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Updated: January 4, 2010 15:57 IST

Taking Gujarati embroidery to international stores

Madhur Tankha
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Master craftswoman: Ninety three-year-old Hansiba in New Delhi. Photos: V. Sudershan
Master craftswoman: Ninety three-year-old Hansiba in New Delhi. Photos: V. Sudershan

Hansiba, the first rural artisan of SEWA, talks about her life and how she has been instrumental in encouraging rural women to earn their living through traditional skills.

She is the face behind the thousands of traditional garments that have now found their way from villages to international retail stores. Hansiba, the first rural artisan of Self Employed Women’s Association, has been instrumental in encouraging rural women to earn their living through traditional skills.

A master of 16 different types of embroideries, this nonagenarian grandmother grows her own cotton, spins her own yarn and does her own embroidery in Datarana village in Gujarat. She is held in greet esteem by the new generation that looks up to her for guidance.

“For centuries our families have eked out a living from traditional embroideries. Our lives have been hard but our craft skills have always worked to our advantage. Today, thanks to SEWA we have a new lease of life. We feel secure about the present and are confident about our future. Our women are stitching garments with great care and are beautifying them with fine intricate embroidery. As they have learned the ways of the world of fashion, our women folk are able to plan new products, search new markets, adjust price and revise export procedures to reach out to 18 key locations globally,” says Hansiba.

Hansiba’s life changed completely when social reformer and chairperson of SEWA Trade Facilitation Centre Reema Nanavaty, who left a flourishing career in civil services to empower ostracised rural women, came to her house. “I was spinning the charkha and preparing a traditional garment. Reemaji was so impressed by my working style and traditional skills that she asked me to create hand-made products. Initially, I began on my own but slowly and steadily other rural women also started working in a professional manner. Today the Hansiba label provides us livelihood. Our rural women have got empowered and our lives have improved. Hansiba has married age-old embroidery with modern designs,” says Hansiba, who was in the Capital over the weekend for the launch of Ma Dhuli collection.

The senior citizen is confident that no natural calamity can put a spanner in her works. “Even though the earthquake on January 26, 2001, turned the whole world upside down for us, the village women were not disillusioned. They knew how to earn their livelihood despite insurmountable odds.”

“During the drought, most of inhabitants of our village barring senior citizens used to migrate to nearby areas. Even I used to migrate to Kathiawar district. But after learning embroidery, I didn’t have to abandon my home as I could earn my living while staying in my drought affected village.”

Realising that two of the biggest challenges facing mankind are climate change and economic crisis, Hansiba has come out with a novel solution to tackle the two tricky problems.

“We have already made a beginning by reaching out to our customers. They don’t have to come all the way to us. We are also ensuring that all our products are made of natural fibre and no chemical is used. This way we are not contributing to global warming. We are manufacturing organic natural fabric and don’t use any chemicals in producing our clothes. Through SEWA we have crossed the Indian border and made our presence felt in various countries. We need to have hundreds of Hansibas. This is a special company of illiterate rural women.”

Initially, the women folk of Gujarat were apprehensive about working with Western educated designers. “When we started working with designers we didn’t like their dull sober colours. Instead, we used our multiple colours. When we had access to the market, we realised that our products were not selling. Then we started following the colour patterns according to international standards. Our women folks have realised that commitment and following specifications of customers were important factors to become self-reliant. Earlier, we came out with summer collection during winters and winter collection during summers,” says the 92-year-old woman.

During Hansiba’s growing-up years no priority was given to education. But she sees to it that her grandchildren and even children of her colleagues are educated enough. “My daughter Puri and granddaughter Hetal are following in my footsteps but know the importance of education. Thanks to education, our women folk are working united like a team.”

Speaking about the Ma Dhuli collection, Hansiba says the uniqueness of the collection is that it doesn’t go through any hard chemical exposure treatment.

“The cotton is grown by small-time farmers using organic methods of cultivation. When cotton is processed from fibre to yarn only hand-operated charkhas are used. As the fibre is coloured, no dying process is required. This process eliminates a lot of wastage of water and keeps chemicals away from surrounding environment. Thus the entire sustainable cotton collection generates employment for rural households. SEWA enables women artisans to become economically independent.”

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