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Transforming lives through 'special skills'

Aug 16, 2011

A social entrepreneurship initiative called 'Rangsutra' has helped many poor households to increase their savings. Thousands of traditional artisans across India constitute its main producers and shareholders, of which 70% include women.

A company share, framed and prominently displayed on the wall of an artisan's hut in rural Rajasthan signifies a small but important transformation taking place in the lives of craftspeople who have become shareholders of Rangsutra, a company set up by social activist-turned-entrepreneur Sumita Ghose six years ago. 

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For the over 1,100 weavers, embroiderers and artisans who have formed the privately held company by pooling in not just money but also their creative, productive skills, the shares are much more than just scraps of paper. For many it is their new savings, as valuable as the chunky silver they have invested in for centuries.

As a Fulbright scholar working on conflict resolution ten years ago, Sumita chose to look at the growing disparities in income between rural and urban areas leading to inequalities and civil unrest. She felt she could use her knowledge, experience and skills to stem this growing divide by improving people's economic status. Back in the mid-1980s she, along with Sanjoy Ghose, had set up an NGO, URMUL, to enable drought-stricken farmers in Rajasthan counter hunger and poverty through traditional weaving and embroidery skills. She decided to resume working with these artisans.

A wealth of crafts

So Rangsutra was set up as a company of artisans, all of them shareholders, from remote parts of the country — the deserts of Rajasthan, where colour has been a way of life; the hills of Uttaranchal, sometimes lush green and at other times snow clad; Andhra Pradesh, Assam and West Bengal, where despite insurgency, the looms and hand-embroidery have remained strong and vibrant. Sumita's objective, shared by her designers and the markets she reached out to, was to ensure sustainable livelihood for the artisans, by creating top-quality handmade products, based on the principles of fair trade and a celebration of the country's rich crafts heritage. "Socially", says Sumita, "craftspeople and artisans come from some of the most disadvantaged communities with very little opportunity for self-development and growth. Given the fast-changing trends in urban markets, which are the mainstay of many rural artisans, it is a miracle that artisans and craftspeople still retain their skills."

Rangsutra seeks to be a bridge between "artisan and customer, tradition and contemporary, and change and continuity". Its core value is respect for both the producer and the customer. It ensures a fair price to the producer and quality products for customers. Profits earned from sale are ploughed back to ensure a better life for the communities.

Shareholding exquisite skills

Making the company market-oriented was the challenge. It was not dependent on grants. So, before asking the artisans to step in, she took two loans in 2006 — Rs 23 lakh from Avishkaar, a social venture or angel fund, and Rs 30 lakh from Artisans Micro Finance, a subsidiary of Fab India. Her own contribution was Rs 10 lakh. While her two big funders own 50 per cent of the shares, she along with other artisans own the remaining 50 per cent. Gradually she hopes to raise the share of the artisans to 49 per cent. All venture funds look for returns but Avishkaar also looks for social impact. It normally exits in two to three years, confident that the organisation set up with its assistance is strong enough to grow on its own.

The venture funds paid twice the price the artisan paid for a share. Barely five years down the line the value of each share has increased five-fold — from Rs 100 to Rs 500. Though there are 1,100 shareholders, the number of workers associated with Rangsutra exceeds 2,000. Sumita is confident that all of them will gradually become shareholders. Shareholders get dividends, and in the last three years Rangsutra's dividends increased from 10 per cent in 2008-09, to 15 per cent the following year and 25 per cent in 2010-11. The turnover too has soared — from Rs 30 lakh in 2006-07 to Rs 10.5 crore in 2010-11.

Beginning with three groups of artisans, Rangsutra today has 30 groups, each with 25 to 200 skilled artisans, working with it. They are all producers. But in Bikaner, Rajasthan, where it has a large unit, they are producers as well as shareholders. Rangsutra helps with designs, colour combinations and gets the bulk orders.

Mahila Sannathkar, in the old city of Hyderabad, works with 25 to 30 artisans whose forte is aari embroidery, and quality stitching and tailoring. In the Sundarbans, West Bengal, 200 artisans specialise in silk batik. Everything is handcrafted. If the cloth happens to be from power looms, it is embellished with hand-embroidery. Rangsutra's range of products include tussar silks, soft mulmuls, tie-and-dye fabrics and an assortment of handmade linen fashioned into stoles, women's and men's apparel, handbags and soft furnishings. Recently it began working with mochees, or leather artisans, for footwear and bags.

Capturing global attention

In 2010-11, Rangsutra got orders worth Rs 2 crore. For these bulk orders it had to augment the strength of the existing groups, and increase their capacity by speeding up work while, at the same time, maintaining quality. New groups were also created. Today, artisans in nearly 2,000 homes across the country are working for Rangsutra.

Driven by commitment and the desire to excel, Sumita and her two young designers — Ritu Suri and Ruchi Tripathi, both graduates of the National Institute of Fashion Technology, are constantly on the move, motivating the artisans, giving them new designs and searching for new groups of artisans and fresh markets. While Rangsutra's biggest buyer is Fab India, it also exports in small quantities to France, the Netherlands and the UK. A few years ago, Olivia, the owner of an exclusive Paris boutique called Numanu, came to India and worked with Rangsutra artisans to produce nearly 300 short winter-jackets for the fashion-conscious French. The jackets were tailored in India, with the soft hand-woven woollen material from Bikaner, silk lining from the Sunderbans and embroidery from other units in Rajasthan.

Though Numanu later closed shop, other foreign buyers looking for exotic, exclusive garments and soft furnishings are knocking on Rangsutra's doors. Currently it is developing soft furnishings — largely appliqué cushion covers — for a UK shop called Monsoon. It will participate for the second consecutive year in the ethical fashion show in Paris. In several countries, designers and fashion houses are promoting ethical trade practices, where the artisans and craftspeople are direct beneficiaries of their creations — this is in line with Rangsutra's ideology.

Of course, the challenges have been many. Production was not on time and there were hiccups in production quality, says Sumita. So a close monitoring model was evolved, and through incentives and penalties, the artisans became more professional. Embroidery has to be uniform, and when there are bulk orders and work is handcrafted, this is not easy. Fab India is satisfied with Rangsutra's quality. While it may overlook slight variations in colour or the sizes of the flowers embroidered, it looks for accuracy in sizes. To help meet this requirement, the cutting of kurtas, dresses and other apparel was centralised in Bikaner. The uniformly cut material is sent to Bajju, also in Rajasthan, for tailoring. There is also close supervision of the finishing work — stitching of buttons and so on.

Work, and income, comes home

As most of the work is done in homes and not under controlled conditions, the garments are dry-cleaned both to ensure they are spotless and that the colours don't bleed.

The waste material, leftovers of kurtas and cushion covers, are recycled to make hand-embroidered bags, mobile covers and patchwork bedspreads.

Seventy per cent of Rangsutra's workers are women. Working part time (three to five hours) from their homes, depending on their skills they earn about Rs 3,000 to Rs 5,000 a month. Earlier, when work was irregular, they made only about Rs 500 to Rs 1,000. Skilled male workers working full time can earn up to Rs 10,000 a month. The payment piece rate is the same for men and women. The work and money have given women more say at home. Women now want to send their daughters to school; some have become group leaders and have a greater say in their villages. Some of the women who had migrated from Pakistan are able to tap their embroidery skills to produce works with the Sindhi kadai — pukka and soof. A 60-year-old grandmother has taught it to her children and grandchildren in Rajasthan. Retaining their cultural identity, the traditional embroidery used for making personal trousseau is now market affiliated and kept alive.

Markets are reaching rural women and men with special skills, and transforming their lives.

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