A stitch in time...

A stitch in time...

Needle power

A stitch in time...

The garments and artefacts catch the eye as they hang in the Sadhna showroom in the old Udaipur locality of Fatehpura — dupattas of every hue, kurtas for every size, soft quilts and coverlets made of the finest cotton, handicrafts fashioned out of cloth. Look at the products more closely and the simple, fine hand work that has gone into them becomes apparent.

Tiny running stitches embellish the yoke of a kurti, colourful appliqué work runs along the length of a dupatta, painstaking patchwork animates a quilt. Whose hands have plied the needle to create these objects of beauty and comfort? Behind that question lies a tale of hard work, entrepreneurship and institution building.

Leela Vijaynergia, chief executive of Sadhna, traces its evolution, “The year 1988 was a period of great distress in Rajasthan because of persistent drought. The men had migrated for work but often couldn’t send enough money home and the women left behind were desperate to make a little extra to keep their families going. That was why Seva Mandir, the Udaipur-based organisation working on social issues, thought of providing an income-generating programme for women. It was called the Patchwork Programme because much of the work centred on patchwork.”

Reflecting traditions

That first group comprised 15 women. Today, that group has evolved into a trust called Sadhna and currently represents 700 women artisans in 16 urban, peri-urban and rural locations in the Rajasthan districts of Udaipur and Rajsamand. Each artisan is an owner member of the organisation, participating in its decision-making process through a representative.

Sadhna’s products reflect the age-old traditions of local women. They may not have much formal education, but the one skill they possess is sewing. Priya Khan, social manager, explains, “Traditionally, quilting and running stitch were very much a part of the domestic scene in these parts. Razais (quilts), bedcovers, dupattas and other household knick-knacks were made from old cloth placed one layer over the other and stitched together. We built on that base. Every Sadhna member first undergoes a three-month training programme and learns to use finer, neater stitches for a better finish.”

But tradition had to combine with modernity because Sadhna’s products cater to the urban market. “What we chose to develop was also based on the fact that  Udaipur is a centre for tourism. Today, all our work revolves around three crafts — the running stitch, appliqué work and patchwork, using natural fibres as well as natural dyes,” Vijaynergia points out.

As the institution changed, so did the women. Manjula Singh, design executive, recalls how, in the early days, the women artisans hid themselves behind their saris and would not step out of their homes. “But as they earned and interacted with others, as their status within the family grew because of the income, they got transformed. Earnings are related to the time the women can spare for sewing, ranging from Rs 200 to 5,000 a month.

Nowadays, some artisans ride scooters and report that their husbands help them with household chores — something that was unthinkable earlier. They have also learnt to operate their own bank accounts and participate in exhibitions during which they handle material worth lakhs of rupees. On a couple of occasions, Sadhna’s artisans have even participated in fashion shows, and have done this with the panache of true runway ranis!

“We have tried to make this organisation as representative as possible,” states Vijaynergia. In order to do this, Sadhna’s 700 women artisans are divided into 49 groups, each of which has a leader. These leaders are part of the organisation’s management committee and participate in the decision-making process. They also ensure that the material to be sewn reaches the women in the community.

Stitch by stitch, as the organisation grew, it ensured that norms were followed,  including the strict ban on child labour. Most of the artisans are between the ages of 25 to 40. In 2011-12, Sadhna had a sales figure of Rs 3.35 crore, with 60 per cent of all profits going to the artisans directly.
While Sadhna’s head office is in Udaipur it has an equally large presence in Dilwara, in Rajsamand district.

Visit Dilwara around mid-day and chances are that you will find many women sitting in the courtyards of their homes, plying their needle. Just like Sita Devi, 38, along with her sister-in-law, Sangeeta, who sit together, tracing chalk lines with a fine running stitch, even as Sangeeta’s eight-month-old toddler mewls and coos in one corner of the courtyard.

“I sit down to my work after the morning chores are done. Our leader is Laxmi and she brings us work. I work for six to seven hours a day — not at a stretch, but off and on, as time permits,” reveals Sita.

Earlier, she was very dependent on the money that her husband, an autorickshaw driver in Ahmedabad, used to send. Not anymore. Last month, she received a sum of Rs 5,970 in her bank account, thanks to the Sadhna work. The money is useful to cope with everyday expenses. “There are always needs to be met,” says Sita. “Recently, I got my elder daughter married. Now I want to build two rooms in my house.”

Accidents sometimes happen. A cow once chewed on a piece of cloth Sangeeta was working on, which led to the loss of a month’s earnings. “Now, I am very careful and keep the work away from stray animals and children.” she smiles. There are also occupational hazards associated with sewing, like deteriorating eyesight. Conscious of this, Sadhna provides free spectacles and access to ophthalmic care.

Vijaynergia and her colleagues would like to scale up Sadhna’s operations, but they have to contend with multiple challenges, ranging from caste and gender barriers to resource constraints and a capricious market in recessionary times. But they are also acutely conscious that income generation is not the only reason for the existence of an organisation like Sadhna — it is also about empowering ordinary women. Women like Sita Devi who, because of her association with Sadhna, can now keep her aspirations alive. Says she, “All I have is my needle and my ability to stitch. With this, I have been able to re-build my life.”