It was in 1969 when Chanda Shroff first visited the drought-hit region of Kutch for a famine relief project. During this trip she realised that the local communities of the Ahirs, Meghwaads, Jaths and the Rabaris were quite reluctant to accept charity handouts, and insisted rather on being given some kind of work. Another thing that struck her was the nature of diverse and intricate embroidery work done by the local women.

Therefore, she decided to create the employment opportunity for these women by handing them 30 sarees to embroider on. 30 different women created designs based on their knowledge of an indigenous craft that is passed down from one generation to the next. The designs were an instant hit at a small exhibition held in Mumbai. And that is how Shrujan Trust was born.

Started by Shroff with only 30 other women, the Shrujan Trust has now been around for 48 years, and has empowered over 4,000 women from various communities in the Kutch region. 

The organisation is now headed by Shroff’s daughter, Ami, for whom it was quite a challenge to get the hang of the kind of work her mother did.  “While on one hand I had to work hard to understand Shrujan and what it stands for, on the other it has always been a part of our dinner table conversations. When I joined Shrujan full time, my mother was by my side always. She was our guide and mentor in every step we took and Shrujan owes all its success to her grit, determination and above all grand vision for the organisation. It is her work, her ethos and her vision that is engrained in each and every person at Shrujan. She worked as a family member with each artisan that she interacted with, from day one, and that is the example we follow today,” Ami Shroff tells Guardian 20.

Her challenge, right from the early days, revolved around elevating the brand and making it known to audiences far and wide. “I always had lofty goals for Shrujan and surmounting each milestone, to reach where we are today, has not been easy, especially since we are a not for profit,” says Shroff. “We have to deal with several challenges right from funding to support from the industry, but today, the work of our artisans is well recognized, their story is being heard more often, and it is a moment of pride to see the organisation which has grown alongside me, develop a life of its own and move forward.”

Kutch has a very diverse culture, with people have arrived from faraway lands to settle here over centuries. And so, a small geographical unit is home to great variety of crafts and embroidery styles. “When we began working with the women in this region who practiced their own indigenous embroidery crafts, only 12 communities still possessed their traditional skills,” says Shroff. “The number of embroidery styles practiced by the different communities vary. While the Ahirs practice one style, the Mutwas practice up to 18 different styles. Our research team has so far been able to confirm 43 different styles still known and practiced. We hope over the years to uncover many more.”

Shrujan monsoon collection.

The organisation lays deep emphasis on craft and creativity. Using the finest threads and fabrics, as well as design and product innovation, Shrujan attempts to reach kaarigars of all skill levels, and especially tries to ensure that those in remote areas are not left behind.

Talking about her idea of empowering women artisans, Ami Shroff says, “The women artisans have been the heart of Shrujan right from the start. It is because of the craft preserved through their own efforts in their homes that these styles of embroidery were preserved and further built upon. The lives of women in these rural areas are not easy by any standards, and there were also social norms that they were meant to follow.”

Traditionally, the women were not wage-earners, and in fact some had never left their homes or travelled, let alone be a kaarigar to try to earn their own livelihood. “In some cases, women have become the primary earning members in their homes owing to their contribution to Shrujan. I think, not just me, but every individual connected with Shrujan is deeply connected to the idea of empowering these women. To support their sense of self-worth and contributive power, they remain the original source of this skill,” says Shroff.

While working with different generations of artisans and crafts people, the team realised that there was a strong need for a place that can preserve these craft and embroidery gems for the future generations to see and learn from. That is when Shroff in 2016 came up with a Living and Learning Design Centre (LLDC) in Bhuj–a first of its kind kaarigar dedicated multi-dimensional craft education and resource centre, which aims to train, educate and support artisans to practice their traditional crafts for contemporary markets, so that they can once again earn a live a dignified and prosperous life. 

Shroff says, “LLDC begins where Shrujan leaves off. While Shrujan is aimed at providing a platform for artisans to earn a livelihood, LLDC has a larger agenda, that of preserving and reviving the craft culture and tradition of the Kutch region.”

At the same time, it is equally important to make all these crafts available to a larger market. Shrujan has a wide range of products, starting from mobile covers worth Rs 800 each, to sarees worth up to Rs 3 lakhs. The  embroidery work on various products like sarees, cholis, blouse pieces, dupattas, kurtas, tops, tunics, stoles, shawls, mufflers, yokes, bags, cushion-covers and wall hangings has been done by the women artisans associated with Shrujan.

 “We have four outlets at present. One in Mumbai, one in Ahmedabad and two in Kutch. Shrujan also caters to many independent fashion designers who get the embroidery done by Shrujan for their design ranges. The target audiences for Shrujan are craft enthusiasts who understand and can pay for the authentic fine embroidery. Even students from a design background are often customers as they purchase Shrujan products for learning and practicing the unique Kutch embroidery. It has also been able to venture into the customised exports market, supplying the products made by their kaarigars to markets such as London, Australia and even some Austrian and Italian companies,” says Shroff.

Ami Shroff, Director, The Shrujan Trust.

 Having been in this field for over 48 years now, Shroff’s ultimate goal is to open a crafts school. “We will continue to encourage practicing kaarigars to use the LLDC campus as a learning ground and also invite aspiring kaarigars and rural youth to receive training for an economically viable and creatively satisfying career in the crafts,” says Shroff.

The Shrujan Exhibition, focused on Kutchi embroidery, will be hosted at Agakhan Hall, New Delhi, from 16-17 July


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