A Banned Legacy

Laura Siegel revives Dhebaria Rabari embroidery

Since 2009, Laura Siegel has been on the forefront of an exciting shift towards sustainable design. Her vast travels influence her apparel collections and tell stories by way of their soft, textured layers, while focusing on ethical practices and artisans with unique creative skills. Siegel works with groups from Bolivia, India and Peru. In India, Siegel works with the nomadic Rabari tribe, which first came to the Kutch region in the 13th century. Their story is captivating, as it was just 15 years ago when the tribal elders banned the elaborate embroidery work made by women.
 
Prior to the founding of the Siegel Collection, Laura traveled to India and met Pankaj Shah, one of the directors at QASAB, a collective enterprise of 1,200 rural craftswomen from 10 ethnic communities that are spread across 42 Kutch villages. This organization continues to work collaboratively in order to direct the craftswomen’s traditional skills for income generation, as well as helping to sustain their art forms and culture. As Siegel began to work on private labels with QASAB, she was dismayed by the stories that unfolded, particularly ones about the banning of Dhebaria Rabari embroidery.
 
Siegel states, “The important thing to understand is how much craft-making consumes and embodies the lives of all people and communities of the region. It is what both men and women do socially. It symbolizes status, and is what gives each individual pride. At the same time, because these groups take this craft so seriously, there was a point at about 15 years ago when it became a very onerous task. When elderly women of the Dhebaria Rabari community wanted to eliminate the unjust system, they decided to seize and ban the practice of their specific embroidery type altogether. Embroidery was traditionally used to identify communities, sub-communities, and increase prestige. It was also a huge cultural loss, as not only did the work support these women's' families but by creating a quality product from the craft that they loved so much, plus it gave them pride and a livelihood.”
 
The banning of this craft escalated as the cost of living dramatically increased by the end of the 20th century. Women felt it was a burden to create works of art for wedding gifts, social customs and celebrations. Shah from QASAB explains, “It was becoming too laborious and time consuming to prepare all these items which were considered prestigious and essential for caste traditions. With modern day life pressures, the women were finding it difficult to set aside the time needed in order to create everything required to make a complete settlement. Many times, meeting the deadline for finishing the pieces was getting stressful and delayed weddings. Therefore, the embroidery is still banned for their dowries and the decision has been respected. We are now persuading the older women to continue to do the appliquéing and light embroidery techniques they used, but in a new contemporary way for various attire and accessories. The community elders who banned embroidery themselves looked at this as a pragmatic decision that had to be taken in light of today's context.”
 
It is important to note that the embroidery for personal dowries has only been banned strictly by the Dhebarias. Shah adds, “Many of the other communities still make beautiful things out of affection for the weddings and in the past few years, some have started commissioning work within the community if they do not have the time themselves. There was a period when the practice of embroidery was being threatened, with less and less women embroidering, except for the dowries.”
 
Initiatives like QASAB have created a process of dialogue with the community elders in order to begin recreating their appliqués for modern retail markets. Elders have been open to this transition and realize the potential in earning an income from their skills and collaborating with fashion designers such as Laura Siegel.  
 
The intricate appliqués of the Rebaris are important to preserve, as they are considered to be some of the finest appliqués in the world. Siegel states, “They are characterized by explosive color, rich texture, and elaborate motifs which mirror their surroundings.” While embroidery that was part of wedding trousseaus and dowries were similar to many of the other ethnic communities, they also used the appliqué technique known as katab to make beautiful and colorful quilts, covers for camel backs, bags, colorful attire, wall hangings, etc. Depictions of nature and their surroundings are very much incorporated, using various images from flowers, birds, and animals to everyday objects. Traditionally, the Rabari are nomadic pastoralists, breeding cattle and sheep, and then following the green pastures throughout the often-desolate terrain. Siegel adds, “In the group that I work with specifically, the women have settled down in their village, and the men continue to live their lives as nomads. Every year, they travel by foot with their herds of goat and camel from the Kutch Desert, near the Pakistani border in the northwest of India, all the way to the South, and back again.  They are home for a month or two of the year. The women that I work with in this community really financially support their families.  When they don't have embroidery work to sustain themselves, they are often milking goats and cows to provide income for the house.”
 
It is through Laura Siegel’s innovative designs and organizations like QASAB, where vast progress is being made for raising awareness about sustaining one of India's unique textile traditions. They work together, combining various elements of traditional techniques and processes, and therefore create new collections that speak of innovation and cultural values. 
   
For more information, please visit:  http://www.laurasiegelcollection.com/, http://www.facebook.com/qasab.kmvs

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