Heritage Matters: Kutch Crafts – A Story of Revival

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    The vibrant land of Kutch in Gujarat is home to some of the finest crafts in India. These arts and crafts, the legacy of generations, are at the intersection of culture and communities.

    While Kutch is known for its numerous traditional crafts such as clay, metal and leather crafts, there is one that stands out even more – embroidery. Although hundreds of years old, Kutchi embroidery has undergone a revival in the last few decades, taking its appeal to a wide audience and underlining the identity of the artisans involved.

    But how and why did the crafts of Kutch see a revival? How have organizations on the ground promoted the arts and the artisans? And what lessons can we learn from these initiatives?

    As a part of our online series Heritage Matters, we invited members of leading organisations working with craftspersons as panelists for our session Kutch Crafts - A Story of Revival. During the discussion, each panelist offered deep insights into how communities from Kutch have benefitted from revival programmes, and how these crafts have become the very essence of this region.

    Our guests for this session were Punit Soni, Director and CEO, Qasab Kutch Craftswomen’ Producer Co Ltd; Dr Nilesh Priyadarshi, Founder & CEO, Kaarigar Clinic; Mukesh Bhanani Project Coordinator, Kala Raksha; and Archna Nayar, Head of Product, Design & Strategy, Peepul Tree.

    The region of Kutch is inhabited by pastoral communities, many of them semi-nomadic herders of camel and sheep, who migrated here, from Rajasthan, Sindh, Baluchistan and even Afghanistan, around 500 years ago. Sandwiched between the desert and the sea, the region has been an active trading centre since antiquity. It is this, in part, that accounts for the profusion of crafts among these communities. In addition, the arid climate has forced them to meet their needs by using local resources to fashion products of daily living.

    Embroidery: A Calling Card

    One of the most famous crafts that has put Kutch on the global map is embroidery. Kutch is home to a range of embroidery styles, such as Paako, Rabari and Suf, which are unique to diverse communities that live here – the Rabaris, Ahirs, Meghwals, Sodha, Rajputs, Jat, Mutwas and Harijan Meghwars etc.

    Members of each community dress in vibrant attire that boasts varied styles and, of course, rich embroidery. The region’s rich embroidery tradition is the preserve of women, who have passed on their skill across generations.

    Archna Nayar, who heads Design and Curation at the digital platform Peepul Tree, said, “Kutch is like a melting pot of crafts. It’s got every possible craft you can think of... They have 14-15 different types of embroidery, done by different communities. Each is distinct from the other. They look distinct, their techniques are distinct. And there are various weaves, like the Bhujodi, the Tangaliya, the Patola. The list is endless. There’s bell metal works and leather crafts. It’s such an expanse of crafts.”

    The survival and celebration of crafts in Kutch today is in large part due to a huge revival effort, starting in the 1990s. In our Heritage Matters session, we looked at how Kala Raksha, Qasab Kutch Craftswomen’ Producer Co Ltd and Kaarigar Clinic have worked with artisans here, backed them with resources, skills and training, and have helped take their craft reach overseas, while creating a niche market for the artisans.

    Despite two major calamities that devastated Gujarat in recent times – the 1998 cyclone and the 2001 Bhuj earthquake – the entire crafts space in Kutch has been revitalised, thanks to this revival effort.

    At the forefront of this movement was Qasab Kutch Craftswomen’ Producer Co Ltd, an all-women artisans’ company that was set up in 1997 specifically to revive the embroidery of the region. Today, it works with more than 1,500 master craftswomen from 11 ethnic communities across 62 villages in the interiors of Kutch.

    The company’s Director and CEO, Punit Soni, says that in the 1990s, women artisans were not paid enough, their embroidery traditions were in decline, and the market was dominated by embroidery that was neither authentic nor traditional. “We wanted to build a collective where women could work together and earn together... and revival of the craft was a major agenda,” said Soni.

