Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
CRAFT: March 21, 1999
Strength through SEWA
The year 1984. On a certain day every week, in a particular spot, you could see a young woman sitting all by herself on the banks of the Gomti river as it flows through Lucknow town. The silence is broken only when the bells ring in the Hanuman temple way behind her. Sometimes she stops reading and switches on her transistor radio, hoping it will drown the wolf whistles that she is always afraid of attracting in her lone watch. She tries to be unobtrusive, casual, even invisible. But the hunched shoulders and tense limbs betray gnawing anxiety.
Downstream, a dhobi finishes washing and starching a mound of clothes. Spread out in the sun, the pastel muslins punctured by gossamer embroidery, look like the ethereal raiments of fairies. If you go closer, you can see an amazing range of motifs and stitches. The ulti bakhia or shadow work of threads criss-crossing on the underside; the tepchi, an almost reversibly fine stem stitch; the relief effect of phanda, murri and kangan - tiny stitches raising a circle at the centre; jaali, which breaks the fabric into lacy dots like a miniature lattice; daraz or applique.
The dhobi folds them quickly and leaves the bundle on the ghat. He walks away without a backward look.
With a studied unconcern, the woman gets up, strolls towards the bundle, picks it up and walks to her car. She drives away, knowing that she has the job of getting them ironed before they can be put to the use for which they were embroidered and tailored.
Why all this mystery over a bundle of washing, you ask. The reason can only be given by the woman herself. "We started the Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA) to help hapless women who were earning a pittance through chikan work. It was a hereditary craft practised by the most backward Muslim classes in Lucknow, but the workers were cruelly exploited by the mahajans or middlemen contractors. We wanted to take their work directly to the buyers. We wanted to ensure that the craftswomen got sufficient work at fair wages, and develop new markets for them. We wanted to train them in various areas from purchasing and production to sales and accounts, so that they could become self reliant. We wished to upgrade their craft skills and provide a strong platform from which they could bargain for higher wages with traders and manufacturers. But what an uphill task! And in ways we simply couldn't envisage!"
The biggest problem was that chikan work needed a professional finish in washing and ironing, a process known only to a group of washermen in Lucknow. Cowed by the middlemen, the dhobis refused to wash for SEWA. After a lot of persuasion, the dhobi chief undertook the job for surreptitious execution. And Runa Banerji, Chief Executive Officer of SEWA, had to wait on the banks of the Gomti to collect the washing!
Courtesy Ritu Kumar
Sehba Hussain, who had launched SEWA with Runa, details other hurdles. The printing of chikan designs was in the hands of a few master printers in the chowk. "They all refused to print for us. There was only one sympathetic printer, but he was afraid of reprisals by the powerful mahajans. We used to take our garments to him in the dead of night, using back lanes, so that no one could see us. Before the crack of dawn we would steal away with a week's supply of work for our members."
A distraught Runa confronted the dhobi one day and said, "How long can I sit alone on the riverbank? If you have the guts, join our struggle by open dealings with us. You are an old man, you are going to die soon anyway. So do something worthwhile that will be an example to others!" Chastened, the dhobi chief announced his open support and allotted three dhobis to SEWA, which now employs 28. Runa adds, "We have set up our own printing section."
There were threats more direct from telephone calls at all hours. One day a goonda rode up to the SEWA office on a mobike and pulled out a gun. "Have some tea," Runa countered, sipping her own and signalling for another cup.
"Have I come for tea?" he growled. "Stop interfering with the chikan trade and get out of town or I'll kill you."
"Come on, shoot me now," said Runa. "But you don't have the guts. Go back and tell whoever sent you that there are hundreds of Runas to take my place. You can't shoot them all. Don't think we'll give up."
The man changed his tactics. "My job was to warn you," he shrugged. "Be careful." Runa and Sehba were not impressed by such barking dog strategies, nor by scenes pulled straight out of Bollywood masala films. They were too committed to the cause to be driven back by the threats, or the bribes of money and well paid jobs that followed.
SEWA, Lucknow, an autonomous organisation of chikan workers registered in 1984, was launched following a study of child labour in several industries in U.P., conducted in 1979 by UNICEF and Literacy House, Lucknow. Engaged to do the survey, Runa Banerji and Sehba Hussain began with the chikan industry. "All of us know that India is a poor country, we knew poverty in our work in Garhwal earlier," says Sehba. "But the abject conditions of the chikan workers was something too dreadful to contemplate."
