Ruma Devi is a jet-setting promoter of artisans who has empowered thousands of rural women in the Barmer region of Rajasthan. Hers is an amazing story of perseverance, drive and talent. She shares it with Meher Castelino.
Fibre2Fashion : Please tell us about your childhood. What made you take up embroidery?
I was born in Rawatsar village. Coming from an orthodox and deprived background, I lost my mother at the age of six and dropped out of school in class 8. Being the eldest, I pampered all my seven siblings-six sisters and one brother. I learnt embroidery from my grandmother, and later started professionally after marriage for the survival of my family.
Fibre2Fashion : What inspired you to start the group? How did you get the other women to join you?
I got married into a financially unstable family and lost my first son because we had no money and did not have access to medical treatment. It was then that I decided not to sit at home but do something for survival and started practicing embroidery and other handmade products. I started it for the survival needs of my own family. I went from home to home to gather more women who were willing to work with handicrafts because the earnings would not come in if I did it all by myself (since it would be very time-consuming). I created a self-help group (SHG) named Deep Deval comprising 10 women artisans and bought a second-hand machine with the contribution of ₹100 from each woman; then we started stitching bags. I single-handedly went from shop to shop or to small sellers to get orders for the bags. Day by day, survival became very difficult, but I did not give up. I had started the war only for myself, and then I started influencing the nearby ladies, and the number of members kept increasing.
Fibre2Fashion : How long did it take for you to start the NGO, Gramin Vikas Evam Chetna Santhan (GVCS)?
I was in search of markets and orders when I landed up at the Gramin Vikas Evam Chetna Sansthan (GVCS) in 2008. I got my products approved and was asked to make a specific quantity, which was expected to be done in three days. I was so dedicated to my work that I completed the order in one night and submitted the order the very next day. Due to my continuous efforts and hard work, I first became a member and then the president of the organisation in 2010.
Fibre2Fashion : You now have 22,000 women working at the GVCS. How did you make so many of them join you?
The objective of the NGO is simply to provide for the sustainable development of the rural women artisans and to provide sustainable employment to them. Rural artisans have been exploited by middlemen for decades and were not being given accurate wages for their handwork. I linked the artisans directly to the market and provided accurate wages for them. The women saw a glimmer of hope and they started joining me. Various training programmes and skill development workshops were organised to help the artisans improve upon the quality of their work. Some 22,000 women have been trained so far and now they are emerging as master artisans, entrepreneurs and primary manufacturers.
Fibre2Fashion : Did you or the women face difficulties at home when you formed the NGO?
Many families did not want the women to work outside, and the ones who were already doing some work from home had middlemen who would take the work and not allow them to be seen. Some NGOs and middlemen would get the work done but they did not want the artisans to know where the markets were-they were always kept in the background. I had to face middlemen who were lowering the prices of the products, while big companies wanted minimal rates too. I had to ensure that the artisans in the network got the correct price. I wanted the artisans to be in the limelight. So, we got them on the fashion ramps and turned the whole system around so that the women could be recognised.
Fibre2Fashion : Was it difficult to convince them to join you?
Initially it was so because in a male-dominated society a family does not allow women to go out and work. It was hard to revolt against the 'purdaah' system and keep motivating the women to work for their own welfare. Against all the back-handed compliments and sarcasm too, I persevered and made it (the effort) a success.
Fibre2Fashion : How many women joined you in the beginning? Were they from Barmer, or all over Rajasthan?
All this started with the SHG of 10 women as Deep Deval who approached the GVCS for work. Barmer itself is an extremely backward region. We have covered 75 villages so far and trained 22,000 women from villages near Barmer city. Our aim is to approach a bigger reach from all over Rajasthan. The women on an average earn ₹10,000-15,000 per month now, which was hardly ₹2,000 in the past.
Fibre2Fashion : What is the system at the GVCS? How do you keep in touch with 22,000 women?
Our mantra is team work. From sampling to marketing to production, team members play their roles in every field. I am the designer and master artisan-I design and lead in all the different ways. I love being a multi-tasker-designer, social worker, businesswoman, mother, motivator, friend and much more. I am very happy that it's very inspiring for the team members to work under my guidance.
