The following post is part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. The rest of the posts are presented here.
By Dhaval Shah
The Indian media was recently abuzz over an elderly tribal woman from Gujarat, Hansibaben, sashaying down the runway hand-in-hand with the famous Bollywood film actress Sharmila Tagore at a fashion show in New Delhi. Hansibaben’s traditionally embroidered purple floating silk skirt was a striking contrast to Sharmila Tagore’s more modern red silk sari. It was an unusual sight, not least because of Hansibaben’s age, 92 at the time. The fashion show was intended to launch a new collection under the brand Hansiba, named after and inspired by Hansibaben herself.
Hansiba had a different brand name (Banascraft) some 10 years ago when I walked into the store the very first time in my hometown of Ahmedabad, India. I was immediately charmed by the colorful display of intricate handcrafted embroidery on pillow covers, decorative wall-hangings and silk kurtas. The needlework was simple, yet elegant, distinctive – and yes, expensive. At first I hesitated over whether to spend so much on an embroidered piece I really liked: a navy-blue and green wall-hanging with tiny mirrors. Then I read the price tag a bit more carefully and noticed that 65 percent of the proceeds went directly to the artisans, and the store itself was affiliated with SEWA, the Self-Employed Women’s Association.
Growing up in the Indian State of Gujarat, I had seen rural and mostly tribal embroidery work being sold at street markets. The dresses and decorative household items sold at these stalls were colorful but to my eye lacked in refinement and durability of material. They were not designed to appeal to the fashionable upscale urban consumer. Also, there was no organized effort to promote and sell these articles – I wondered who actually benefited from the sale: the rural women who made them or the middlemen?
The work sold at Banascraft, on the other hand, was clearly targeted towards the high-income urban consumer. They were made from more expensive and durable fabrics – silk and linen – and the embroidery work was more delicate, elegantly colorful, and rich in variety, including applique and patchwork. Not only did I buy the wall-hanging that had captivated me, but I left the store intrigued by the idea of an organization bringing rural traditional embroidery to the urban market, while simultaneously supporting the artisan women.
SEWA is an Indian trade union for women-workers who are self-employed. Back in 1972, a trade union for self-employed women was a revolutionary idea, and the Indian government initially rejected SEWA’s application to register by arguing that since there was no single recognized employer, the workers had no one to struggle against. SEWA made a successful case that the union was not necessarily against an employer but for the unity of women workers to provide them benefits and bargaining rights usually available to the organized workforce.
Since then SEWA has grown into an umbrella trade union of multiple sister organizations representing over 1.2 million members that include vendors, agriculture workers, potters, weavers and laborers. Hansiba itself is one such organization run entirely by its members, named after its first member Hansibaben. SEWA and Hansiba have become synonymous with the women’s empowerment movement in India.
The seeds of this movement were planted in the arid and drought-prone regions of the Indian State of Gujarat. Home to the Rabari and Ahir tribes, these areas lack regular employment, and the migration of men to urban centers for work make it difficult for the women who are left behind to support their families. The story of Puriben Ahir, from the northern district of Banaskantha, is representative of the struggle and choices these women face. She was contemplating migrating her family to the district capital, since work at the nearby government-run drought relief center was not sufficient to support them all. Migration would have forced her entire family into an urban slum, with no regular income to rely on. As a tribesperson, Puriben was skilled in traditional embroidery, which she used to mend her family’s clothes and home furnishings, but she had no idea how to market or commercialize her needlework. Through SEWA she has become economically self-reliant and is now an elected member of the organization’s executive committee. By utilizing SEWA’s Trade Facilitation Center training on product development, and through SEWA’s sales and marketing channels, Puriben’s work is being sold at Hansiba stores in New Delhi, Mumbai and Ahmedabad. What started with a single tribal woman, Hansibaben, as its first artisan member is now a network of over 15,000 women working under the namesake brand.
Since my first introduction to SEWA, Hansiba has continued to grow, with ambitions of becoming an international fashion brand. Hansiba’s embroidered goods have been introduced to designers around the world through Alba Collective of USA, itself a “woman-helping-woman” organization started at Harvard with a mission to protect the human rights of self-employed artisan women. Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to the Hansiba store in Mumbai provided publicity to SEWA’s craft and the philosophy behind it, attracting lucrative export opportunities. SEWA’s success is allowing thousands of rural tribal women like Puriben and Hansibaben from Gujarat and other parts of India to have a means of becoming economically self-reliant, empowered and in control over their own livelihood, simply by commercializing their traditional craft of embroidery.