Amrita & the tie-dye artisans of Shekhawati
Shekhawati, a desert region in northeast Rajasthan, India, is today known for two things: its high rates of literacy, and, ironically, its high rates of child marriage.
One remarkable woman, herself a former child bride, is changing this. By training impoverished women in the tie-dye arts of shibori and bandhani, she is offering livelihood opportunities to the women of the region and, family-by-family, putting a stop to child marriage.
Meet Amrita and the artisans of Shekhawati.
Amrita is native to Shekawati, a historic region that includes several districts of Rajasthan. By the time she was 18 - the legal age for marriage in India - she was married with two children.
One unique characteristic of this area is the large numbers of men who have left to work in the Gulf countries. Women are left alone to look after the families, which - without their own sources of income - puts a huge strain on the women; this is a main reason why daughters are married off at an early age.
With a long experience working as an activist for women’s rights in Rajasthan, Amrita decided to set up her own non-governmental organisation to target head-on the societal and economic problems that women face here - discrimination, lack of education, child marriage, violence and absence of income-earning opportunities.
In 2011, she began her work with five women - training them in tie-dye which she then sold, empowering the women through offering them a dignified and independent means of earning an income. Today, Amrita manages 40 Self Help Groups (SHGs), each with ten members - totalling 400 women.
Bandhani has been practiced for over 500 years by the Muslim community in Shekhawati. Over time, dalit women - “untouchables” - and women from lower castes began to practice bandhani in the hopes of earning an income; however, they lacked the skills and know-how to make a living from it.
Amrita saw the opportunities this art form offered the women, as well as the potential for introducing shibori, a tie-dye method new to the region. Her organisation provides training to these 400 women in tie-dye skills, quality, colour and pattern; provides them with materials and regular work; and manages the sales of the textiles the artisans produce.
Amrita operates from her workshop in a small building at the edge of a dusty, arid village in Shekhawati. Here, she works with a small team of male tailors.
For shibori work, the tailors first stitch the fabric in the required patterns, a time consuming task involving lots of folding, ironing and machine-stitching. For bandhani, the materials go straight to the women who wrap threads around tiny pinches of fabric. The materials then go to a nearby community of dyers - some 250 families who have done this work for generations. Amrita’s organisation has trained 15 of these families to work with silk and natural dyes.
Once the fabric is dyed, it’s returned to the women. For both shibori and bandhani work, the most time-consuming task is removal of the threads. The artisans do this at home in their own time, bringing back the final fabrics to Amrita’s workshop when they’re complete and are paid per piece.