Stitch by Stitch

Laxmi, an artist who works with Sadhna, an NGO based in Udaipur, Rajasthan. Laxmi has worked with Sadhna since 2002.

An exhibit of women’s art from Western India is coming this summer to UAB’s Abroms-Engel Institute for Visual Arts.

By Cynthia Ryan and Cathleen Cummings


Visitors to India are often struck by the intensity of the colors, textures, sounds, and smells that greet them, from the brightly patterned saris and glittering bangles worn by Indian women to the ornate sculptures and intricate designs adorning ancient and modern temples to the enticing aroma of spices wafting from the carts of roadside vendors.

In India, the everyday is as much an assault on the senses as the ceremonial. For the first time in a very long history, the role that women play in creating many of the objects conveying the aesthetics of Indian culture is being revalued. Paintings, embroideries, and other textiles traditionally developed for domestic use—as decorative wall hangings, canopies to protect infants from the hot sun, dowry gifts, and head coverings—are gaining prominence as legitimate works of art, as well as viable commercial products. As a result, women are experiencing unprecedented economic independence and achieving positions of authority in their families and village communities.

In the summer of 2013, we set out to explore how this process of reimagining women’s art has developed and to what end. Our research took us to rural villages and city centers throughout the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat in the northwestern region of the country, where we met with women who are learning to navigate a new identity in a rapidly changing India.

Delegating women’s creative expressions to the domestic sphere is a tradition not just in India, but in other parts of the world as well, including the United States. While we may consider an embroidery sampler or a hand-stitched tablecloth from an earlier period a family heirloom, the valuing of such items as art is rare.

In Gujarat, Rajasthan, and elsewhere in India, the perception of women’s textiles as cultural artifacts of importance has been influenced by two phenomena: first, the emergence of a mass market for “authentic” Indian art driven by Western consumers and a rising urban middle class within the country; and secondly, the introduction of numerous nongovernment organizations (NGOs) since the 1970s, each offering its own strategy for empowering disenfranchised communities.

Viraben with some of her quilts and embroidery work. Viraben, and her husband and son, who have a wood-working business, sell their goods directly to tourists who visit their village.

Birminghamians will have the opportunity to immerse themselves in this culture shift with a new exhibit at UAB’s Abroms-Engel Institute for Visual Arts. As visitors to Objects of Authority: Embroideries and Other Contemporary Arts from Western India will observe firsthand, the translation of domestic arts used in the home to aesthetic commodities for purchase by a global consumer has required some sacrifices along the way. Many of the “authentic” Indian women’s creations for sale through NGOs or out of women’s own homes are at best remote reminders of the real thing. Examples are plentiful: dowry bags reduced in size and altered in shape to pass as women’s handbags; wall hangings and pillow covers stitched in more subdued, natural hues to reflect Western décor; and variations on the intricate designs long associated with particular tribal clans to better suit the tastes of modern global consumers.

Despite alterations to artistic traditions that have likely been handed down from one generation to the next, we met many women in the region who have embraced the opportunities that accompany marketing their creations. Laxmi, a 42-year-old woman who married at age 13, joined an organization called Sadhna after her husband lost a factory job in Udaipur, Rajasthan. As a member of Sadhna, Laxmi produces and sells many types of handicrafts ranging from clothing items and accessories to decorative household goods that are sold through a number of select shops and large-scale retailers like FabIndia. As a result of her association with Sadhna, Laxmi has earned enough money to purchase a plot of land and a house (now worth 2,400,000 Indian rupees, approximately $42,000). Her children, including her daughters, are receiving a good education, and Laxmi has acquired enough gold jewelry to ensure her girls’ dowries when (and if) they decide to marry.

Two other Gujarati women, Sofiya, who lives in the Mutwa Muslim community of Dhorado village in the Banni grasslands, and Viraben, from the Gandhinugam village outside the city of Bhuj, produce and sell textiles out of their homes, bypassing arrangements with nearby NGOs. During the tourist season, which lasts from November through late January or early February, these artists can sell a year’s worth of embroidery and contribute all or some of the money needed to provide for their families. Through their interactions with tourists from the Western world and disparate regions of India, Sofiya and Viraben have also mastered a kind of global identity that is unusual for women in their villages. They speak many languages and assume a public role that challenges established conventions.

Nirmala-ji, artist and founder of an NGO in Bhusura village, Bihar, that is supported by the Delhi-based organization, ADITHI.  Women in her village and in ten surrounding villages have been trained in the traditional stitch-work known as sujuni.