The GVCS helps artisans when they need assistance like marketing technical support. Otherwise, the groups do their own production and earn a turnover of ₹1-2 crore a year. We have an income generation programme wherein we guide artisans in procuring materials if they are unable to do so.
A specific day is fixed for each village on each route that our mobile van takes to stay in touch with the artisans. The women come to the designated spot in their respective villages and submit the work that they have completed. They get paid and take home the new assignments that are given to them. This is how the circle keeps going. All the ladies get regular work and get paid regularly too.
We have teams to take care of different departments. Mobile phones are a great help nowadays to communicate, and CCTV plays an important role in seeing what and how the team is doing.
Fibre2Fashion : What are the different types of embroidery done by the women? Who designs?
The traditional name for the embroidery done by the rural artisans is called 'bharat' (to fill). Our artisans innovated the traditional embroidery and have been doing it beautifully. Second, the appliqué, which is the innovative traditional appliqué work, is executed amazingly by our female artisans.
I am fortunate to be a successful designer, the master artisan and monitor everything. Moreover, our artisans are now so well-skilled and trained that sometimes they design themselves.
Fibre2Fashion : What are the types of embroidery that you use? How did you learn them?
Besides appliqué which I learnt from my grandmother, there is the 'soof', which is done by the Sodha, Rajput and Megwal communities. It is a counted thread style using only one stitch. Soof also means neat and clean, and it is rare and intricate. Kachcha and 'pakko kaam' are the other styles of stitching, while the 'gudri' is for quilts. The other forms I learnt in 2008-09 from the other women along with printing.
Fibre2Fashion : What is the significance of the different embroidery forms?
Barmer is known for traditional handwork. The appliqué embroidery has been done for over hundreds of years. During Partition, some artisans left and took away the embroidery expertise with them. Many migrated in 1965-71, while some sold off their products and left embroidery forever. The migrant families along with the local families subsequently created a blend of the craft. There are approximately two lakhs artisans in Barmer who are good at embroidery.
Fibre2Fashion : Are there any types of embroidery which were also getting lost?
There were 26 embroidery types in Barmer, but now works like 'kharak' (another embroidery named after the fruit of the desert-dates-done in narrow bands of bars of stitches) and 'urvashi' (another style used for blouses and tops) are lost. Even soof is getting lost since there are very few families doing these styles. The new generation is leaving and only the older ones are left. The Sodha, Rajput and Meghwal communities in the Kutch area of Gujarat also do the pakko work; those are geometric and floral motifs with figures of peacocks and scorpions.
Fibre2Fashion : What are the different products that you make? What fabrics do you use?
We create a wide range of handicraft products, which consist of home furnishing that includes bed covers, cushion covers, pillow covers, table covers, table mats, table runners and curtains. Apparel includes women's and men's clothing like kurtis and kurtas, saris, dupattas, accessories like handbags and wall hangings. Earlier, the appliqué work used to be done only on cotton fabric. But I felt that it had to be innovated; so, the appliqué is now done on silk fabrics too. Today, we deal with all types of silk including chanderi, tussar, maheshwari; all the handloom fabrics; and, all cotton qualities.
Fibre2Fashion : Where do you source the fabrics, threads, needles and other materials?
We get the needles and threads from Jaipur and Delhi, and the fabrics are mainly from South India for cotton. We also procure chanderi, maheshwari, bhagalpur silks, etc. Depending on the quantity, we place orders of 1,000-100,000 metres of fabrics.
Fibre2Fashion : What is your production schedule like? How fast can you deliver the orders?
We are actively making the all-handmade products in what can be described as production quantities, which includes all the products in home furnishings and apparel categories. Due to handicraft and handmade nature of the items, the production schedule usually depends on both the type of products as well as the quantity. For example, if someone needs 50 appliquéd cushion covers, we can produce them in 8-10 days only, but if someone needs 50 bedcovers, it will take two months at least.
Fibre2Fashion : What is the price range of the different products?
