Threads of Life: Shrujan Garners Talent from Kutch

Shrujan, a self-sustaining NGO from Kutch, Gujarat in India brought the rich and vibrant culture of the district to India Art Fair 2024. It showcased a vibrant collection of indigenous embroidery techniques on textile base. By Aishwarya Kulkarni

Shrujan showcased ‘Avinya’ at the India Art Fair 2024 translating to innovation and beauty in Sanskrit, realised from a collaborative, non-hierarchical method of working. The local artisans exhibited exquisite pieces showcasing a diverse range of indigenous embroidery techniques on textile base. The India Art Fair, widely known as the leading platform to discover modern and contemporary art from South Asia, was held at New Delhi from 1 – 4 February 2024.

To live the story of Shrujan, one has to go back in time and trudge on the drought-stricken land of Kutch, the largest district in India. It was 1969, and Kutch was ravaged by a drought for the fourth year in a row.

Chanda Shroff, who later became the founder of Shrujan, visited the villages to help run a free kitchen, but the proud Kutchi people would not accept charity! Serendipitously, the intricately embroidered clothing of the local women presented Chanda with a dignified opportunity to help the women earn a livelihood – and Shrujan was born. It continues to function long after Chanda passed away and is now managed by trustees.

Chanda Shroff with the women of Kutch during embroidery work. Picture Credit: Women On Wings

Shrujan is a self-sustaining NGO providing employment to over 2000 women from 12 diverse communities spread over 66 villages in the Kutch district. These women are skilled artisans proficient in embroidery and other traditional crafts – techniques that have been meticulously handed down through generations.

As the business model evolved, over 1000 contemporary designs were created, tailoring these indigenous designs for the urban market, while simultaneously training 550 women master-artisans. All these women shared a common bond: along with being skilled in embroidery, they hailed from the Maldhari community, a nomadic tribe renowned for its tradition of cattle herding. With their existing seasonal income, it was essential to introduce Shrujan’s monthly income in a way that preserved the delicate balance of their cultural ecosystem. This objective was met by giving the women the opportunity to work from their home, not disrupting their lifestyle.

Chanda Shroff is the first Indian recipient of the Rolex Awards. Picture Credit: Shrujan website

New Collaborations

Over the last 25 years, Shrujan has published numerous Craft Heritage books, introduced the first-of-its-kind craft mobile library, won the Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2006, and is currently building on its most ambitious project – Living and Learning Design Centre (LLDC). With a steadfast dedication to the local economy of the artisans of Kutch, LLDC emerged as a visionary institution, offering a diverse array of crafts education and invaluable resources.

At the India Art Fair 2024, Shrujan and LLDC came together to showcase 25 years of their growth and artisanal excellence. Kirit Dave, design mentor at LLDc, bridged the gap between art and craft, and came up with the exhibition where the pieces are not art pieces but unique installations, that can be customised to people’s corporates and homes.

At the India Art Fair 2024, Shrujan and LLDC came together to showcase 25 years of their growth and artisanal excellence.

The selection of artists for participating in the Art Fair was based on their creative spark, and a seed to do something new. In the words of John Lennon, “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.”, and this profound sentiment inspired the concept of having multiple artisans collaborate without hierarchy to the creation of an artwork.

“Since its establishment in 1969, Shrujan has always envisioned an empowered, independent and thriving artistic community in Kutch, whose global identity is defined by craft,” says Kirit Dave, Avinya concept Designer, Artist and Trustee of LLDC Craft Museum.

Under the guidance of Kirit as the concept designer and with Pankti and Barkha serving as adept facilitators and coordinators, a comprehensive dialogue unfolded among artisans with diverse expertise. Rather than adhering strictly to their initial vision, the artwork would engage in an ongoing dialogue, and as each artist started a piece, they anticipated the significant metamorphosis it would undergo till its final stage. After finishing their part, artists would communicate with Kirit and fellow artisans, shaping the collective direction of the piece. This collaborative process inculcated faith and brought the community closer in the unpredictable journey towards the final artwork.

