We sit on mattresses in a boarding house near the coast of Narayan Sarovar, a holy body of water in the far northwest of Kutch. Lalkorba and Meenaba put my vanilla hand cream on their cheeks. Kailashba rubs her coconut oil into my scalp, tugging at my roots. They sing marriage songs to me and I clap my hands. We giggle all evening, reminiscing about our day in “the field” through whirling hands and arms and the exaggerated facial expressions: our common language.
Lalkorba, Meenaba, and Kailashba are three master craftswomen in Kutch, India. I often accompanied them on their bi-monthly trips to far villages of Kutch, where intricate textiles of neon threads and sparkly mirrors pop across the bleak desert backdrop. During these trips, Lalkorba, Meenaba, and Kalashba visit craftswomen who are members of Qasab, a women’s collective of embroidery artisans. They distribute embroidery materials and patterns, provide criticism on quality and design, and hold meetings to collect and address feedback from Qasab members.
In Kutch, when women receive Rupees, they are often expected to give them to their husbands or invest them in their homes. So in addition to paper money, Qasab awards its craftswomen with gold, silver, and bronze jewelry once a year according to each woman’s contribution. Jewelry is an investment with which women can do whatever they please. If her child becomes ill, a woman can sell her bangles to pay for a doctor’s visit.And by wearing a necklace, a woman can display her accomplishments and pride to her whole community. Earrings can provide social capital that demands respect and power.
I volunteered at Qasab for one year on a fellowship that I received from the American Jewish World Service. My assignment was to produce materials to promote the women’s embroidered products in international and national markets. I had just graduated college; I had never taken a marketing class, knew little about graphic design, and could not speak the local language. But I was there for a purpose.
Four years before I arrived in Kutch, I entered my first year of college as an art major because creating beauty made me feel good. During my second semester, I had a come-apart before an art history midterm. I was reading Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, a memoir of being a child soldier in Sierra Leone, while taking a break from memorizing dates of ancient Egypt’s statues and vessels. But I found myself struggling to put down the book in order to study. And when I did, I crossed my legs in the center of flashcards scattered on the carpet and cried. I sobbed.
How could a tomb from 500 BC win my attention over such urgent global issues? I began questioning whether my art could be a valuable contribution to the world. This feeling of inadequacy prompted me to switch into my university’s school of International Affairs. In order to catch up to my classmates who were well versed in the subject’s lingo, I went on a three-week summer trip to study post-conflict resolution in Northern Uganda.
In Uganda, government leaders, youth, NGO workers, and media representatives taught our group about the history and current situation of the conflict. I took notes aggressively, driven to find my niche and prove my legitimacy in this new field of study. But I was most captivated by visits to an organization that produced textile products pieced together by female survivors of the conflict, and another that facilitated bead-making as an income generator for marginalized women. I was moved by the courage of women who turned to craft in the midst of a violent political tragedy, and was awe-struck by the beauty that they created in spite of it all.
I returned to Uganda the following summer to do an academic research project with women’s collectives of beaders and tailors, and then studied in Bolivia where I worked with female weavers, doll-makers and painters. I saw women employ their craft skills to contribute to their economies, gain financial independence, and promote their cultural heritage. I witnessed craftswomen struggle to balance cultural authenticity with contemporary demand – to blend traditional craft rooted deeply in their respective cultures with modern functionality. Women in Uganda and Bolivia produced art as a catalyst of economic development, social and financial empowerment and independence, and positive social change.
When I arrived at Qasab in 2010, I was tasked with project after project inappropriate for my skill-set; a digital look-book with all 250 of Qasab’s products and their countless thread colors, a catalogue with models; a website from scratch. Success felt impossible. I questioned the value of my work and everything I had studied the previous 4 years. My contributions felt meaningless. On most days, I left the office defeated. But every minute that I spent with artisans was an inspiration. Seeing their work fueled my soul, and I continued to create in spite of the pain that my worthlessness triggered.
At the end of my year in India, my colleagues at Qasab organized a farewell lunch for me. Lalkorba, Meenaba, and Kailashba showed up late, giggling and giddy. They took me aside and showed me a red velvet pouch. From it, they pulled small silver hoops. All at once, they tugged on my earlobes, poking the earrings through my empty pierced holes. I thanked them; they thanked me. I cried; they cried. We hugged and laughed.
I understood. The earrings – and the solidarity, accomplishment, pride and recognition they stood for– fit perfectly. I had worked with craftswomen in Uganda and Bolivia; I had seen the role that craft plays in empowerment; – I had read about it, written about it, photographed it. But in that moment, I felt it.
I still question the value of my work whether it’s designing direct-mail packages for the non-profit I work for, or photographing food for a blog I started with my mom. But before I fall too deep into the pit of self-doubt, I remind myself of the women all over the world employing their craft skills to better their families and communities. And that I’m one of them too.