The prices vary depending on the production and the work involved. We have home furnishings as well as garments. So, cushion covers could be ₹200 upwards. Bedcovers could go up to ₹50,000 and garments like kurta, dupattas, lehengas, etc, are from ?1,500 and go up to ₹3,000-plus.
Fibre2Fashion : How many orders do you get in a month? Have you got any export orders from abroad?
We have, for example, the capacity to make 10,000 cushion covers a month and we can do those or any quantities for different products. But at times, transport is a problem since artisans live in remote areas. So, it takes time to reach them. At any given time, we may have 7-8 orders from different buyers.
It takes about three months to finish a new order, but we also have regular items which are ready in stock that we can deliver in a few days. Saris, dupattas, cushion covers and kurtis are the popular items. So, at any given time, we have ₹2-3 crore worth of stock. Our products are not machine-made but made by hand in homes. So, the minimum / maximum pieces and the time required depend on the products.
The turnover of the NGO is ₹2+ crore, but the different groups who do business now because of the orders they are getting would have a cumulative turnover of ₹7-8 crore.
We have exported small quantities to small buyers in Europe and the US, which could be about 100 pieces per style. But our main market is the domestic one where we promote local artisans, carry promotions differently, and work with fashion designers. For our store in Jaipur we do 2-3 collections.
Our promotions are through exhibitions. We don't use any print media or posters but prefer word-of-mouth, which has helped us.
Fibre2Fashion : Who are the people (customers) who come to you?
The customers are mostly common people that we connect with at exhibitions while the fashion shows attract high society buyers. Moreover, Tribes India links us directly to the market.
Fibre2Fashion : Do you have a store in Rajasthan? Do you sell in other parts of India?
Yes, we do have two stores in Rajasthan-one is in Barmer and the other in Jaipur. We do sell in other parts of India by participating in exhibitions.
Fibre2Fashion : You take part in exhibitions in India and abroad. Where all have you exhibited the products?
We exhibited the rich heritage of Rajasthan at the Heimtextil fair in Germany, the Singapore Craft Fair and the London Fashion Week. I have also participated at the Tribes Fashion Show in association with Tribes India every year. I have made solo participations at ramp shows in IHGF Spring/Summer and IHGF Autumn/Winter in Noida (twice a year) since 2006. I have participated at the Rajasthan Heritage Week since 2016. I was also selected as a finalist and showcased a collection at the TFI Fashion Design Awards and won the title of TFI Designer of the Year 2019. The government of Sri Lanka gave me the Shilpa Abhimani Award for promotion of handicrafts, and the Women on Wings in Netherlands has also honoured me. The other awards have been the World CSR Congress Award, the 51 Most Impactful Social Innovators award in Global Listings, besides the iWoman Global Awards in 2019.
I have been fortunate to get many awards. The President of India in March 2019 presented the Ministry of Women and Child Development Nari Shakti Puraskar, Amitabh Bachchan presented me the Karmaveer Award during the Kaun Banega Crorepati show in September 2019, and the H.E.R. Award (Hope. Empower. Rise) was presented by Facebook and UN Women at the We The Women Event in September 2019. I also got The Award for Changemaker by Sankalp Seva Sansthan.
I want the women to stand on their feet and earn and create an identity for themselves and we will support them whenever necessary. The artisans should make a name for themselves and not be under the Ruma Devi umbrella. Whenever the artisans need help, I would always there.
Fibre2Fashion : Apart from Hemant Trevedi, which designers have you worked with and what type of garments have you embroidered on?
Besides Hemant Trevedi, who came to our workshop and worked with us on his collection, we have worked with Bibi Russell, Abraham & Thakore, Rohit Kamra, and many others. We have embroidered high fashion garments for them when they have taken part in fashion weeks.
Fibre2Fashion : What other social work are you involved with?
We have created artisan awareness programmes, and distributed solar light lamps to the people of our region (covering 3,000 households). We also have design development and training workshops along with stitching-training workshops. We distribute stitching machines, organise health camps for women and motivate them not to make suicidal attempts for freedom. We have programmes to prohibit child marriage and provide education to children from poor families.