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No complex strategies guided rangSutra; just vision and commitment to bringing positive social change

New-age company: Artisans as co-owners, directors

Sumita Ghose

Published: Jan. 30, 2024
Updated: Jan. 30, 2024

THE idea of rangSutra came to me while on a sabbatical in 2002.  I was writing a paper on the kind of new-age organizations that were needed which would address inequalities and injustices faced by communities around the world. I envisioned an organization that would bridge the divide between marginalized rural communities and thriving urban India, between tradition and modernity, to create a more equitable and just society.

It took us four years to register rangSutra Crafts India in 2006 as a company and start work in full swing. Our approach remains constructive, building on skills that artisans and their groups already possess, investing time and resources on product development, on building capacities and capabilities on the ground. All these formed the bridge, linking artisanal skills and products with the market for handcrafted products.

Our purpose is to ensure regular work and sustainable livelihoods for rural artisan communities. To achieve this, we equip them with the necessary skills, equipment and technology required to run a 21st century enterprise — one which is committed to people and the planet, along with financial sustenance or profits. We are market oriented but not market driven.

We needed funds. Philanthropic organizations were unwilling to fund us as we were not a charitable organization. Banks were unwilling to lend us money due to our lack of business experience, and our inability to provide collateral for loans.

That’s when the idea of asking artisans to put in share capital, albeit small amounts, was suggested by William Bissell of Fabindia. rangSutra’s purpose is to ensure regular work and incomes for rural artisans…and we invited them to be co-owners. Without much ado, 1,000 artisans, 800 of them women, from western Rajasthan — all part of the Urmul Trust network — put in trust, talent and `1,000 each, to start rangSutra: a community-owned social enterprise. We call ourselves a social enterprise, because positive social change, a society with opportunities for all, is the ultimate goal. The means towards this goal is the designing, crafting, marketing and selling of ethically produced handcrafted apparel and home furnishing.

Supported by impact investors Fabindia and Aavishkaar,  we took our first steps on the journey of crafting our company. No complex strategies guided our actions; just vision, commitment and action.

Looking back, what seemed like a practical thing to do — inviting artisans to be shareholders — had strategic outcomes as well. It instilled a sense of agency especially among women artisans. As a woman artisan said: “rangSutra shares are the only asset I own. Our land and our home are in the names of the male members of our family. Working on the orders that rangSutra brings gives us income… we have our own bank accounts now and we can choose to spend our earnings as we wish. We have a voice, and it counts.”

Artisans have representation on our board and play a crucial role in the growth and development of the organization. Many of the producer-companies we work with have grown several times in the past 16 years and, in the past two uncertain Covid years, worked with and depended on rangSutra to ensure work for their artisan members. We, in turn, depend on our buyers and customers support us with market access, market knowledge as well as technical knowledge regarding the products we make for the global citizen.

 

MAKE IN VILLAGE

A turning point in our journey was our decision to move away from the tradition of home-based work that artisans, especially women artisans, were used to and which they preferred. Instead, we created small production centres in villages initially based in someone’s courtyard and housed later in proper production centres built by the local panchayat, after demands from women to have a ‘space for themselves’.

This decision to set up small village-based production centres was something we learned from our 10-year partnership with IKEA. Initially some women were reluctant to come to our centres, some husbands and parents did not allow their wives and daughters to work outside the home, but there were always trailblazers and soon the others followed.

Our buzzing centres are testimony to the fact that women meant business: they put in place rules for the centre, monitored attendance, discussed work and other topics while they did their needlework — creating beautiful hand-embroidered products. The centres became spaces to learn from one another, help one another and take their centres, which in some cases were local legal entities, to another level.

 

CRAFT MANAGERS

Key players in this transformational journey are our CMs — Craft Managers — women and men who are artisans, are high school-educated and, most importantly, have leadership  qualities — stepping up to motivate and enable other women to join centres and learn skills at the village level. Most of the women are young and are guided by older women in their villages.

