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Can We Talk? Textiles, Change and NGOs in Kutch

A weaver at Khamir demonstrates one way to recycle plastic bags.

Change can be earth shattering.  And in Kutch, the shattering earth brought about profound changes.  The 2001 earthquake devastated the area and thrust it into the global limelight.  The subsequent exposure and new development are mixed blessings, however, particularly for traditional textile artisans.  As I reported in my last posting, being an agent of change is not always easy.

Perhaps the quicksilver lining of all these changes, all this flux in Kutch, are the new conversations that seem to be happening between different craftspeople.  While there have always been relationships between some craftspeople (e.g. weavers and dyers) as well as with their patrons, today the dialogue is intensified.  Weavers are talking with block printers who are talking with tie dyers and embroiderers—who are all talking with designers.  While some of the works inspired by these conversations suffer from the flux (as in visual diarrhea), the most successful, are born equally of innovation and self-awareness (flux as in inward and outward flow of energy).

These conversations have been fostered by a variety of forces, not the least of which include a handful of NGO’s working with textile artisans in the region.  While there have been a number of these working in the area, approaches and end products differ widely. With respect to the role of design/ designers there are two NGO’s who represent something of a paradigm shift.  Both take a holistic approach to design, with the artisans playing increasing roles, and both aim to build confidence, innovation and capacity.

An organic cotton, hand woven, vegetable dyed shawl with a block printed border from Khamir (detail).

Khamir, “works to reposition craft… and to revitalize Kachchh’s creative industries.” A relative newcomer, it evolved after the 2001 earthquake and prioritizes craft development through encouraging and facilitating “design interventions.” Their aim is to mediate the relationship between designers and craftspeople by providing resources, technical support and education. To this end, they recently hosted an exhibition of historic tie-dyed pieces made by the fathers and grandfathers of many currently practicing artists and frequently host workshops to enhance design skills, marketing and technique.  If their products are any indication, these interactions are fruitful, particularly for the dyers, printers and tie-dye artisans.  However, the question remains whether Khamir can foster artisans to be innovative and self reliant, market savvy and independent for the future?

Innovative products from Kala Raksha draw on various traditional skills: block printing, embroidering, leatherworking, and applique.

Kala Raksha is another Kutch-based NGO that has been working with textile artisans since 1993.  Founder Judy Frater is well known to TSA members, however, the Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya, founded in 2005, may be less so.  Well aware of the downfalls of the ‘factory model’ of development, where craftspeople turn into piece workers, the Vidhyalaya aims to educate craftspeople in design and marketing in order to facilitate both new works and a new level of craft professionalism.  It is an admirable goal if, as any of us who have attended art school know, exceedingly challenging.  However, with graduates of the program scattered all over Kutch, one does not have to travel far to find evidence of the success of this novel approach.
Recently in Bhujodi, a small village just outside of Bhuj, I stumbled into a weaver’s studio.  Wowed by the samples he showed me, he explained that his brother had taken the course and that the whole family had been invigorated by his lessons and interactions with other artisans.  Inquiring whether he had any stock for sale, the best he could offer was a rain check; the shawls had all been sold in Delhi!  In this changing, drought prone corner of India, a rain check is perhaps a fitting promise to a textile-hand-crafted future and further conversations!

*Other NGO’s working with textiles in Kutch include Shrujan, Qasab, and Sewa International.

A cotton scarf from Qasab combines appliqued block printed fabric with embroidery and natural dyes.

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.