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TBI Blogs: Displaced by War, Women in Thar Desert Find Empowerment in Traditional Needlework

Undeterred by displacement from Pakistan during the 1971 war and resettled in the unforgiving Thar Desert, women now living in Bikaner district have used their skills of traditional embroidery to earn a living with dignity. Tarun Kanti Bose takes a closer look.

The women of Dandkala village in the Kolayat administrative block of Bikaner district in Rajasthan are a class apart. Although they are refugees from Umerkot district in the Sindh province of Pakistan, they have fought displacement by taking ownership of their traditional embroidery skills, which has enabled them to be breadwinners for their families.

Located 140 km. from Bikaner city in the Thar Desert – harsh, arid, and tough, with shifting sand dunes and extreme temperatures – the lives of rural women in Dandkala are not easy by any means. But it has not stopped the women artisans earning a living with dignity.

Settled in 1988, the villagers had earlier stayed at refugee camps in Barmer and Jaisalmer for almost 17 years. There were lakhs of people ousted from Pakistan in these camps, who had fled to the adjacent states during the 1971 India-Pakistan war. The Rajasthan government had, at that time, allotted land to these oustees.

In 1987, western Rajasthan suffered its worst drought of the century, and Bikaner was one of the badly hit districts. Lack of food, water, and fodder left thousands of families desolate, and wiped off about half of the livestock. In these extreme conditions, the villagers either migrated to cities, or earned a pittance at road construction sites.

Artistic heritage

“When my husband was allotted 25 bighas of land at Dandkala, we were living in abject poverty. When we came first to settle in the village from the camp in Barmer, we were shocked, as it was entirely a tough dry patch, without trees, shrubs, shade, or water. We, like other 250 families in the village, had no option but to cultivate the virgin land, which had never been cultivated earlier,” 58-year-old Paaro Bai told VillageSquare.in.

“The drought in 1987 further aggravated our problems. It was difficult to get a square meal in a day. It was such a miserable condition that we could not take baths for months together. My son and daughters were full of lice and stank badly. In that terrible condition, to earn a livelihood, I used to accompany my husband along with our infant children on our laps wherever the thakedar (contractor) took us to work for road construction. Most of the women like me, who came from the Sindh province of Pakistan, have only one skill that was special.”

Paaro Bai of Dandkala village in Bikaner doing Kashida embroidery. (Photo by Tarun Kanti Bose)
Paaro Bai of Dandkala village in Bikaner doing Kashida embroidery. (Photo by Tarun Kanti Bose)

Paaro Bai was referring to Kashida, a special kind of embroidery that includes various styles such as taanka bharat, soof, pakka, kambiri, kharak, kachcha, and sindhi. “At our camp in Barmer and here in the village, middlemen took advantage of our situation. Most of us were illiterate, unorganized, and in need of money,” she says. “The middlemen were exploiting us for a very long time by giving us very less for our exquisite hand embroidery.”

Sitting nearby, Santosh, who had been working among the women artisans, said, “The village falls in the command area of Indira Gandhi Canal, and in 1988 the URMUL Trust expanded its activities in these areas. It formed the URMUL Seemant Samiti at Bajju in Kolayat block to work in 113 villages.”

Watershed moment

“Earlier, Sanjoy Ghose, accompanied by URMUL functionaries, had seen me toiling hard in road construction work. He had seen my son and daughters sleeping under the scorching sun, subject to dust, heat, noise, and multiple hazards. Then after that, when URMUL health workers visited the village for treating the tuberculosis patients, I showed them the handicraft,” says Paaro Bai. “Their visit to my hut proved to be a watershed moment in my life. They acted positively and started an income-generation project of embroidery.”

URMUL supported the women artisans in upgrading their traditional skills, provided technical support, and linked them with national and international markets. The non-profit also freed them from the stranglehold of exploitative middlemen. Women artisans in Dandkalan, Gokul, Bhaloori Bijeri, Bikendri, and other villages of Kolayat and Pugal blocks of Bikaner district started forming self-help groups (SHGs) and further enhanced their skills in kashidakaari (embroidery).

“Constant orientation by famous designers like Laila Tyabji and graduates from National Institute of Design (NID) and National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) helped women hone their skills,” Santosh told VillageSquare.in. “Now these women earn between ₹3,500 and ₹6,000 a month.”

Kashida mharo khet bhi suu aur fasal bhi (Embroidery serves us a field, crop, and produce for us). When I started working with URMUL, my husband created a lot of hurdles, but when he saw that my earning is helping the family, he stopped. Earlier, we could not even feed ourselves and our children a square meal. Now there is no such shortage,” says Paaro Bai.

Women embroiders show their latest work after a training workshop. (Photo by Tarun Kanti Bose)
Women embroiderers show their latest work after a training workshop. (Photo by Tarun Kanti Bose)

Ending migration

Paaro Bai is a founding member of a SHG, and she has helped 40-50 women of her village earn between ₹3,000 and ₹5,000 every month. She trained her daughters, who married and now live in Barmer district. They have trained other women of their villages. Women artisan’s involvement in Kashida work helps them remain in their villages, rather than migrating to the cities.

The women do most of the work in homes and not under controlled conditions. Their own homes are their workplace, and they earn with dignity. Capacity building trainings and regular interaction with URMUL functionaries, designers, and buyers enables them to see the world in a wider perspective.

Paaro Bai does embroidery work with her daughters-in-law, nieces, and other women of the village, which operates like a Rangsutra Centre. Shubham Sharma Sen, a graduate of NIFT, explains about Rangsutra. “It’s a company set up by social activist-turned entrepreneur Shumita Ghose 12 years ago. It ensures regular work and market access to artisans, who are co-owners and shareholders.”

“Paaro Bai is a shareholder in the company. Over 3,500 weavers, embroiderers, and artisans from Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, and West Bengal have formed the company. 70 % of Rangsutra’s owner-workers are women. The work and money they earn have given these women more say at home. Some have become group leaders in their villages.”

Rangsutra is now a successful enterprise. “Rangsutra’s biggest buyer is Fab India (a popular chain of stores). It also exports to France, the Netherlands, and the UK,” says Sharma Sen. “The global attention means there is continuous need to augment the strength of existing groups and increase capacity by speeding up the work while maintaining the quality.”

About the author: Tarun Kanti Bose is a New Delhi-based journalist.

Adapted from an article originally published on VillageSquare.in. Subscribe to VillageSquare’s weekly update on the website for more stories from rural India.

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Written by Village Square

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Village Square is an integrated communications initiative that seeks to inform, analyse, engage, and promote rural India among a wider audience.

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