Embroidered quilt by Kalbelia women.
Embroidered quilt by Kalbelia women.

Crafting Futures: Helping create livelihoods for nomadic communities

Vadodara, January 16, 2023

The pandemic months kept people off the streets, working from home. But what happened to those whose home as well as work place was the street?

The Denotified and Nomadic Tribes (DNT communities) in India (about 10% of the population) are spread across urban and rural areas. Traditionally, they have no land holdings (being nomadic), moving from one village to the next pitching akeshift plastic tents on the outskirts.

If they are in an urban area, then the street is home (unless they are in their bastis, often illegal, always in the fear of the bull dozer). As a result, almost none of them are able to get a valid Aadhar Card as they cannot register a home address, and hence remain out of the safety net of possessing a Ration Card, a bank account, any kind of insurance or provident fund or other government schemes for the BPL communities.

It was by chance that just a few months before the COVID pandemic enveloped us, the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre, Vadodara, had undertaken a study with five participant organisations to map the DNT communities in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh to document, study and understand their socio-economic and educational status.

The study was supported by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, India, and it continued during the pandemic, however, at a slower pace.

However, the pandemic had left the communities the organisations were working with in miserable conditions. Their usual livelihoods – usually begging, doing karamat (street-side entertainment shows such as balancing acts, etc.), selling stuff at traffic lights, and so on – were no longer possible as there were nobody on the streets to beg from or perform for.

So the organisations first accessed funding that could help the families in need with rations, fresh vegetables, simple medicines.

During the ration relief drive, two projects were conceived to provide sustainable livelihood opportunities, especially to the women in two DNT communities – the Kalbelia and the Madari. Men in both communities were snake-charmers, known for their skill in catching snakes and presenting street performances with live snakes; they also doubled as magicians.

However, the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 put an end to their skill with snakes as well as associated income-generating activities such as drawing venom, creating antidotes for snake bites (sold to the poor in rural areas) and so on. These women already had inherent skills in crafts that could be further strengthened.

The Kalbelia women, generally dressed in black, are known for their gymnastic Sapera dances where they can turn and twist their bodies to musical rhythm. They are also excellent with the needle and thread creating graphic, geometrical quilts of ethereal beauty.

During the pandemic, the Kalbelia women took their own tradition of quilting forward and created the most fantastic embroidered quilts, using a variety of stitches and coloured threads, exhibiting an intensely developed sensibility of design and colour combination, of skill with the needle and thread, and of the ability to visualize a stretch of fabric and work creatively around it. They also created a variety of bags, cushion covers, table cloths, baby pillows and so on.

In Ahmedabad, a project of teaching Madari women the skills of crocheting and braiding was started with the help of Budhan Theatre, while in Bundi, Rajasthan, the Kalbelia Craft Revival Project was started with the help of the Kota Heritage Society.

Both the projects have been able to successfully strengthen the existing craft skills of women and offered them opportunities for better livelihood generation in the contemporary craft bazaar. Their work was recently exhibited at the India International Centre Annexe Gallery, New Delhi and at the Satya Gallery, Navjeevan Campus, Ahmedabad.

The livelihood project at Ramol, Ahmedabad, started with a basic survey by Dr. Suman Pandey to document existing skills of the Madari women. Bhasha then took the support of retired NID teacher, Prof. Errol Pires, known for his own braiding skills, who was the mentor for this project.

His wife, Seema, a retired school teacher and excellent at crocheting, as well as Errol’s student, Shubhra Singh, very skilled at braiding, took over the challenge of training the identified 16 Madari women over a period of one year.

Kajalben and her family offered their home as the space for classes. It had a fan and a cooler that was a relief in the Ahmedabad summer scorcher days in the basti.

At the height of the second terrible pandemic wave, Soniaben Madari was trained to teach other women of her community online, using their mobile phones, so they do not get together.

Their household responsibilities such as collecting firewood, cooking, fetching water, taking and bringing their children to and from school, looking after theelderly and other health emergencies, and of course, the celebrations of marriages and festivals, often regularly interrupted the classes but the "students" came back re-charged and with smiling faces.

Many women bought the raw materials, largely wool, by themselves and created a variety of crocheted products for their family members!

While crocheting was picked up with ease, braiding was a painstaking and slow technique, requiring hard work, discipline and focus at all stages of work. A few women opted out, preferring crochet work. Amid delays, enthusiasm appeared and eventually rose. Almost everyone attempted to make at least one of each kind of the designs taught by Shubhra.

In between, the women’s group also worked on a technique which identifies with their own culture and has been a means of expression as a part of their tradition, also called Bharat (for decorating glass bottles and ceremonial objects). The only difference brought about through this initiative has been the change in the materials, more suited for the urban markets.

These women were able to create various articles of decorative and functional use with the help of the newly learned crochet and braiding techniques. Bhasha will continue to mentor them to further develop their skills as per the market demand and collaboration with designers.

In the meanwhile, the Project Coordinator, M. Sharif Malek worked with local lawyers to save the Madari settlements from being demolished with the Gujarat High Court putting a stay on the demolition and their relocation.

All the 16 Madari women say in one voice, “Whatever we have learnt during the training session will be very useful in our life. We will continue to work hard so that we are successful and get recognized for our work”.

Sandhya Bordewekar writes on contemporary art, architecture, heritage, food and life in general.

All photos courtesy of Bhasha Research and Publication Centre.


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