One such older stalwart is Dhinya Bai, who has travelled to Jaipur and Delhi to sell products made by her and other women, and to Varanasi, where she trained craft managers. Dhinya speaks Sindhi, Marwari and Hindi. A very sharp and humorous person, she has two sons and daughters-in-law who also embroider. “We were very reluctant to exhibit our skills but now our girls are very confident. There is something that is beyond me or for that matter any one individual. All of us add something to this collective spirit of craft with a mix of aesthetics and utilitarian elements, which spreads across to amplify the individual’s input. That’s how the collective is always greater and more lifelong than an individual. This collective spirit actually brings the market to us rather than us going to the market.”

Dhinya and a hundred others like her are now looking at the future with an open heart and mind. She says, “We have to keep the heart open to embrace new designs and the mind open to imbibe and translate them with needle and thread on fabric. It is this readiness that has brought one of the finest oeuvre of handcrafted products into people’s lives and in turn empowered the women. They have built their homes, educated their kids and, most importantly, built the spirit to live and command respect. It is literally like an oasis of empowered women in this gigantic desert.”

 

SUNSET TO SUNRISE

The widespread belief is that handlooms are a sunset industry, that the weaving profession cannot accommodate the aspiration of the youth anymore, and that the profession has become economically unviable. But Swarooparam, a handloom weaver from Sanchore, whom we helped set up a weaving unit in his village, and many of his fellow weavers,  defy this myth.

Misrhrimal, a fellow weaver, says, “You have to look at it more holistically than just the amount we get in hand. I worked in a metro city. I was paid a little more than what I make here. But if I add the living expenses, travelling back home once in a while and other costs, living in the city did not make any sense. Apart from that, I can work and spend time with my family and kids. I am not only a breadwinner for them. My responsibility is much more than that — to be with them not just as a provider but to share their joys and sorrows.”

Swarooparam also relates to this. “It’s a very viable profession provided you have your mind, body and heart in line with weaving. This is much more than a medium to earn a living. It gives me a sense of pride when people greet me as an artisan and not as an unskilled labourer. It gives independence, livelihood, health, professional longevity and autonomy if you remain committed to it and are open to new ideas and collaborations. Self-image, reputation and pragmatism are the key areas. And it’s the collective responsibility of all.”

Working as a self-employed weaver he gets perks like spending time with family, friends and neighbours, and eating home-cooked food along with Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000 per month which actually makes the quality of life better than a migrant worker in a city. He believes  that weaving is something he can practise till he is at least 70.

“Since 2011 I have been working fulltime on handloom with rangSutra. Before that I was in Surat for three years and I realized that life would not take me anywhere. So I decided to come back and work with rangSutra. Here, people know me and I feel a sense of belonging to this soil, ” says Swarooparam.

Weaving is not easy. A lot of preparation goes on before a weaver gets onto his loom. Careful preparation of the yarn, which could include reeling of the yarn, dyeing, making bobbins, preparing the warp, and then carefully attaching the warp to the loom, needs to be done before the weaver actually starts weaving the fabric. He or she has to be alert and aware during the entire weaving process, to ensure that the fabric taking form on the loom is even, and the designs or motifs are as they were designed to be. It could be a simple plain weaving technique, a basket weave, a twill weave, or the more complex satin weave.

While the entrepreneurial-professional approach is necessary, it is not enough. The main binding factor that connects us all in rangSutra is the collective spirit and the form of organization. Instead of working through a few master weavers, as is the norm, at rangSutra we prefer working with groups and collectives, where each artisan has the chance to build on his or her talent and improve skills.

Sevaram from Napasar explains the advantages of working in a cluster: “There is cooperation instead of competition. Everyone gets their share of work and is equally paid. So we all work together. I learnt from elders and I guide younger people. It’s like a flowing river, that’s why we as a collective never stagnate.”

Of course, for us, celebration of handloom would not be possible if it were not for the hundreds of rangSutra customers who choose to wear and buy handloom as well as our buyers, especially IKEA, who have helped revive handloom techniques and strengthen our weaving units, giving handloom and weavers a new lease of life in the 21st century.

We have faced challenges along the way, and tried to overcome them, failing at times, but trying to evolve ways of working that make us resilient and strong. For us at rangSutra, every day is a new beginning, a chance to be a better version of ourselves, knowing that we have the power within to create a vibrant organization, where it is a pleasure to come to work!

 

Sumita Ghose is the founder of rangSutra.

 

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