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Home > Discover Mumbai > Art and Culture > Personalities

 Judy Frater's 'Mission Kutch'  

If there is one foreigner who feels passionately about Indian art and culture, it is Judy Frater. Having devoted 10 years of her life to the development and promotion of Kutch embroiderers in villages in Gujarat, she is unsure if she ever wants to go back to her roots in Washington. Today, she has given women embroiderers a reason to believe in their art and dignity of labour, by starting Kala Raksha in Bhuj, Kutch on August 26, 1993 to protect and preserve traditional arts.

Mumbaibest meets this woman entrepreneur, to whose life India has given new meaning.

What brought you to India?
I first came to India in 1970 as a student on an exchange programme to learn about Indian culture and pursue independent research. Fascinated with findings from my research, I did masters degrees in Marathi, Anthropology and Museum Study at the University of Minessota, USA. I kept coming back to India every couple of years. Then, I worked for three years as a curator for eastern hemisphere textiles at the Textile Museum in Washington. While at the Textile Museum I received a Fulbright grant to do research in textiles in Kutch. I had worked in Kutch before and had done both my MA thesis on Rabari embroidery. I also wrote a book on 'Threads of Identity' on the embroidery developed from my second thesis. Later, I got a full grant to do research on Suf embroidery. I used Rabari embroidery as a non-literate language to trace the history of Rabari people, so I thought I could do the same with Suf embroidery. So, my first introduction to India was purely research based.

Even after completing research, you were back in India. What drew you back?
In 1991, I came back to India to visit Kutch. By then a realisation had dawned on the embroiderers, they did not want to be studied anymore; they wanted help. I guess at that time there was a certain consciousness rising in myself too, so I decided to stay back and help them. That is when we started the Dastakar Kutch Project in Kutch in the year 1990. In 1993, we founded Kala Raksha, as an independent organisation, with just Rs 43,000.

What does Kala Raksha stand for?
Kala Raksha, a grass roots organisation was started with the mission to preserve and protect traditional arts, primarily through assisting artisan co-operatives. At Kala Raksha, we are commited to documentation of existing traditions, and the Trust maintains a collection of heirloom textile housed locally as a resourse base. Here, artisans work with the Trustees and designers to create contemporary pieces inspired by their own tradition.

Our Centre is located at Sumrasar Sheikh, 25 kms from Bhuj, housing a museum, workshop, office, shop and guest house. The Centre is computerised and plans to operate with solar powered electricity.

Which are the embroidery styles developed at the Centre?
We realised that contemporary bold mirrored chain stitch was nearly replacing a repertoire of delicate stitches, so we first strove to revive the latter. Initially, the trust worked with three styles: Suf, Rabari and Garasia Jatt. Suf is a painstaking hand embroidery brought to Kutch from Sindh. The Suf artisans work from the reverse of the cloth, counting warp and weft threads. Motifs based on a triangle called Suf are never drawn, each artisan just imagines the design and then counts it out in reverse. Rabari is a style unique to the nomadic Rabaris and ever evolving in nature. In abstract motifs the Rabari women depict their changing world. The Garasia Jatt work belongs to Islamic pastoralists of Kutch and the patterns are mostly geometric based on cross-stitch to completely fill the yoke. Some patterns even trace the migration of the Jatts from Sindh.

We encourage the artisans to use their own traditions to innovate with a new consciousness. We have our products designed by professional designers but the surface designs are by the artisans themselves.

How much support do you receive from the government for your project?
From an intial Rs 43,000, today we stand at Rs 25 lakhs in our seventh year, without any financial support for production. We have government support for putting up exhibitions, training schemes and making brochures. We had the Ratan Tata Trust funding us for building a museum and for health and education.

Do you feel the artisans could be better supported?
In India I have found that people do not want to make working easier. Nobody is willing to work with artisans in the villages and help them develop their potential. Today, the situation is such that craft is not valued by the artisans themselves. When you can earn more digging ditches, building buildings, working in salt mine than doing embroidering, you would rather do that. Some of the women are embroidering because they have no choice, once they find it they might switch professions. I want to get them out of this mode of exploitation and make them embroiderer for the love it and because it is a decent way to make a living.

Is Indian art and craft appreciated abroad?
People abroad are exposed to Indian crafts mainly through import shops on 42nd Street in New York, which sell substandard quality stuff, mostly junk. That is what India is associated with. I remember when I was a kid, 'Made in Japan' meant bad quality, today Japan is associated with Sony and Toyota.

In the 70s when I was researching on Indian crafts, it was commonly known, 'If you wanted to sell Indian crafts the only way you could do it was to avoid saying 'Made in India.' Because India meant shoddy goods, late production and bad business practices. That is what we have to fight against now.

By : Anupama Vinayak

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