The hereditary craft acquired its beauty through centuries of refinement under discerning patronage. Megasthenes (3rd century B.C.) describes the fine flowered muslin worn in the court of Chandragupta Maurya. There is evidence that chikan work was prevalent in East Bengal during the Mughal rule. From the 18th Century, this exquisite art can be traced from the courts of the Nawabs of Oudh. Opulent aesthetes that they were, they attracted artists, scholars, architects and craftspersons of distinction. As kathak and khyal developed magnificence and ornate palaces arose from lavish gardens, the crafts too got a new lease of life in an ambience conducive to excellence and the penchant for intricacy.
The downslide began with the decline of the Oudh aristocracy. Arts and crafts stumbled through dark times. The chikan workers had no patrons for their demanding, time consuming labours. They took up other trades for survival.
But chikankari was not forgotten. It passed into the hands of the women folk of the backward Muslim communities, an additional labour in ill lit rooms behind the purdah, after the performance of daily heavy household duties. It brought them a pittance. "An 18 x 18 inch piece with scallop and paisley work would fetch ten paise a day, or five if it took them two days to complete. The trader would slash it further by saying the quality was poor," recalls Runa. The women borrowed from the traders which robbed them of all dignity and reduced them to little more than bonded slaves.
Centuries of illiteracy and oppression had made them passive. They didn't know how to organise themselves and fight for better wages. They had little to eat, no health care, no education, no hope of bettering themselves. Runa and Sehba felt they had to do something to change the bleak scene.
Initially their educated, upper class zeal met with suspicion. "You people come, talk and go away. You get paid for it, you also exploit us. We don't want your help," the craftswomen told them bluntly.
The well meant efforts to engage a doctor to talk to the poor women about health care backfired badly. "Pehle roti dalo, phir sehat ki baat karo" (Give us bread, then talk about health) was the rebuff from the slums.
It took some time for the social workers to realise that the priorities of the destitute were very different and had to be addressed as per their needs.
Undeterred, Runa started classes for the children. Fifteen children came out of curiosity and stayed back for the games and stories. Second hand clothes and toys were collected and distributed among them. "All this brought us close to the women," says Runa. "We started meeting regularly, in somebody's verandah or backyard. Came a day when the women said, you are doing so much for our children. Do something for us. And I replied, let us do something together." Runa and Sehba knew that organised struggle was inevitable in developmental work.
The close-knit band of thirty women decided to do everything themselves, from cutting to sales. "From day one we vowed we would never exploit anyone, we would be the best wage paying agency in Uttar Pradesh." In 1984 when the Government paid 50 paise to a rupee for a kurta, SEWA paid Rs. 5. Buyers had the assurance of quality for that higher price. In 1986 the association grossed over Rs. 1.50 lakhs at its exhibition sales. "Since then, we have never looked back," declares Runa. The emphasis continued to be on quality and finish which ensured an expanding market through the years. SEWA is now ready to take on the challenge of international export.
Starting only with chikankari, the association now works with handloom weaving and printing as well. The 100 per cent Muslim membership has changed, several Hindus have joined, learning the craft from the Muslim workers. There is no communal disharmony in the sisterhood.
For Sehba and Runa, the greatest source of satisfaction is not only the economic security the SEWA members enjoy but also changes in attitude which have given the women a better standing in their homes and in society. The women are still entrenched in the patriarchal system, but they do question injustice to some purpose. Many have discarded the purdah and fought for freedom to transact with the outer world. Most of them now consider that daughters are as good as sons, in fact better. They have come to value education as the key to self respect, self sufficiency. They send their daughters to school, believing it would give the girls more bargaining power in a male dominated world. In a revolutionary move, Khurshid, an older generation widow, has willed the house she built with her wages, not to her sons, but her two daughters.
Among the younger women, there is greater self assurance, and awareness. Shocked by the fact that her mother did not remember her birthday among a brood of twelve children, a young girl announced that she would have only two children so that she could give them a good education and upbringing. With a father dead and sisters to support, Farida refused marriage with a man who wanted to thrust her back into a purdah existence. "No, I can't go back to that now."
With her legs paralysed from childhood by tuberculosis, Saira trained herself to become a chikan expert. She is in charge of quality control in SEWA. "I am not dependant on anyone now," she says with pride and gratitude.
