"We feel good that our work is valued by the outside world - everyone should know who the Rabaris are."
The Rabaris of northwest India are a community of nomads who migrated west from the Thar Desert area of Rajasthan in search for grazing lands. They are expert camel breeders, cattle herders and shepherds. Periodically, as the community grew too large for the environment to sustain it, the group would divide and a subgroup would migrate to a new region. There are myriad subgroups of Rabari. The three found in Kutch are Dhebaria, Vaghadia and Kutchi. They trace their ancestry to the mythical Sambal, whom Lord Shiva created to look after the camels. Rabaris are Hindu and devout worshippers of the mother goddesses. In parts of Kutch, after the monsoon rains and after their years¹ wanderings, Rabaris celebrate all marriages on one day only, the birthday of Lord Krishna.
Embroidery is an integral part of the Rabaris lives and homes but they consider the choli or blouse their most important art form because of its heavily embroidered ornamentation. They combine square, triangular, rectangular, diamond, conical, and circular mirrors around which their embroidery revolves. This unusual play with shaped mirrors is unique to Rabari embroidery.
A group of Kutchi Rabari women joined KMVS over a decade ago. Their closer contact with towns and tourists has, for many years, made the Rabaris' work more commercial. They discovered that by doing excellent work they could find more stable markets and better returns for time spent embroidering.
"Our good embroidery is in our eyes and in our hands — that is our skill."
Five hundred years ago the Jats resided in the Halab region of present-day Baluchistan. They were known by the name Dhanetah Jats, which means herder. Under territorial pressure from feudal landowners and in search of new grazing lands, they began an exodus that would take them to Sindh, Gujarat, and eventually Kutch. Those who took up farming became known as Gracia Jats. Some, known as Fakirani Jats, became holy men devoted to studying the Qur'an. The largest group remained herders and retained the name Dhanetah. All Jats are Sunni Muslims and never marry outside of their community.
Jat women design and produce exquisite, labour-intensive embroidery. The power of Jat embroidery comes largely from the closely stitched patterns that completely cover the cloth. They take pride in the fact that their "stitches outlive the cloth on which they’re sewn." The most intensively embroidered article of a Jat woman's dowry is the "churi" or blouse. Its color and motifs visually communicate the age, marital status and geographical origin of the wearer
The Jats were pressured by the government to settle and found themselves on the least fertile land. They began selling their embroidery only fifteen years ago in order to survive droughts. Six years ago, two Jat villages joined KMVS and found a co-operative organization in which they learned the value of their outstanding work and how to market it.
"We like that our embroidery is going to a place far away and that people there will know who a Sodha Rajput is."
The Sodha Rajputs are the most recent migrants into Kutch from Sindh, Pakistan. Due to the 1971 India-Pakistan war, the Sodhas fled Sindh and were settled into government village camps in Rapar and Bacchau districts of Kutch where they continue to live. Sodhas are one of several sub-groups of the larger Hindu Rajput community and retain strong links with Sindh through intermarriages. Fiercely patriarchal customs and traditions characterize this traditional protector-warrior community. Control over the movement of women in public has led to various ironic role reversals, such as men fetching water for the women from the village well.
The Sodhas own little land and like all farmers in Kutch, they have been severely affected by the drought. Most men now work as labourers. Despite economic need, Sodha women have few options as they don¹t participate in agricultural tasks or any form of daily wage labour. Within the confines of the home, however, they create and earn with cloth, needle, and thread. Sodhas brought a whole new language of stitches with them from Sindh that influenced all whom they came into contact with, particularly the Meghwars.
Becoming members of KMVS was an important step for the Sodhas as in many families embroidery is their only source of income. Co-operative marketing brings them steady earnings.
"The large art pieces that take us 4-6 months to complete bring us an income normally earned over a year. Doing them is like having a savings account. Every stitch we do is a deposit and when we finish we get such a large amount of money that we can do something important. When this piece is finished for the museum I will get paid enough to send my son to a middle school."