in western Rajasthan.

Watershed moment

“Earlier, Sanjoy Ghose accompanied by Urmul functionaries had seen me toiling at road construction work,” Parro Bai. “he had seen my son and daughters sleeping under the scorching sun amid dust, heat, noise and multiple hazards. Later, when Urmul health workers visited the village for treating tuberculosis patients, I showed them the handicrafts. Their visit to my hut proved to be a watershed moment in my life. They acted positively and started an income-generation project of embroidery.”

Paaro Bai of Dandkala village doing Kashida embroidery. Photo credit: Tarun Kanti Bose
Paaro Bai of Dandkala village doing Kashida embroidery. Photo credit: Tarun Kanti Bose

Urmul helped the women artisans to upgrade their traditional skills, provided technical support and linked them with national and international markets. The non-profit also freed them from the stranglehold of exploitative middlemen. Women artisans in Dandkalan, Gokul, Bhaloori Bijeri, Bikendri and other villages of Kolayat and Pugal blocks of Bikaner started getting organised in self-help groups and further enhanced their skills.

“Constant orientation by famous designers such as Laila Tyabji and graduates from National Institute of Design and National Institute of Fashion Technology helped the women to hone their skills,” Santosh said. “Now these women earn between Rs 3,500 and Rs 6,000 a month.”

“Embroidery is our field, our crop,” said Paaro Bai. “I started working with Urmul, my husband created a lot of problems but when he saw that my earning was helping our family, he stopped. Earlier we were not able to feed ourselves and our children even a square meal a day but now there is no such shortage.”

End to migration

Paaro Bai is a founding member of a self-help group. She has helped 40-50 women from her village learn the work, and they all earn Rs 3,000 to Rs 5,000 every month. She also trained her daughters, Manguri and Mathri, who are now married and live in Barmer district. They have trained other women there. This growing network of women artisans’ engaged in Kashida has helped keep them in their villages, rather than migrate to cities.

Most of the work is done in homes and not under controlled conditions. Their own homes are their workplace and they earn with dignity. Capacity-building training programmes and regular interaction with Urmul functionaries, designers and buyers enables them to see the world from a wider perspective.

Paaro Bai works with her daughters-in-law, nieces and other women of the village as part of a collective called Rangsutra Centre. Shubham Sharma Sen, a graduate of the National Institute of Fashion Technology explained what a Rangsutra Centre is: “It is a company of artisans set up by social activist-turned entrepreneur Shumita Ghose 12 years ago. It was created to ensure regular work and market access to artisans. Artisans are co-owners and shareholders in the enterprise. They are part of board of directors and have a say in costing, planning, production and wages.”

Sharma added, “Paaro Bai is a shareholder in the company. Over 3,500 weavers, embroiderers and artisans from Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Andhra Pradesh, Assam and West Bengal have formed the company. Seventy per cent of Rangsutra’s artisan owner-workers are women. The work and the money they earn have given these women more say at home. They now want to send their daughters to school and some have become group leaders in their villages, motivating other women to follow in their footsteps. The traditional embroidery used for making personal trousseaus is now market linked and kept alive.”

Rangsutra is a successful enterprise. “Rangsutra’s biggest buyer is Fab India,” Sen said, referring to a popular chain of stores. “It also exports in small quantities to France, the Netherlands and the UK. The global attention means that there is continuous need to augment the strength of the existing groups and increase their capacity by speeding up the work while maintaining the quality. Retaining the cultural identity, the traditional embroidery used for making personal trousseau is now market-affiliated and kept alive.”

This article first appeared on Village Square.