Translate page with Google

Story Publication logo February 13, 2024

Portraits From the Heart of Kutch's Craft Communities



Craftswork is an essential part of cultural heritage and identity for women across Kutch, India...


A Rabari woman stitches an appliqué quilt. Image by Taja Mazaj. India, 2023.

Craftswork is an essential part of cultural heritage and identity for women across Kutch, India. Will the art be able to withstand social and economic upheavals?

Inside, around 25 women are crammed together in a small stone room, knees hugged to their chests to make room for the constant flow of people coming in and out. In the middle of the room, there’s a metal bowl filled with loose rupees and coins, accounting journals thick with notes and calculations, and hand drawn sketches spilling out of a three-ring binder. The women pass around patches of embroidered fabric, mosaics of deep reds, blues, and oranges, painstakingly symmetrical and impossibly intricate. Each woman carefully examines each stitch, loop, twist, and knot, occasionally making swift surgical alterations with a sewing needle. 

Soon, the room is filled with cacophonous discussion and piles upon piles of embroidered pieces to match. One group of women discusses payments with a representative from the producer company: A community wedding is coming up, they say—can’t they get an advance on this month’s payment? They’ll need it for the festivities, and most importantly, the wedding jewelry. Another group talks shop: The representative explains that the tapestry design hasn’t been selling well this month, but the pillowcase design has been a huge hit. They’ll need to sell more of those.

Outside, it’s storming with an overwhelming intensity. Every so often, a loud clap of thunder shakes the room and silences the conversation for a moment before it swells again. After three hours, the craftswomen and the producer company have gone through dozens of sketches, chatted about the weather and their animals, admired the girls’ new dresses, distributed payments, and planned next month’s orders. 

As a nonprofit journalism organization, we depend on your support to fund more than 170 reporting projects every year on critical global and local issues. Donate any amount today to become a Pulitzer Center Champion and receive exclusive benefits!

From this small room in the village of Nakhatrana in the state of Gujarat, the embroidered fabric travels to the producer company in Bhuj, Gujarat. The company collaborates with many more communities of women like this one, and works with manufacturers to transform their pieces into marketable products: bedsheets, sarees, dupattas, pillowcases, tapestries, handbags. The final product—once a small patch of fabric stitched by a woman on the floor of her home—is then sent to retailers across India and the world. This is the new life of one of India’s richest and most storied cultural traditions.

The shifting landscape of Kutch 

In Kutch district, craftswork was once something practiced within community, often among the villages’ women. A labor of love, both the practice of craft and the craft itself was an essential part of these communities’ identities, with the products—be it a woven blanket or embroidered dress—used for cultural celebrations, dowries, and everyday wear. 

But from the 1960s to 1980s, the interpersonal nature of craftswork started to shift: severe droughts along with devastating natural disasters—including a 2001 earthquake that killed nearly 20,000—completely uprooted the traditional pastoralist and cattle-herding livelihoods of Kutch. Faced with extreme economic hardship and an uncertain future, many communities settled down, and women took to selling their craft through intermediaries to make ends meet. 

Over the next few decades, the lives of Kutch’s women changed dramatically: As many nomadic communities settled permanently, women and families took various wage labor jobs. Environmental degradation and natural disasters altered their migration routes and the kinds of cattle they raised. Social and gender dynamics shifted. With marketization taking hold in the region, women’s empowerment nonprofits began to partner with women to help sell their crafts—both to revitalize the rich tradition, and to develop a more ethical business model for India’s nascent craftswork industry.

Kutch is situated in a flat desert landscape. Image by Taja Mazaj. India, 2023.

With languages and traditions rapidly becoming extinct, there is an increasing fear of entire cultures dying out. But what happens in the in-between space—when a culture stays alive, despite everything, to witness the changes of the modern world? 

If the handicraft markets on the streets of Kutch are any indication, craftswork has survived the social tumult of the last quarter-century. At the same time, in craftswork’s transition from cultural expression to commercial product, something fundamental about the art form has been altered: What was once a craft made by and for these women, and an essential element of their cultural identity, has now become a commercial product sold to distant consumers across the globe. Craftswork has survived, but much has been lost in the process.

