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On Not Stitching: Early Thoughts

I visited Hoorbai today.  It has been a long time since my last visit and much has changed:  we are both older, our children bigger, and she does only a little embroidery these days.  For a one-time National Craft Award Winner, this—to me—is surprising.

One of the questions that prompted my fieldwork in India was not just how women embroider, but how do they keep embroidering.  How does it fit into their lives, and what sustains them?  I realized that there are many reasons why traditional craft producers stop and start.  Hoorbai, for example, has enjoyed a particularly creative partnership with her husband Mehmood, a talented designer.  They have honed their respective crafts in tandem—Hoorbai’s stitching and her husband’s designs have grown increasingly refined as they experimented with ‘traditional’ Mutwa designs.

But Mutwa embroidery is not easy.  Other skilled embroiderers I know have stopped because of eye problems, because they are tired, bored, or have more pressing issues to attend to.  They may have new babies, new televisions (or computers!), new ideas about what a modern Muslim woman should do and how she should behave.  At least one woman has ‘retired’ her embroidery to focus on reading her Quran.  Women’s motivations for making have always been complex—suspended between enjoyment, desire, need, responsibility, and benefit or value.

Hoorbai is the only Mutwa woman to hold the National Craft Award and one of only a handful of Indian women.  Awardees are presented with a certificate and a cash prize at a special ceremony in Delhi, attracting considerable publicity and new status.  But for women these ‘benefits’ pose particular challenges.  An award acknowledging traditional crafts brings nontraditional exposure.  Hoorbai is the only Mutwa woman I know who has traveled to Delhi.

Hoorbai is pragmatic.  A capable woman with thick, strong hands, I’ve often marveled at her stitching dexterity.  Those hands now tend a herd of cows and water buffalo—work that is not new to her.  When I asked, she just shrugged.  Milk prices are high.  I wonder if she is just got tired of trying to do something different, be someone new?  I wonder if the risks of renown are too high?  There is a slippery relationship between what it means to be Mutwa and embroidery, just as there is between tradition and innovation—a slope that women negotiate in sometimes surprising ways.

Image Caption: 1) Hoorbai Mehmood Mutwa, National Handicraft Award Winner, 1999.    2)The winning embroidery was an intricately stitched blouse front.  Designed by Mehmood, it features a wide variety of stitch motifs.  Traditionally, only a couple of different stitch motifs would have been used together.   3) An unfinished centre panel for a quilt.  Hoorbai and Mehmood forged a very creative partnership and played with traditional Mutwa design concepts. 4) Detail of quilt panel.

By: Michele A. Hardy, PhD. is a cultural anthropologist at the University of Calgary in Calgary, Canada. TSA Director of External Relations, she is currently on research leave in Kutch, Gujarat State, India.