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Tales told in tapestry

The Okhamandal region in Gujarat, painted in earthy shades of brown, simmers in the hot sun perennially. The vast expanse of barren land is interrupted only by scattered villages, thorny shrubs and the occasional camel cart. In this mono-hued scenery, sitting outside their humble dwellings are small groups of tribal women. They create a stark contrast to the austere surroundings with their brightly coloured pieces of cloth, over which they are bent, fingers swiftly employing needle and thread to weave an intricate and traditional tale on fabric.

These hardy women are members of tribes such as the Vaghadis, the Ahirs and the Rabaris and communities such as the Lohanas and Harijans. They use age-old skills to embellish their clothes with appliqué, embroidery, beads and such. The walls of their huts are decorated with appliquéd and richly embroidered wall hangings, and their work, depicting human figures, birds and animals, is a vibrant expression of their way of life, their rituals and legends.

Their special talent and skill was given a much-needed fillip in 2002 by the Tata Chemicals Society for Rural Development (TCSRD), which started a handicraft development project with just 25 women members. This small group has now grown into an empowering brand called Okhai (meaning ‘from Okhamandal’).

It has been a remarkable and deeply satisfying journey for the women as they now stand proud and self-sufficient. Alka Talwar, head of community development at Tata Chemicals, explains: “Okhamandal is a droughtprone area and some of the local tribes, which depend on agriculture, almost
always face harsh times. We started promoting the skills of these women in an endeavour to provide them an alternate source of income and reduce their dependence on farming.”

Okhai is promoted by TCSRD through self-help groups (SHGs) in the villages of Okhamandal. The women are also trained in teamwork, quality, marketing basics and costing parameters. Today, 17 villages are involved in Okhai and more than 450 women have benefited from it.

Ramiben, who has been an active member of the Okhai family for many years, has been able to convert her dream of having her own home into reality. She took a loan of Rs50,000 from her SHG and is repaying it with the money she makes at Okhai. Her day begins at 5am. After finishing her household tasks, she goes to the Okhai centre at Mithapur to work with the product design and development team; her skills in creating new designs have enhanced Okhai’s products. Her work with Okhai has helped build her selfconfidence — Ramiben has not only hosted the International Women’s Day celebrations at Mithapur, she has also been able to speak at state level forums, addressing more than 40,000 women.

In Arambhda village, more than 50 women are active members and each SHG earns about Rs20,000 a month. When Sabhaiben’s husband was incapacitated for nearly five years after a fall at a construction site, she joined an SHG in Arambhda and learnt to make appliqué patterns. It was the money earned from Okhai which saw the household through those difficult days. Today, although her husband is back at work, she continues to work at Okhai and uses the income of Rs1,000 per month to educate her two sons. Sabhaiben, who has studied up to class VII, maintains records and accounts for the women in her SHG with remarkable efficiency. She is familiar with banking operations and helps her Okhaite companions with the tracking of bills, signing of vouchers and savings account operations. Each member of an SHG receives a card with a code number. This card records the details of all the work each member does, which helps in deciding each woman’s share in the profits when they are earned.

Over the year, an efficient system has been put in place to streamline production. The cut cloth is sent to the women at their villages, along with a work kit, and then picked up when the work is done. “This allows them to work in their village environment, at a time of their choice,” says Ms Talwar.

Khatijaben, one of the oldest members of the Okhai team, is responsible for preparing work kits for members at the village level. She ensures that each kit contains the required fabric, thread, mirrors, etc. She is also in charge of quality control at the centre. A single parent to her only child and the sole earning member of the family, her income from her work at Okhai has given her and her child a better life and a promise for a better future.

Learning is a constant at the Okhai centre in Mithapur. “Quality and timely delivery are issues that we are working on. We have realised that giving incentives for on-time delivery and good quality works better than cutting payments for bad-quality products,” says Ms Talwar.

Another stimulus has been training programmes. Okhai recently sent 50 women to the reputed National Institute of Fashion Technology to enhance their stitching, garment-making, finishing and cutting skills. One of them, Zareena Kureishi, now trains others with the skills she has acquired. This has improved the quality of their work, which is now comparable with the best available in shops in urban areas.

The range of products has also expanded from traditional items such as bedcovers, tablecloths, cushion covers and wall hangings, to kurtas, shawls, skirts, aprons, carry bags and mobile phone covers. Designers guide the women in the current fashions and trends, for instance, shirts with appliqué work or short kurtis.

The success of this initiative is backed by impressive accomplishments: sales in 2007 touched Rs23 lakh (five times that of sales in 2003), and the first retail outlet of Okhai opened in July 2008 at Ahmedabad. There are plans for more outlets in the future. Exhibitions held across India not only help market and sell Okhai’s products but also spread awareness about the traditional crafts of the region and give them much wider exposure.

Taking this programme to the next level, TCSRD, with the support of Tata Chemicals, is now promoting it as a new organisation: Okhai – Centre for Empowerment. The focus is on Okhai as an innovative social enterprise which will provide empowering opportunities to many more women in many more villages in the region