Empowering Tribal Women in Gujarat India


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India has a very large and varied indigenous tribal population, which comprises almost 82 million people. How does one go about empowering women and girls in tribal cultures, which tend to be conservative and male-dominated? Although educating girls is a worthy goal, it isn’t always possible in the short term. In this case, the goal is to improve their quality of life through strengthening their vocation.

The Kutch region in the state of Gujarat is well known for the quality of its textiles. Young girls start sewing as soon as they can hold a needle, and they learn from their mothers and grandmothers, who are highly skilled in embroidery and applique. How do you empower traditional artisans? This is the mission of Kala Raksha, a very creative NGO that works with these tribal women.

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Young girls learning from their grandmother the art of embroidery.

There is much pressure in our modern world for traditional artisans to mass-produce low-quality items for tourist and low-cost consumption. This is both degrading to their tradition and offers no lasting economic sustainability. Judy Frater, an American who has postgraduate degrees in museology and anthropology, has created a unique and creative solution to empower women and maintain the traditional quality of their craftsmanship in an economically sustainable manner. She has lived in the Rabari villages in the Kutch region of Gujarat for over 20 years, studying textile traditions. When she was confronted by the question “Why are you studying us? Why don’t you help us?” Judy started a foundation and a design school where, during the course of a year, women and young girls learn the basics of color and design, work on a portfolio, and learn presentation skills. They are taught to use their inherent skills to produce aesthetic items that honor their tradition, are unique, and are marketable to a wide segment of consumers that can easily recognize the quality of their work. At the end of the year-long course, each student creates a final portfolio, which encompasses not only their designs, but also a brand identity and a marketing plan.

The school, Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya, is the first institution of design for traditional artisans. Six two-week courses are held during the course of a year. The students must travel to a distant residential school and, over the two-week period, fully immerse themselves in the coursework. The students are drawn from two distinct age groups: older women who no longer have the responsibility of caring for their children, and younger girls who have yet to have a family. The young girls are always chaperoned by one of the older women in the community.

Judy believes that “it is more practical to think of training traditional craftspeople in design principles than to train designers in craft traditions. Furthermore, in terms of the survival of craft traditions, it is far more sustainable.” The traditional solution to working with indigenous artisans is what Judy Frater calls “design intervention,” whereby an outside designer basically comes in with pre-designed items and the artisans’ chore is to copy the work. This approach is very detrimental, as it reduces the artisans to common laborers.

Judy Frater’s school provides the knowledge, but each artisan remains the creator of their own work. Kala Raksha produces some of the most exquisitely hand-embroidered and appliquéd products made in Kutch. I have seen firsthand the work created here, and it is beautiful and heartfelt. The women use only natural fibers and dyes whenever possible; their work bears the stamp of uniqueness, and of well-crafted artistry that appeals to a discerning audience. The women I photographed with their work have the joyous obsession to create everyday; they are proud of their work and are empowered by both maintaining their tradition and earning a decent livelihood.

I still would love to see young girls go to school and get an education, but I have to remember that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good; in fact, the graduates of the design school have experienced the transformative power of education. The work of Judy and Kala Raksha is very inspiring and deserves much praise.

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Meghiben showing her appliqued quilt which illustrates her world view of her life in her community.

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Kuvarben working on a new piece. I was amazed on how much fine work they can get accomplished in an hour!

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Jivaben showing one of her fashion creations that was to be modeled in a show in Mumbai. Graduates of the school keep up on fashion trends .

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Choosing a group of fabrics that will be used in a appliqued piece.

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Babraben starting a new appliqued dress. Her eyes have deteriorated and prevents her from doing fine detail work.

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Devalben working on an embroidered pillow cover of her own design.

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Sajnuben holding on of her embroidered dresses destined to the fashion show in Mumbai.

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The patriarch of a very small village. He was never educated and taught himself to read. He gave permission for his granddaughter and niece to attend the design school.

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Salmaben is one of the younger graduates of the school.

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Aminaben, another young graduate,  working on a fine piece of embroidery.

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