India Interior

The ‘golden fleece’ of Kutch lends sheen to the lives of tribal women

Sarita Brara | Updated on February 08, 2020 Published on February 08, 2020

Dheberia embroidery with sheep wool empowers the Rabari pastoral community

Kunwarben and Meghuben from Varnora village, Bhuj taluka, belong to the Rabari pastoral community of Kutch. For almost eight months in a year they are on the go, moving from place to place in search of grassy patches for their herds of goat and sheep across Kutch and, if need be, crossing the borders to Madhya Pradesh. “We stop for a day or two at any place where our animals can get ‘chaara paani’ and then move on to our next padhav.” This is their way of life, they say. “We don’t need to pitch tents. We carry khatias (beds), keep our household things on it and utensils below it.”

While the men are busy rearing their sheep and goat, the women, when not cooking, do their stitching and embroidery, an art passed on from generation to generation. They do this while on the go and at home.

Today, this Dheberia art they have learnt as little girls from their mothers is helping them earn their livelihood, courtesy Kutch Heritage Arts and Music Information and Resources (KHAMIR), an NGO working with the artisans of Kutch.

The two Rabari women, along with other artisans using indigenous sheep wool of Kutch, were in the capital as part of an exhibition on products made from ‘desi oon’.

Adept in this genre of embroidery, middle-aged Kunwarben and Meghuben, with years of experience behind them, donned the role of master trainers at a workshop, guiding young girls stitch by stitch on how to adorn patches of cloth with their traditional embroidery.

 

“It takes 8 to 10 days to make one kg of thread from the sheep wool. We give the thread to the weaver and then we dye the woven stuff and do embroidery on it. We innovate designs, use colours of our choice” says Kunwarben.

Marketing challenges

Also at the exhibition is Dhawarbhai, a herder from Vironi village, Kutch. He and many maldharis (tribal herdsmen community) had no option but to throw away the fleece of the sheep as there were either no buyers or they got a very low price for it. So they would sell young sheep and goat milk for a living.

“Today, I don’t have to sell the young sheep. Instead we let the fleece grow and shave the sheep twice a year and sell sheep wool to the ‘company’ (KHAMIR). We get about 500 gram of wool from one sheep from one shaving. We get wool twice a year. The company buys the wool from us at the rate of ₹25 per kg. Earlier it was difficult to make both ends meet, now we are able to earn enough to meet the expenses but not enough to save,” says Dhawar Bhai, who owns 200 sheep.

His wife, Karmi ben, helps him and also does embroidery with mirror work.

“For now I am doing it only for use by family members but am hopeful that after experience and exposure, and if there are buyers, she may even think in terms of earning some money from this art.”

Some of the namdharis who had lost work after the earthquake of 2001 are making products from desi oon for KHAMIR, earning ₹20,000 to ₹25000 a month.

There are an estimated seven crore sheep in India, which is the third largest in the world. There is no dearth of wool but with people more inclined to buy readymade stuff, the herders were throwing away the sheep wool, says Paresh Mangaliya, Deputy Director, KHAMIR. So, the first challenge was to get women involved in making thread from the sheep wool. Today about a hundred women get wages by doing this work.

But it is more challenging to market products made from desi oon, says Mangaliya. “The wool from Kutch, unlike from Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, is rough. We have tried several natural methods to soften it but without much success. That is why we started giving training in making products from this indigenous wool and we are trying to help them market these products. We have tried to create a value chain starting from herder to spinner, dyer and weaver so that all of them are able to earn some money.”

Mangaliya also talked about little-known properties of the indigenous wool from Kutch. It may be coarse but it is warm in winters and cool in summers. It does not absorb stains, does not sweat much, is biodegradable and keeps the skin dry and cool, says Mangaliya. KHAMIR has set up facility centres for different craft from Kutch at a campus in Kupma, near Bhuj, funded by the government.

But the question is whether these artisans will be able to sustain without hand-holding by an NGO.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi

Published on February 08, 2020

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