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The Hindu: "Kutch Embroidery Captivates Vancouver"

By K. Kannan

Published in The Hindu December 22, 2003

In 1999, on one of her frequent visits to the craftspeople working with the Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan (KMVS) co-operative, Charlotte Kwon, who runs the Maiwa Handprints in Canada, was greatly impressed by the quality of the embroideries. What she saw was beyond what she expected for the high-end retail market. "These are of collector or museum quality," she gushed.

There was a sudden storm of questions - what was a museum? Why do people go there? Could anyone go? Why would people put embroideries up on display if they were not for sale? The Western concept of a museum was strange, yet the artisans were intrigued. They were also proud to think of their work on display in a public context, a travelling record of who they are.

The idea soon gained a life of its own and what resulted was an exhibition of the most extensive collection of embroidery from the Kutch region of North-western India in the Vancouver Museum in Canada. The ongoing exhibition, "Eye of a Needle" is a collaboration between the KMVS co-operative and Maiwa Handprints and is probably the first international exhibition of these Kutch artists. A book, "Through the Eye of a Needle: Stories from an Indian Desert", has also been brought out to coincide with the occasion. "This is the first time that Kutch artisans have displayed their work abroad," says Meena Raste, who works with the artisan community. "While the artisans have displayed their work in places like Delhi, their work has never really travelled as an art-frame to any museum."

The hand-stitched textiles in the Vancouver Museum exhibition represent the culmination of three years of planning and a lifetime of accumulated knowledge. "It is the realisation of a dream: to attain such excellence in their work that they are recognised on the world stage," says Ms. Raste. "Just as the women identify each other's cultural identity through the stitching on their garments, the world shall know them by their embroidery."Complete with a survey of popular motifs, the description of the five tribal communities featured in the exhibition gives an intimate portrait of the women, their work and life in the harsh and unforgiving desert landscape. Interesting facts like how the Meghwar women had rigorous embroidery requirements for dowry - a custom that has now been given up - have also been brought out through the exhibition.

Without a written language, the tribal communities have for centuries used embroidery to record their experiences. Often an embroidered pattern denotes specific information such as the marital status or the birth of the first child. Facts like these have made the exhibition, mounted by the Maiwa Handprints in collaboration with the KMVS at the Vancouver Museum first in July 2002 and then this year in September, a tremendous success.



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