If you visit Kushalganj, 24 km from Lucknow city, you encounter more surprises. This is one of the villages in the six districts around Lucknow where SEWA has started rural centres, for the women who find it difficult to commute to the city. We visit Naiharjan whose little home is full of women, her five daughters, mother-in-law, sister-in-law and neighbours, sitting on the jute string palang and working away at chikan embroidery. The TV is on. Some old time hero is chasing a girl to the strains of a song.
The women lower the volume and become vociferous in explaining that though chikan work was not new to them (their mothers and grandmothers had been experts), SEWA's entry rescued them from the stranglehold of the mahajans, ensuring a better quality of life with higher wages. They have money to spend on their children, a gas stove instead of a coal stove, some have bought or are saving to buy a bit of land to build their own house.
They also refer to a past which echoes a moving account recorded in a SEWA publication where an old women explains, "My mother was known for her fine "jaali" and "phanda". Like all other women, she too worked for the mahajan. She could count garments but could not calculate embroidery rates. And there were no ledgers, no proper accounts. She was never paid in full. Sometimes the mahajan said her work was poor, at other times he claimed she had lost or damaged a kurta. To keep the kitchen going she used to borrow from him. The interest alone would take a lifetime to pay. So she could never stop working for him. It was the same in other homes."
As we chat in the open courtyard behind the SEWA centre, the women give vent to their feelings more freely than at home with elders around. "I don't have to beg my husband for money anymore. I take care of my needs, those of my children, help in running the household, pitch in when there are family expenses like a wedding," begins Naiharjan. "But my husband is not satisfied. He says "give, give," all the time. He wants me to follow his rules. Everyday we have fights. I want to save, build a house, maybe. But I don't get SEWA's support in dealing with this problem," she bursts into sobs.
The other women gather close, console her and explain that SEWA cannot help her with domestic problems. She must find her own strength to stand firm. They would all be with her.
Nafisa remarks that it will take a long time for the menfolk to get used to women wanting to get out of the home more, learn more and become independent. "Even if we go hungry, we must teach our girls to read and write. Then they can deal with life better than us."
"We go out for two days in succession and the men question us. We will go out everyday, if we want. Who will get the thread and cloth? We have to do it ourselves," Naiharjan breaks out again. There are tears of frustration in her eyes. "The real reason behind all this is that the men don't want women to get ahead in life, they want us under their feet all the time."
Not all the women are defiant. Young Waseem in Lucknow with two small children is content to let her mother-in-law bring her work from SEWA to do at home. "My husband doesn't like me to go out of the house unnecessarily," she explains. "Why? Because he is a man!" She doesn't question his diktat even though she earns as much as he does.
The women who work at the SEWA office in Lucknow start the day with songs. They may also discuss problems at work and their homes. Most of the staff are craftpersons themselves who have equipped themselves to deal with various aspects of chikan making, from purchase of raw materials to maintaining accounts. The membership has expanded to over 5000, each with a card which entitles them to allotment of work and pay. The centre's premises has workspace for those who want it, an hour's coaching to those who wish to take the school board exams. SEWA offers training programmes to improve craft skills - as it did with five girls sent to a convent in Cochin to learn lacemaking. Through SEWA, loans are offered by a bank and a government scheme, which have been unfailingly repaid on time.
The classes which brought the women together at first have now expanded to two schools in the city, with a staff of 22 teachers. Four girls passed class ten exams and got admitted to mainstream schools. "Our students have won inter-school competitions," says Runa. The Muslim women have no hesitation in sending their girls to these co-educational schools because they feel it is their own institution - an extension of their homes.
A health centre has been started two-and-a-half years back and welcomed by the members.
Says Sehba, "Our women still defer to the men but they no longer put up with oppression, either from the mahajan or their husbands. With the support of the sisterhood, one woman decided to take a stand against the continual thrashing from her husband. One day she ended the matter by grabbing his raised hand tight. He was absolutely stunned. She broke that cycle. She still lives with him, but he dare not beat her. The neighbourhood has also issued a warning to the man that they would not allow this to happen to a fellow human being."
As I say goodbye to the craftswomen who talked to me even as their hands were busy shaping birds, animals and fish, making flowers bloom among the twining creepers, suddenly Sehba burst out, "Did you know that Runa has been nominated to receive the Elizabeth Norgall Prize in March 1999? This is given to a women who has devoted herself to the problems of women."
At SEWA, Lucknow, it is easy to see that one way or another, all members qualify for that award. For through the years of struggle, setbacks and successes, they have realised that positive empowerment comes not when this or that individual achieves economic betterment, but when a group bonds together for the welfare and growth of the community. That is when economic security becomes a long term social gain.
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