An ancient art form’s journey to the global market 

Rabari Madhuben with a partially-finished embroidered blanket. A piece of this size takes her around four days to complete. It will then be sent to a producer company. Image by Taja Mazaj. India, 2023.

Rabari Madhuben sits outside of her house, a large black quilt draped across her lap. She holds a needle in her hand, and with slight movements she stitches small geometric cuttings of fabric into the blanket. Two women—Rabari Pabiben and Rabari Jeevaben sit at her feet, chatting and sorting through the extra fabric and threads. Finished pieces lie in a pile on their doorstep, the small mirrored charms catching the afternoon sun.

Madhuben loves to embroider. “It’s always been in our community,” she says. “We learned from our mothers, and our mothers from their mothers. That’s how it’s always happened.

Madhuben, Pabiben, and Jeevaben are Dhebariya Rabaris (a sub-group of the Rabaris). For centuries, the Rabaris, a historically nomadic community, traveled across Gujarat and Rajasthan raising and selling cattle, camels, and goats. For a people constantly on the move, embroidery represented a vital and vivid articulation of their identity, uniquely tethered to their histories.

“You can often tell the exact village Kutch women come from just by looking at their embroidery,” explains Arjun (surname was not provided), who is working to catalog and preserve the craftswork tradition in Gujarat with the nonprofit Shrujan. In each stitch is a self-contained almanac of these respective communities’ cultures, histories, and identities: the mirrored depictions of Krishna in the Ahir pastoralist group's craft an assertion of their faith, while the earth-toned embroidery of another pastoralist group, the Jats, echoes the desert they call home.

Samples of traditional embroidery motifs used by archivists and researchers working to catalog craft traditions. Image by Taja Mazaj. India, 2023.

The Rabaris’ embroidery is as much a testament to their history as it is a testament to their artistic prowess, featuring kaleidoscopic, stylized motifs of camels, elephants, and peacocks sewn in their unmistakably bright color palette. “We can’t just sell it,” Arjun says. “There is an oral history, a tradition coming through this embroidery. We want to understand it.”

Embroidery covers the Rabaris’ blouses, cascades down their thick black dupattas, traces the hems of their skirts, hangs on their walls, and drapes across their animals. The family newborn lies beside Madhuben as she speaks, already cradled in an embroidered blanket.

Aside from being a distinctive element of their identity, embroidery was also an intimate part of their daily lives, a form of cultural knowledge passed down between generations of women. When Madhuben’s mother taught her embroidery, they never sold their work—but the world that she and other elder Indian craftswomen now occupy has proven to be profoundly different from the one they grew up in. 

Madhuben and other women in her village began selling their work through a producer cooperative 10 years ago. Over time, they saw embroidery become less prevalent in their community: fabric and thread, which they once traded with other communities, grew prohibitively expensive at local markets. And since women depended on income from daily wage labor, they often lost the leisure time to practice their craft. Commercialization made craftswork a productive financial activity for women—in many ways, this is what has allowed the craft to endure through times of change and struggle. 

Rajuben, Meghuben, and Sejuben have been working with Khamir to revive weaving in their community. Image by Taja Mazaj. India, 2023.

Nonprofits and cooperatives have also made significant strides in revitalizing craftswork, cataloging the forms and history of craft and teaching it to women who no longer practice. Traditionally, Rajuben Rabari’s family practiced kala cotton weaving, but due to the proliferation of cheap, fast machine weaving in the 20th century, she never learned how to weave. (Kala cotton is a pure, organic form of cotton indigenous to Kutch.) However, a producer collective taught her how to weave, and she’s been weaving—and selling—kala cotton wool for the past seven years. In a world dominated by fast fashion and mass production, it’s rare to see a story of relative resilience in such a local, labor-intensive production like craftswork.