Nirmala-ji, artist and founder of an NGO in Bhusura village, Bihar, that is supported by the Delhi-based organization, ADITHI. Women in her village and in ten surrounding villages have been trained in the traditional stitch-work known as sujuni.

We also met local artists who have been promoted to positions of authority within NGOs, an accomplishment that recognizes their effectiveness in a professional setting while boosting their credibility in their home communities. For example, Nawa is an artist in her own right and a community production specialist for Qasab, an organization that works with women in the villages surrounding Bhuj to plan and produce marketable textiles drawing on their particular community’s traditions. As production specialist, Nawa serves as the liaison between women in the villages and the central office for Qasab where orders for art are placed and assigned to particular groups of artists. On the day we met Nawa, she was compiling kits (including instructions, colorful threads, and other materials) for Gujarati dolls. It was Nawa’s responsibility to take the kits to individual village women, assist them in meeting deadlines for the work, and then return the finished dolls to the central office for quality assessment and delivery to a designated buyer. Even today, it is quite unusual for any woman from a rural village to occupy a position of such importance in an organization that reaches across the globe. Most village women’s lives are restricted to their communities or even to the circumferences of their homes.

Several years ago, Cummings [writer of this piece] visited another artist in the state of Bihar in eastern India whose work changed not only her life, but also the lives of other women in her village. Nirmala collaborated with an NGO called Adithi to revive the art of “sunuji,” stitched quilting, and to provide a means for the women of her village to earn an income of their own. While the initiative began in Nirmala’s community, it soon spread to surrounding villages and now employs roughly 300 women. In addition to the logistical reach of Nirmala’s efforts, the women have taken on issues of importance in their lives through their art. For example, to mark World AIDS Day, they designed a large wall hanging that stitches a story of female empowerment: Women are shown weeping because their husbands have strayed and infected their wives with HIV. But in this particular narrative, the artists have woven in a response to a serious, ongoing problem that affects their health and their ability to care for their children. Village wives, shown with the ends of their saris draped over their hair, hand out condoms to their husbands who, in turn, take the condoms with them to the homes of their lovers with whom they now practice safe sex. Conventional artistic traditions, for instance, the typical framing of a large textile piece, are subverted by the artists in Nirmala’s village who replace the expected floral border with images of condoms.

Stitch by stitch, Indian women are transforming their lives by assigning new meaning to the textiles that have defined them, and their assumed sphere, for centuries. We invite readers to visit the exhibit, which runs from June 5–July 17 (with the opening reception on June 6), and to join in the conversation about art, identity, and empowerment in a changing, globalized India.

Hansiba is a brand of clothing and home-goods sold in shops of the same name by the NGO SEWA, or The Self-Employed Women’s Association, based in Gujarat.

Hansiba is a brand of clothing and home-goods sold in shops of the same name by the NGO SEWA, or The Self-Employed Women’s Association, based in Gujarat.


Several students who helped to curate the forthcoming exhibit offered their thoughts on the significance of the pieces displayed.

“Regardless of global region, the artistic work of women is still vastly underrepresented, and the decorative arts, specifically textiles, have historically been denied the category of fine art…. The artists working in conjunction with NGOs have been able to present visibility for themselves through the empowerment of working with other women.” –Joan Inman


“I find the dialogue between the [art] object’s creator and the tourist/Western consumer for whom the object is intended intriguing. A riveting dichotomy exists between market trends pulling artisans away from traditional mediums, colors, or subject matters and the snubbing of these objects by the same cultures buying up the so-called ‘tourist arts’ en masse.” –Amy Williamson  


“Contemporary production of textiles in rural India reveals a trend of increasing female autonomy. With the assistance of NGOs like Qasab and Sadhna, women have been able to break out of their roles.” –Megan Moore


Objects of Authority: Embroideries and Other Contemporary Arts from Western India

Curated by Cathleen Cummings, assistant professor of art history; Cynthia Ryan, associate professor of English; and UAB students enrolled in a graduate seminar titled “Objects of Authority: Contemporary Embroidery Traditions of Western India.”

June 5–July 17, 2014; Opening reception June 6

Abroms-Engel Institute for Visual Arts (AEIVA)

1221 10th Avenue South


This exhibition features approximately 40 works of art produced in rural contexts in India over the last four to five decades. Older, heirloom embroideries from Gujarat will be juxtaposed with those produced in the last two to three years under the aegis of Indian NGOs to highlight the effects of commodification on artistic production and the aesthetic results. The exhibition will also feature paintings and textiles from Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, where similar aesthetic modifications have occurred as those in Gujarat, to draw attention to the intersections of market needs and artistic invention that have resulted in new aesthetic traditions cropping up across these regions.

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