The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Women paint pictures of quake in thread

New Delhi, Aug. 21 (Reuters): When a powerful earthquake ripped through western India more than two years ago, Subhadra and the women of her village decided to show the horror in the only way they could: painting a picture in thread.

“It shows our village before and after the earthquake,” said the young craftswoman from Gujarat’s Banaskantha district. “It shows broken homes, children running from school, dead people and people with bandages on them.” At least 20,000 people died in the January 2001 earthquake that flattened a large area of the state.

Subhadra is one of hundreds of women who showcased their embroidery at an exhibition of wall hangings in New Delhi using the traditional idiom and embroidery of rural Gujarat, Bihar, Orissa and Karnataka.

The Threads of Identity exhibition was a reflection of how traditional embroidery has transformed the lives of hundreds of rural women who have lived hand-to-mouth.

For decades, poor village women embroidered dazzling cushion covers, bedcovers and clothes embellished with mirrors and cowries only for their dowry or to decorate their homes. But now Dastakar, a non-government organisation promoting traditional Indian craft, has pulled the women’s families out of poverty by using their embroidery skills and vibrant colours to fashion clothes and accessories for designer boutiques.

Take Raniben. Just a few years ago, she could barely make ends meet with her husband working eight months a year as a construction worker and the rest of the time on his fields. “Today, I don’t just embroider for home. I sell my pieces in cities and earn money that helps me buy new clothes for my children and send them to school,” she said, hunched over a huge canopy she was putting together for a castle in England.

Raniben and about 5,000 women from her district earn about Rs 1,500 each a month spending their days at the NGO, dexterously embroidering traditional canopies, bags and skirts.

But embroidery isn’t just a source of income for the traditionally voiceless and often illiterate women. It is also a means of telling the story of their lives and creating awareness about social issues such as AIDS, dowry abuse and women’s rights.

Subhadra said they embroidered a sari that looked at the impact of drought on their lives by depicting a barren landscape and dry rivers. “We looked at the way our village looked years ago when there was more greenery and peace and showed the change by embroidering images of trees being cut,” she said.

In Bihar, women highlight the horrors of infanticide and child marriage for illiterate villagers through elaborately embroidered panels with traditional motifs. The Bihar works are based on a 19th century tradition of embroidering quilts, or sujunis, a skill that had almost died out in recent years.

“It’s a bit like a narrative quilt or a comic book with a strong narrative,” said Laila Tyabji, chairperson of Dastakar, which organised the exhibition in Delhi.

The move from the rustic world of mud homes and buffaloes to ritzy city boutiques has helped the impoverished women take charge of their lives.

A group of illiterate women from Ranthambore in Rajasthan used their earnings to build a well in their village, while in other parts of the state they have bought cows to provide milk for the family.

“The lives of my family hang on the thread I embroider,” said Rama Ben, from Gujarat.

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