[Note: This story was produced as part of the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which ten writers and photographers receive a stipend and editorial support to develop two long-form narratives for Matador. The Glimpse Correspondents Program is open each fall and spring to anyone who will be living, traveling, working or studying abroad for more than ten weeks.]
WHEN I WAS YOUNG, my mom was my personal shopper. She’d come home with ten outfits and force them over my head as I stood passively with arms up. She usually ended up returning all of her purchases, only to try again, until I’d settle on something not too itchy. I hated shopping. Malls still overwhelm me. I can’t figure out how to select the right blouse out the hundreds of stacked, starched variations, each with crunchy paper tags dangling at their sides. The gaudy colors and crisp fabrics that hang perfectly under the fluorescent overheads are supposed to go on my body? The idea of it feels distant.
But here in India, shopping is a loaded exploration. My walks through the market are guided by the pull of human connection, the urge to understand the laborious processes behind the colors, and the stories of lives that have synchronized around craft.
I’ve been living in Kutch, India for 10 months working at a grassroots development NGO and sneaking off to artisan villages in my free time. Kutch is a bland desert with sparse vegetation. Colorful villages spot its vast expanse, where a wide diversity of languages, customs and cultures coexist. Neon embroideries with sparkly mirrors and deep-hued dye pop against its backdrop. Many communities of Kutch have inherited the traditions of craft as a primary livelihood, and their families have nurtured expansion and innovation of their respective crafts for generations.
Traditionally, craft production in Kutch was part of a socio-economic web that sustained interdependent barter relationships among local families. A family of weavers might trade hand-woven turbans and shawls to a family of farmers in exchange for lentils. The farmer’s wives might embroider ornamentation onto the pieces before trading them back to the weavers for more goods. High-skilled handwork had further value as artisans reserved their masterpieces for dowry collections, and labored over unique ornamentations for that would be presented at wedding celebrations. Bandhani tiers may tie knots for months onto fabric for a wedding piece that would remain in the family for generations. Each family in Kutch boasted its traditional profession, and the families worked in synchronicity to provide for one another’s needs.
As appreciation for handwork expands among national and international markets, artisans in Kutch are shifting their production to meet market demand beyond that of their neighbors. Kutch artisans are producing craft for nation-wide retail chains and international exhibitions. They are collaborating with high-fashion designers and studying design trends to broaden and innovate their traditional approaches. They are partnering with NGOs to test ecological modes of production in an effort to reduce their greenhouse gas contributions.
When I browse markets in Kutch, I touch everything. I feel the products for rough edges, loose loops of thread, clumped prints, spots where the dyes didn’t soak in evenly. Imperfections remind me that the products are more than products; they are ballads of sustainable development, pride, fine art, funny stories, labor, livelihoods, beauty, precision and tradition. I’ve spent time in block-printing villages and can distinguish block-printers from dyers by the dyer’s Indigo-stained nail beds. I’ve listened to weavers boast about the timelessness of their craft, and admit to their diminishing local market due to industrialization of textile mills. I’ve seen women embroider free-handedly with precision that most cannot master even with a pattern-outline to follow.
Artisans color Kutch’s environment and build its economy, partnering traditional livelihoods with innovation.