Fears of a fading identity 

There is, however, a fine line between maintaining cultural heritage and meeting the demands and desires of the market. Meenaben Raste, who works with Qasab, a craftswork cooperative in Kutch, says that craftswork nonprofits constantly toe this line: “Consumers crave certain designs, and usually more Western clothing. We give women agency over their designs, but at the end of the day, you’re selling a product.” 

Walking through the kaleidoscopic street markets of Kutch, it’s evident that the craft has lost some of its traditional heart: In place of cholis are trendy handbags, and some clothing is traditional in cut but with a modern, minimalist embroidered touch. Even the quilt draped across Madhuben’s lap as she speaks features muted grays and browns and a modern, simplistic floral pattern, a stark contrast from the vivid abstraction of the toran hanging in her door frame.

While the women’s traditional craft might not align with the aesthetic sensibilities of the market, Raste isn’t worried about the craft changing too much, or becoming commercialized to the point of being unrecognizable. “What people don’t understand,” she says, “is that craftswork is always changing in India. Craft reflects these women’s worlds, and the world never stays the same.”

Even just meeting women from a different community and becoming inspired by their work could cause their embroidery style to change. Now, written into their art is a narrative of environmental, social, and economic change—a world at once vastly different from the one they once knew, but still marked with a comforting continuity.

Women embroidering kurtas in the suf style of stitching for a craftswork non-governmental organization (NGO). Image by Taja Mazaj. India, 2023.

The ability to continue practicing their craft despite these upheavals has been a source of pride for these women. “Yes, there was a need to earn something,” Jeevaben says. “But we also wanted to make a name for ourselves.”

Many women no longer practice the craft for themselves anymore—it’s become a time-consuming, expensive process, one that they would prefer to be paid for. “In our community, embroidery is not being worn as much,” Jeevaben says with simple resignation. “But at least it’s out there in the world, and someone is wearing it.”

It’s bittersweet: with a cultural identity now mediated through the market, craftswomen are still able to practice their art, but no longer for themselves. Many women, especially in younger generations, have started to buy cheaper, mass-produced fabric from local vendors to make their clothes, and slowly, the distinctive hand-woven, hand-dyed, and hand-sewn clothing has begun to fade away. 

“Our children look very different from us,” Sejuben, another Rabari craftswoman, says. She waves toward two children around the age of 8, dressed in branded t-shirts and cotton pants. “If they were to leave town, no one would know where they are from.”

While Madhuben loves the opportunity to spend time embroidering, she believes she isn’t getting paid enough. One day of work—a 9-5 schedule—pays only 300 rupees (approximately $3.50). “Even though our rates have increased from when we first started, it hasn’t made a difference,” Madhuben says. “It’s not a lot for the kind of work that we do.”

In addition, their pieces are often sold as luxury products, priced high enough that the craftswomen could not afford to buy their own work. By the time the women’s embroidery reaches larger retailers, their pieces can sell for nearly 12,000 rupees (equivalent to around $145). 

A Jat woman sits with a traditionally embroidered dress. Image by Taja Mazaj. India, 2023.

Jeevaben says that since she started selling her craft with a producer cooperative, she’s taught dozens of other women embroidery. “But people only do it when they are in need of money,” she says, dispassionately waving her hands.

And when women are really in need of money, she says, they turn to agricultural work or tailoring: Both are less intensive, more reliable, and more lucrative. They also get paid immediately after a day of work, as opposed to craftswork, where they are only paid after they have completed a piece. Since many of these women rely on money they earn from daily wage labor, there’s not much room for the unreliable and inconsistent nature of the craftswork market.

Apart from immense financial pressures, craftswork is also subject to class- and caste-based stigma. A traditional and non-lucrative craft, many—especially those now living in urban areas—consider it to be an inherently lower-caste and lower-class industry, and the product of a bygone era. Dharaab (surname was not provided), a fellow with the producer cooperative Khamir, recounts a time when the collective hosted a workshop for children to learn how to use a weaving loom: “A group of parents came to the school and marched to the classroom, asking us to stop. The father of one of these children was aggravated, saying to us, ‘This is a waste of time! I send my kids to school to learn, not to play with toys!’” 

