When I first encountered people who had migrated from Nagar Parkar to Kutch, women did not go out. Not even into their own village, not even to bring water or vegetables. In decades in India I had never seen men doing these household tasks. But in this subculture, keeping women secluded superseded everything. One day, a young woman asked me where her uncle’s shop was? I was astounded; it was in the center of this little village of population 7,000. She had not been able to venture into town since she reached puberty.

I insisted on a few tiny steps, trying to respect the culture in which I was surrounded. Women had to come to meetings in order to get work. They had to come forward and sign in order to get paid. ….At least a representative or two had to come to bazaars and meet the customers.

Meanwhile, I also opened up the earning potential. Women older than 35 or so could no longer see to embroider, but often had more free time. I had them make the humble patchwork ralli quilts they traditionally made for household use in natural dyed, printed fabrics, for sale. They laughed at this idea. Who would buy such a thing? But these ralli quilts were new in the market and sold very well. I encouraged them to look back to the examples at home and in our museum and re-invent their designs. Quickly, these older women took interest and pride in their new opportunity. They were good artisans, and they knew it. They demanded continuous work at fair wages, and enjoyed the comfort of getting it without having to leave their homes.

Times changed. More artisans had slid into the older, ralli-making group. And they were no longer getting the work they wanted. Not wanting to be idle, and ever hopeful they experimented with quilts for sale on their own.

God, as ever, is Great. Just as ralli master Hariyaben took the courageous step to join a new “post graduate” course in Business and Management for Artisans, an opportunity to participate in a quilt exhibition arrived.

Can you manage this? I asked her.

Without skipping a beat she said, “Yes.”

Together we made a target of 30 ralli quilts. I fronted her the raw materials. And I could not resist naming the project Ralli ni Rani: Quilt Queens. Production management was up to her. I soon realized the old pitfall of paying: she saw the quilts as more mine than hers, and complained that I had not gotten her enough fabric, fast enough! I asked how she would have done the quilts if they were for her home? She brightened and quickly said she’d have gone out and gotten the fabric.

What is the difference? Is the market the barrier? Or the opportunity to have someone else be responsible?

Now. finally, it is countdown time. The quilts have to be priced and sent to Chennai. I have work in the area and offer to pick up the quilts and have our office pack and ship them. But on the way the brakes of our car fail and we can’t reach in time.

You will have to get your son to bring the quilts, I tell Hariyaben.

She objects. But I can’t comply.

Next morning, Hariyaben calls from her mobile phone. There is traffic noise in the background. “Tell me your address,” she says. “We are on the way.”

An hour later she shows up, having engaged a culturally appropriate chaperone and a three-wheeled “chakado,” with 26 ralli quilts. All are already priced– and photographed. Five more are in production.

At lunchtime, I remember that I have sat with Hariyaben and her women relatives to break their annual ten-day Dasama fast. In the seclusion of their homes, these women swallow burning dough lamps. Yes, they are surely Ralli ni Rani: Quilt Queen fire eaters.


The women’s business and management class began. Hariyaben symbolized it as a computer screen with an “A” inside- opportunity.

I call it “Soul Searching, Confronting your Demons, Getting Ready.”

This course has no full stops. It is intense and crammed into a very small space. No tea breaks, and no place to go.

The women are as always, different from the men. They use the SWOT exercise to analyze their experiences deeply. They are acutely aware of their limitations. While the question for the men is how to grow their business, for the women, it is how to start? How to circumvent all of the real and imagined obstacles? How to procure raw materials, contact the market?

Monghi is afraid. She is the last young embroiderer of Vandh. Can she do it? Would she get support? During the class, a man from her village organized a huge meeting for all Rabaris to discuss where education can take you. Would he support Monghi? He did not send his wife to our class.

The teacher shows a TED talk by the father of the young education reformist Malala. He talks about the systematic limiting of women, how it is sanctioned and passed on. Women are property, honour. They believe it. They lose their creativity, turn it inward like ingrown nails. Zakiya expresses her frustration. All her childhood she was treated “like a boy.” Now, as she matures, she is treated “like a girl.”

Hariyaben, much older, has learned to use this to her advantage- not a girl- a queen! She gets things done for herself. But it often seems passive manipulation.

She has an opportunity to participate in a quilt exhibition in Chennai. She has organized a group with the name “Ralli ni Rani” (Quilt Queens), made the quilts, but she wants to know if it is a good idea to go to distant markets?

She finds reasons not to participate in the English class. “If we try to speak a little English with a customer,” she says, “Our community will ridicule us.”

Crabs in the basket.

At the perfect moment, Shakil arrives and we set him in the class. He says, you have to go out, to exhibitions. You are the one who can sell your work.

I put the quilt project before the class, as a class problem. The women understand they need to go out to sell. But Hariyaben wants someone else to get the materials and sell the products. Unless they take responsibility how can they operate a business? Unless they feel the need to sell, how can they move ahead?

The class comes to the conclusion that they have collective strength. They can pool their individual strengths and overcome their weaknesses. Lakshmi and Zakiya, both educated but too young to have market experience, decide they will together take the quilts to Chennai! It will be an opportunity to experience the market, and if there are two of them their families can’t object.

In two weeks, the women have searched their souls, thought until their brains hurt.

The course is difficult. The goal is high: to design a collection and produce it for an exhibition. Harkhuben has decided she will drop out, non- negotiable. Sajnuben is getting stressed. Tara has gone beyond her comfort zone.

The suf artisans- Lakshmi, Tulsi and Tara- finalize a joint collection theme, “Butterflies.” They choose the concept because butterflies are colourful, light and can travel anywhere. It works with their delicate suf embroidery.

We watch YouTube clips of caterpillars wholeheartedly enveloping themselves in their chrysalises. Then they struggle magnificently to emerge, wet and exhausted, dry their wings…. and fly.

I wonder if they realize the metaphor they have chosen?