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Ruma Devi and her motifs of change

Rakhee Roytalukdar | Updated on August 30, 2019 Published on August 30, 2019

Stitch by stitch: Thirty-year-old Ruma Devi (third from right) recently won the 2019 fashion design prize awarded by Textile Fairs India

The courage to break tradition, combined with her love for all things Barmeri, has put the arc lights on the award-winning designer known for her desert state’s quintessential patchwork and embroidery designs

Dressed in a traditional skirt, her head covered with a veil, Rajasthani villager Ruma Devi does not look like the fashionista she is. But make no mistake, she is among the most fêted designers today, known for her quintessential Barmer patchwork and embroidery designs.

The 30-year-old school dropout recently won the 2019 fashion design prize awarded by Textile Fairs India — a platform for manufacturers and buyers. The award includes a trip to Paris, but Ruma Devi is not in a hurry to visit France. And while she has travelled to Germany, England, Thailand and Sri Lanka for fashion shows, her heart still lies in Barmer.

“My traditional wear, my yearning for Barmer can never waver. Its uniqueness has made me what I am today. I can never outgrow Barmer or my desert state. That is why I decided to locate my new shop, launched last year, in Jaipur instead of Delhi,” she says.

Ruma Devi grew up in Rawsar, a hamlet in the border district of Barmer, a part of the Thar Desert. Married at 17, she moved in 2006 to her in-laws’ home in Mangla ki Bedi village. “Barmer villages, called dhanis, are nothing but sandy dust bowls. With no school and ample time after housework, I looked for avenues which would bring some excitement in life. I thought of my grandmother who used to stitch beautiful motifs from sheep wool on clothes,” she tells BLink. The geometrical and floral designs, inspired by nature, were prepared mostly for a trousseau or household use. “I found stitching invigorating and picked up the craft quickly,” she says.

Soon after marriage, Ruma Devi lost her first child. She then filled the vacuum in her life with embroidery, she says. “I found solace in embroidery. Sitting at home, I made intricate designs on pieces of cloth.” But she wanted to do more, and was soon stitching small bags and selling them. Her in-laws were not happy. “There was pressure from all sides not to sell my work. But I was determined that I had to do something to help the family. But I knew nothing, having not visited any place other than the two villages I had lived in,” she says.

Despite repeated slights by family and neighbours, she collected some money from a group of women, who could also embroider, and bought a sewing machine. Then, sometime in 2008, she gathered up enough courage and approached the Gramin Vikas Evam Chetna Sansthan (GVCS), an NGO working with rural artisans, in Barmer city and met its secretary, Vikram Singh.

“Ruma Devi’s determination amazed me at that time. She would not budge until I accepted some of her samples and gave her an order,” Vikram Singh recollects. In no time, she was back for more. “Then I gave her a 500-piece order and she completed that in time, too, helping the women who worked with her earn at least ₹600 a month.”

Ruma Devi had to battle notions of purdah — covering one’s face — that her in-laws upheld. “But she remained undaunted,” he says.

She applied Barmeri patchwork and appliqué work to her creations, along with embroidery patterns such as soof, pakka, kharak, kachcha and sindhi. “I joined the GVCS and started forming clusters of women by visiting village after village in the scorching heat and weathering dust storms. I had to face flak and abusive language, and was accused of corrupting village women. But I persevered,” she says.

Today, she has 22,000 women working with her, earning ₹3,000-10,000, depending on their skill set. Ruma Devi herself earns around ₹40,000 every month. “My in-laws are not angry with me anymore. They realised that I was only following my passion. In fact, now my entire household, including my mother and sisters-in-law, do embroidery sitting at home. This way, they earn too,” she says.

In 2009-10, she took part in an exhibition in Delhi, showcasing cushions, bags and bedspreads. “There I saw a ramp show for the first time and got interested. But when I approached the event managers, they just shooed me away, saying I did not belong to the level of those fashion designers who exhibited there. Their words, rather than dampening me, encouraged me. I made up my mind to do a solo show.”

Ruma Devi started designing skirts, shirts and saris with Barmer motifs. She persuaded officials at the Rajasthan Heritage Week in Jaipur in 2016 to give her a show at the festival, where the then chief minister Vasundhara Raje was present. Her ‘Handmade in Rajasthan, a tribute to Barmer’, at the 2017 Rajasthan Day celebrations had women artisans walking the ramp. “My show was a hit,” she says.

Next on the agenda for her is to ensure that the artistes get the right price for their work. “Middlemen bring down the prices of our products. Big houses want products from us at the minimum possible price. This is why no artisan has been able to come into the limelight till date,” she rues.

Just being a fashion designer, Ruma Devi stresses, is not enough for her. “I am fighting for the rights of artisans and for my craft, which links me with my history, culture and identity,” she says.

Rakhee Roytalukdar is an independent journalist based in Jaipur

Published on August 30, 2019
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