SCALE puts the focus on few art-cum-craft-cum-handmade-classics from the collaboration:

Rang Mahal – Celebration, 2023. Size: 241 cm X 105 cm. Natural Dye Ajrakh Block Print: Adam Abduljabbar Khatri: Dhamadka & team Hand Applique: Gauriben Pratapbhai Udani Machine Sewing Embroidery: Karsanbhai Naranbhai Ahir

Rang Mahal – Celebration

This is a reflection of the rich and vibrant culture of Kutch in the arid landscape. The installation showcases a blend of diverse crafts – block printing, batik printing, weaving, hand applique, and embroidery from Ahir, Jageja, Soof and Aari communities. Moving out of the sketch-board, a digital composition in primary colors was created, and after collaborative discussions with artisans, the final composition took shape. The first layer is the naturally dyed, hand block-printed cotton canvas – designed by the artisans from Dhamadka, a village known for its talented Ajrakh block-print artists. Over this, colourful Dupion silk geometric blocks are designed using hand applique work and machine sewing embroidery work.

Taseer – Identity, 2023. Size: 171 cm X 108 cm Kutch Handloom Weaving with Cut Shuttle: Hitesh Khengar Kharet Bandhani: Abduljabbar Mohmed Husain Khatri and Abdullah Mohmed Husain Khatri & SIDR Craft Machine Sewing Embroidery: Jentilal Odhavji Badiya

Taseer – Identity

This pays homage to individuality of each human, encapsulated in every person’s thumbprint, beautifully woven into the fabric of the artwork. The base is an intricately woven kala cotton handloom cloth in shades of black, white, and grey. A silk cloth resembling a thumbprint is meticulously hand-appliquéd on it using machine sewn embroidery, with the distinctive lines of the thumbprint created through bandhani printing. Celebrating various materials and techniques with a restrained colour palette, Taseer is a striking piece that made the viewers relate, and quietly introspect.

Nava Vaas – New Settlements, 2023. Size: 48.26 cm X 48.26 cm; Machine Sewing Applique & Patchwork: Karsanbhai Naranbhai Ahir; Hand stitch: Anjana Manodhiya

Nava Vaas

Panti has a smile on her face as she introduces Nava Vaas – New Settlements, recalling how the installation was conceived.

“Kirit bhai asked us to randomly place leftover buttons in a composition that looks balanced. Have fun, and be playful as you design!” says Panti. And the energy is translated in work as bright red and white buttons adorn a collage of Dupion silk stitched together with machine applique work and patchwork.

Mother Earth, 2023. Size: 246 cm X 108 cm Natural Dye Ajrakh Block Print: Adam Abduljabbar Khatri – Dhamadka & team Hand Applique: Gauriben Pratapbhai Udani & Bhagvatiben Nehalbhai Bhati Running Stitch Embroidery: Manjula Jitendra Rathod

Mother Earth

This installation is an ode to the responsibility we have towards our planet. “We don’t own earth, we merely live on it” as Ami Shroff puts it. The installation reflects both darkness and joy, using red symbolically for blood shed or blood running through our veins, urging respect for the planet as our mother. The painting depicts nature through an abstract interpretation of rivers, foliage through running stitch embroidery and hand applique work done over Poplion cotton and Dupion Silk.

Rann Utsav, 2023. Size: 68.58cm X 83.82 cm Aari Embroidery: Sardar Shamim Machine Sewing Applique: Karanbhai Naranhai Ahir

Rann Utsav

This colourful burst of textiles depicts the lively and multi-coloured festivity of the annually held desert festival in the pristine white desert of Kutch, Gujarat, showcasing a myriad of folk arts, crafts, music, dance, and the enchanting beauty of the region.

“A few days prior to the India Art Fair, we invited all the artisans involved in the process, and a few well-wishers for a 2-hour exhibition at LLDC. We thought people wouldn’t come, as Kutch is such a big district. But everyone turned up at short-notice because they felt a sense of ownership, and were curious to see the final product. Ishmail Bhai, a local artisan, insisted on being a part of the group picture, in spite of not contributing to any of the pieces – saying the artworks are a part of his heritage and his identity! The pride of artisans for having their work be exhibited at an international level is our biggest achievement at this exhibition,”  says Ami Shroff, CEO and Managing Trustee of Shrujan.

Words by Aishwary Kulkarni

Aishwarya Kulkarni is an Architect and Urban Designer who channels her passion for urban analysis and architectural aesthetics into compelling writing. With experience working at the grassroots level in India, she now strives to shed light on rural and urban infrastructural challenges through research and writing. She believes in the power of communication and explores it through architectural journalism to demystify the intricacies of the built environment, making it accessible to all.