“Our traditions are fading, and they will soon disappear,” Madhuben says with a surprising frankness. As more and more children go to school, move out, and get jobs, she explains, the less involved they are with their cultural heritage. Combine that with class anxieties and an unstable economy, and very few in the younger generation are holding the torch. “We have an identity from our embroidery work,” Madhuben says. “If the craft disappears, we will lose that.”

Inside the designer’s workshop for a craftswork NGO. Image by Taja Mazaj. India, 2023.

'This is the modern life' 

The women speak with a certain stoicism, but there is an undercurrent of nostalgia and sadness when they talk about the past.

“Life was better before we settled down,” Meghuben says. “We had assets. We had animals. If we needed something, we could get it. Now, we only earn enough to fill our stomachs.”

Their lives are different now: no longer in the same profession, no longer traveling, no longer dressed in the same clothes. Indeed, their craft is physically alive on the clothes of women across India. And thanks to the work of women’s organizations and archivists, the memory of craftswork is likely to live on well into the future. 

But the future of craftswork itself hinges upon the future of craftswomen. So far, the story of craftswork over the past few decades has been one of endurance against the tide: Communities like the Rabaris have lost their animals and nomadic lifestyles, and their traditional dress and customs are slowly disappearing. They still practice their craft, but they must sell it. If craftswork once reflected their own oral history and tradition, it now reflects the constantly changing demands of the market. In a literal sense, little truly belongs to them.

Even if these women have been alienated from the identity in their art, it’s clear that they still hold great pride in their work. But now that their craft has been integrated into the market, it needs to be a realistic economic recourse for women if it will continue to be practiced in the future. Will young women be given a consistent, livable wage comparable to the one they might receive from tailoring or farming? Likewise, will these women feel proud enough of their heritage and supported enough to continue learning craftswork? 

The story of Kutch’s culture is not a cut-and-dry struggle between death and perseverance. It’s clear that the artform is fighting to stay alive, but women—especially the young generations—are inevitably being pulled in other directions. 

A girl in the village, Geeta, sits beside Madhuben. Her skin is bare from the small traditional tattoos that cover the arms and necks of the older women. Her head is uncovered and her hair is loose, and she wears a hot pink polyester blend sweater with sweatpants. “We don’t like these changes,” Madhuben says, “but we are not sad about it. This is the modern life.” 

Part of their identity was left behind when the women settled; they feel parts still slipping away when they see their daughters in Western clothing, no longer practicing craft, and growing up in a world radically different than the one they once knew. In the warp and weft of these women's lives, no change has been straightforward. And yet, despite the anxieties and uncertainties, Madhuben feels good about the future and what it might bring.

Two girls walk in their village in Anjar. Image by Taja Mazaj. India, 2023.

Geeta, 17, is the first in her family to start school. She hopes to become a nurse so she can help people. School is her favorite part of the week, a welcome respite from her typical day at home where she wakes up at 5am, does chores while her parents are working, cares for the younger children, fetches water and food, prepares breakfast and lunch, and tends to her family’s cattle.

Even though she’s part of the newer generation, dressing and living in ways that would be unrecognizable to her ancestors, she makes sure to carve out time each day for embroidery, a skill her mother taught her at a young age. Out of her friends in her village, she is the only one who knows how to embroider. I ask her why she does it. “Because I like it,” she responds. “I embroider because I like having something that belongs to me.” 

Editor's note: Interviews translated from Kutchi, Gujarati, and Hindi with the help of Sourav Roy and Kutch Mahila Vikas Sanghathan. It is customary to include the surname before the first name.


Three women grouped together: an elderly woman smiling, a transwoman with her arms folded, and a woman holding her headscarf with a baby strapped to her back.


Gender Equality

Gender Equality
teal halftone illustration of a construction worker holding a helmet under their arm


Labor Rights

Labor Rights




Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues