Thursday, 8 March 2012

Crafts: Judy Frater ~ Weaving the threads of life

Detail from a felt-couching workshop at Kala Raksha, 2009
Judy Frater at her brilliant crafts archive in Bhuj

(Update: Though this article was written in 2001, the images are from a 2009 trip to Kala Raksha at Sumraser Sheikh in Bhuj. They now have a design school for artisans.)  

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FLASHBACK to 1970. A young American exchange student of fine arts from Wisconsin arrives in India to study advanced batik techniques, but draws a blank. Soon, she chances upon a mirrored piece of embroidery in Baroda. Enchanted, she travels to Kutch in Gujarat to find out more about its artisans and their craft.

“That’s what I’ve been pursuing for the last 30 years,” says anthropologist Judy Frater, picking up the strands of the story. The author of ‘Threads of Identity’, a seminal study of Rabari embroidery, today she’s woven her life into those of the artisans of Kutch. In 1993, she helped to set up the Kala Raksha Trust to revitalise their crafts through artisans’ cooperatives.

Today, the trust has 350 women with a turnover of Rs 25 lakh. At the Asia Pacific Regional Embroidery Forum at Hyderabad in January, organised by the Crafts Council of India, Frater engages scholars, students and artisans alike with her presentation on “Rabari embroidery: Chronicle of tradition and identity in a changing world.” Through it, she demonstrates how stitch, colour, pattern and motif can help to “trace 10 centuries of Rabari adaptation, a history otherwise largely unwritten”.

With two Master’s degrees based on her Rabari research, Frater unspools the skeins that first took her into the lives of the largely nomadic camel-herders: “I studied Rabari embroideries as a way of knowing about their lives. When you want to talk to people, it’s best to choose something familiar, comfortable and concrete.”

In 1990, a Fulbright grant brought Frater back to India. This time, she opted to research the Suf embroidery of Kutch, done by the Maru Meghwal community, traditionally low-caste leather workers, who had relocated from Sind.
“Since they were refugees from Pakistan, they had had a definite break in their tradition,” Frater notes. “They are making a conscious effort to hang onto something of their identity and tradition. They said to me: ‘Why are you studying us? Why don’t you help us?’ So I thought: why do we study in the first place if it’s not to help preserve? If we’re studying a tradition and meantime see it dying, what’s the use of it?”

Frater observes, “You can’t think about crafts without people.” That links her intrinsically with Lachhuben, 40, and Hariyaben, 35, both a part of Kala Raksha, who speaks of ‘Judyben’ with affection.

Amidst wraparound skirts and bead-studded jackets at the Kala Raksha bazaar at Hyderabad, Frater and her rustic friends delight in each other’s company. How can the gap between the academic perceptions of embroidery and the crafts practitioners be bridged? “One has to educate the public to appreciate these traditions, which should lead to fair payment,” explains Frater.
“Then, designers need to be educated about traditional patterns, so that they don’t feel arrogant or treat artisans like labourers. Thirdly, artisans need to learn the worth of their craft.”

Frater, who’s done a three-year stint as associate curator of the reputed Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. is the curator of a museum of embroidery at Sumraser Sheikh, 25 km from Bhuj.
What makes this museum special? “We have engaged the women in creating the museum and documenting the textiles,” explains Frater. “I wish I had the resources in Washington that I have here, where you can get very accurate, detailed information from the artisans themselves. You’re not guessing.”
Besides contributing to the design inputs, the artisans escort visitors around the museum, recreating their lives. And they often turn to its library to explore different worlds. A committee made up members from the community prices each article marketed collectively.

Lachhuben: the earthy soul of Kala Raksha.
An Italian designer leads a workshop on site

Kala Raksha has also brought about unusual social interaction among its diverse communities — including the Rabaris, the Maru Meghwal, and the Garasia Jats, who are Muslim pastoralists.
Fashion, notes Frater with a laugh, has made inroads into village India. “These young girls love it,” she says. “They’re constantly coming up with creative ideas. Now, everyone’s using sequins. Lachhuben was saying, ‘Oh my God! Look at what she’s doing to the veil, encrusting it with so much embroidery! We had very simple ones’.”

Revealing the depth of her rural engagement, Frater shares an anecdote, “Recently, in Mumbai, Lachhuben’s daughter, 18-year-old daughter Monghi, wore one of our new jackets. Maybe it was one that she had done herself.

She very proudly paraded around, giggling. She looked wonderful! When they put it on, they know how it feels. It’s one way to get in touch with the market.”

Stemming from caring about her friends in rural Kutch, Frater suggests a revolutionary idea, “What I would like to have is a National Institute of Design for artisans. There’s much more potential in training these traditional artists to become designers than in training designers to understand the craft. But it won’t work because there’s no money in it, and so many social barriers.”

A shawl weaver from Bhujodi, who graduated from the Kala Raksha design school

How does Frater feel about her integration into the world of Kutch embroidery? “Since Kala Raksha, I have more of a give-and-take relationship,” admits Frater. “I have such a valuable position now because I’m on the inside. I feel I can be a voice for the artisans,” she adds.

Today, Lachhuben and hundreds of other women embroiderers in Kutch recognise that they have a friend in Judy Frater — a friend who identifies with every thread of their tradition.

(Originally written for the Women's Feature Service in 2001) 

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