Artisans from remote corners of the country are also shareholders of a company that promotes their traditional crafts in urban markets

Mehrunissa, in her mid 40s, is a tie and dye artisan from Bikaner. For her, work is a way to express and communicate with the outside world. For almost 10 years she assisted her husband Hasanji, a master dyer, then ventured out on her own. Her area of specialisation is tie and dye in wool but she is equally dexterous with cotton, linen and silk.

Just two and a half years ago that with the assistance of Sujit from Rangsutra, a crafts company of over a thousand artisans from remote regions of the country, Mehrunissa acquired the confidence and skill to work independently. Today she is a shareholder in Rangsutra, earning Rs. 10,000 to 15,000 a month, and confident that she can compete with the best artisans anywhere in the world.

Lalita Devi is also a Rangsutra shareholder. A self-taught tailor, beginning with stitching clothes for family and neighbours, today she stitches high-end garments that carry the FabIndia label. A part of the Rangsutra family since 2008, Lalita earns anything from Rs. 5,000 to 11,000 a month, money that ensures the education of her children and the family’s wellbeing.

Socially, craftspeople and artisans come from some of the most disadvantaged communities, with very little opportunities for self-development and growth. The fact that artisans and craftspeople still retain their skills is a miracle, given the fast changing trends in the urban market, which are the mainstay of many rural artisans, says Sumita Ghose, social activist cum entrepreneur, who has pioneered the Rangsutra movement.

With its goal of ensuring sustainable livelihoods for artisans and farmers, the company has been creating top quality handmade products based on principles of fair trade and a celebration of India’s rich craft heritage. Since the crafts people are shareholders, profits earned from sales go back to ensure a better life for the communities.

Seventy per cent of the company’s workers cum shareholders are women who were earlier earning barely Rs. 500 to 1,000 a month. Today, they work three to five hours from home and, depending on their skills, earn Rs. 3,000 to 5,000. Skilled male workers, working full time, could earn up to Rs. 10,000 a month. The piece rate payment for men and women, however, is the same.

Work and money have given women more say at home. They now want to send their daughters to school; some have become group leaders and have a voice in their villages. Some of the women who had migrated from Pakistan tapped their embroidery skills to produce works with the Sindhi kadai — pukka and soof. A 60-year-old grandmother has taught it to her children and grandchildren in Rajasthan. Retaining their cultural identity, the traditional embroidery used for making personal trousseau is now market affiliated and kept alive. Markets are reaching rural women and men with special skills, and transforming their lives.

A new addition to the Rangsutra family is some 2,000 women in Eastern Uttar Pradesh who have set up an all-women-owned crafts company called Swaayamkala. Based out of Varanasi, these women do hand embroidery, patchwork, aari embroidery, sewing, bead work and weave natural fibres into products. Design inputs, markets and assistance for production are provided by Rangsutra.

For the over 3,000 weavers, embroiderers and artisans who have formed the privately held company by pooling in not just money but also their creative, productive skills, the shares are much more than just scraps of paper. For many it is their new savings, as valuable as the chunky silver they have invested in for centuries.

The work of Mehrunissa, Lalita Devi and other crafts people of Rangsutra will be available at Club Patio, South City 1, Gurgaon, from October 25 to 27. Hand embroidered, applique and tie and dye garments, garment accessories and home furnishing, in fact a slice of the rural crafts and weaves, will be on display.