    Another group that has been driving a revival of Kutch embroidery is Kala Raksha. Founded in 1993 as an initiative especially for a group of migrant embroiderers from Sindh, the organisation has impacted as many as 1,000 embroidery artisans across 7 ethnic communities. They even have a museum that showcases heirloom textiles and an educational institute called ‘Kala Raksha Vidyalaya’.

    According to Kala Raksha’s Programme Coordinator, Mukesh Bhanani, the organisation aims to bring out the creative best of the artisans. To do this, he believes it is important for the artisans to be completely involved in the production process of the craft. The educational arm of Kala Raksha helps artisans innovate for contemporary design needs. Bhanani said:

    “Kala Raksha’s aim has been to bring out the best of the artisans’ creativity. We also want to help them upgrade their skills according to the market. We are doing this through Kala Raksha Vidyalaya. It is a first-of-its-kind design school, where the artisans, who don’t have formal education, who lack information about the markets, consumers, or where their products are sold, are educated. They then try to incorporate their learnings into their work.”

    Bhanani says that while the artisans know their traditional techniques, they need to be guided to make the transition from traditional to contemporary and that is a big part of what Kala Raksha Vidyalaya does.

    Also, the Kala Raksha museum is a unique resource centre. It not only gives visitors a glimpse into the history and practices of the traditional craft, it also allows artisans to be inspired by its collection.

    While organisations like Kala Raksha and Qasab work closely with the artisan communities, Kaarigar Clinic has a special aim. “What was lacking, not just in Kutch, but in the whole crafts sector, was artisan identity. Even today, the lives of artisans have not evolved or changed. When we talked to them about what they think is a good life for them, they said, ‘We don’t want to just earn money, we want our identity too.’ So we thought if we establish brands with the artisans’ names, that could solve this problem", says Dr Nilesh Priyadarshi, Founder of Kaarigar Clinic.

    Kaarigar Clinic describes itself as a rural ‘business clinic’ for artisans. It helps them evolve as entrepreneurs and creates sustainable livelihoods. It supports artisans with the resources to develop a business ecosystem. One of the success stories from here is that of Pabiben, a traditional Rabari embroider, now an entrepreneur, who has employed more than 200 women in her community. Kaarigar Clinic also helped her set up her brand '', which is famous for its Pabi Bags today.

    Citing the example of Pabiben’s growth as an entrepreneur, Priyadarshi said she went from earning Rs 1,500 a month to a business turnover of over Rs 30 lakh today. Kaarigar Clinic is working with more artisans to help them establish their own brands, which, he underlined, are named after the artisans, to help them establish their own identities in the market.

    Archna Nayar, who has been using e-commerce to support artisans and their work, via the portal Peepul Tree, believes that customer education is equally important for the growth and development of crafts. It is only when consumers realise what goes into crafting every single product that they can truly understand the value of the product and the craft. That’s why Peepul Tree believes it is important to educate their buyers about the process and the artisans who bring them the exquisite products they purchase on the portal.

    In our online discussion, Soni stressed the importance of the ‘value over volumes’ approach. This was seconded by all our guests. They too believe that, in contemporary times, it is important to diversify crafts and designs and to innovate, but it is equally important to maintain the authenticity and originality of the craft traditions and techniques. Quality and authenticity should never be compromised, even when redesigning a product to suit today’s market or when the market needs bulk supply.

    One common factor that binds all these organisations is that their work promotes not only the crafts of Kutch, but the artisans as well. They are equipping artisans with skills development, market and business awareness, and design innovations. All our guests believe that only when we value the arts and crafts for what they are that we can take this rich heritage to the next level.

    You can watch the complete conversation on Kutch Crafts - A Story of Revival here:

    The 700 years old Tangaliya weave is kept alive by a small community of weavers from Surendranagar district in Gujarat. You can buy these handcrafted dupattas with Peepul Tree India. Check out the products here.

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