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Dastkar Ranthambore Project                


Three years ago a young woman burnt herself to death in a Rajasthani village.  The drums of a wedding procession drowned her screams till it was too late for us to help her. For Dhapu just 30, the mother of five children, lively, bright, beautiful, the pressures of having to take on the support of her widowed sister-in-law and her family of four, proved too much.  Her husband’s income as an agricultural labourer in this particularly dry, deprived part of Eastern Rajasthan did not match his sense of family honour. Ironically, sadly the group of us who rushed – too late – to save Dhapu from her self-immolating flames were working to create economic alternatives for women just like her.  Today – as part of the Dastkar Ranthambore Project – Dhapu’s eldest daughter Indira, her widowed sister-in-law, and her sister-in-law’s daughter Pinky, are among the most prosperous women in Sherpur village – earning their own livelihood through their own inherent skills.

The Ranthambore National Park spreads over 400 sq. kms of dry deciduous forest in the Sawai Madhopore district of south-east Rajasthan.  It is one of the finest natural tiger habitats of the world. Creating this space and freedom, however, meant that villagers, whose ancestors had for centuries lived within the environs of the Park, lost their homes and had to be resettled. Though these villagers were settled in areas just outside the Park, they lost their access to wood, water and traditional farming lands. As an initiative to support these villagers, the Ranthambore Foundation was created with the objective of acting as a catalyst in rebuilding the displaced communities’ social and economic foundations. It was in this context that the Ranthambore Foundation approached Dastkar in the spring of 1989 to take charge of the income generation programme for the village crafts persons, particularly women.

The objectives were as follows:

  • Using local craft skill and materials to create products whose production and sale would generate employment and income, without destroying the traditional structures of village life, or preventing the producers from engaging in other agricultural and household duties.

  • Using craft production and marketing as a catalyst to rebuild the confidence and economic viability of communities that had been dislocated and uprooted  from the area that was designated as protected, once the sanctuary was created

  • Linking Dastkar initiatives in the area of income generation with other programmes of the Ranthambore Foundation, in areas like primary health-care, family planning, education and adult literacy, environment conservation etc., thereby creating a model for a holistic development.

  • To create structures for capacity building, so that the crafts persons can themselves become responsible for every stage i.e. from the point of sourcing raw materials to final marketing to end customers.

The plan seemed simple enough---identify the traditional crafts of the area and build on these existing strengths to create products that have an urban appeal.

Dastkar visited the area in April 1989 to identify local craft traditions and materials that could be the basis for income generation schemes. The survey covered the two towns of Sawai Madhopur and Khandar and six villages in the area. The villages were grouped around the Ranthambore Park – Sherpur,Kundera, Shyampura etc; and the villages around the Khandar Fort – Chhan, Allahpur, Baharandi etc.  Kailashpura is one of the villages that has been completely created from resettled people from the forest.  Their new location seems a bizarre, heartbreaking choice for a pastoral community – lacking water, fodder, trees and all the other aspects and amenities of their former verdant forest home.  Consequently innovative development schemes were a vital necessity.

The survey however told a different story---it revealed that there was little professional craft.  But a number of craft skills were being practised by both men and women in the villages, mainly as a means of reusing and recycling waste materials such as rags, reed, cane, wool waste, newsprint etc. or to create items of daily use by the villagers themselves. Most of the craft people are women whose only previous employment options were through casual labour, stone breaking or road clearing.

Outside Kundera, the team was introduced to a juthi maker. There were a few families making black pottery in the nearby village of Shyamota. In Shyampura, the beautiful mandna paintings on the mud walls of the homes, (similar to Warli paintings of Maharashtra), gave indication of the existence of creative talent. Patchwork was an obvious craft, done mostly for placing on bulls and camels.  However, this kind of work had been stopped due to a lack of local demand.  Other craft skills in Shyampura included dyeing, rope weaving, and mirror-work on dupattas.

Dastkar now had to rethink its normal strategy.  Instead of the usual pattern wherein Dastkar interventions were always targeted to professional craftspersons, this posed a challenge of a new kind—the need was to first create groups of professional craftspersons before the stereotypical inputs of design, management and marketing could be given.  Dastkar made its proposal to the Ranthambore Foundation on this basis, the programme outlined being documentation of craft techniques and motifs; identification of potential craftpersons; designing of a sample range; production, culminating in an exhibition-cum-sale to highlight local skills and create awareness of the objectives of the Foundation.

The Foundation approved the project, initial funds were raised and with that, started Dastkar’s involvement in the region. Dastkar began a series of six-weekly visits to Ranthambore and its environs in August 1989, initially concentrating on photo-documenting various crafts and products. This period was also useful in understanding the village communities and their dynamics. Unlike most other Dastkar projects, there was no local field organisation to build bridges, or do the follow up work. We were not dealing with a single, close-knit, professional, market-driven craft community; rather we were trying to enter a diverse, heterogeneous agrarian society. Craft skills, rapidly dying, were practiced, if at all, in a totally spontaneous, unstructured and undeveloped way.

Work began in the twin villages of Sherpur and Khilchipur in October 1989. Results were however not forthcoming. The village women were suspicious, unsure and uncommitted. The first task was therefore, to motivate the women to understand their own hidden potential before they could be expected to become craftpersons in a commercial sense. And build trust in Dastkar.

In December 1989, a Dastkar coordinator spent three weeks living in the village itself, initiating the Dastkar room. It took this intervention to break the barrier. From an occasional sample produced after many weeks, primarily to please Dastkar, a regular and growing production line of products and designs began to appear. Dastkar was also able to separate the potential crafts persons from the rest, identify those who really needed the income and provide first hand training to them.

By the end of the three weeks, patchwork cushions, quilts, lacquer bangles, decorative chumli pot holders, bandini and sequin pomcha dupattas, pressed wool namda rugs, terracottaware and rag rugs were ready for the first Ranthambore project consignment to Delhi. Craftspersons in Sherpur and six potters in Shyamota were registered as regular producers. The value of this consignment was small but it translated into an average earning of Rs.100/- for each of the 35 women for a ten-day work, a figure that compared well with the alternative offered by backbreaking work as casual construction labour. 

The project was now in full swing. A full-time, local Project Coordinator was hired to manage affairs. After the first year, 65 households in Sherpur village had two-three family members working for Dastkar. By June 1991, 18 months after the inception of the project, the 75 women working in the initial two target villages were earning an average of Rs. 300-500 per month. Today, it varies between Rs. 500-4000 and has approximately 300 craftspeople working.

In November 1990, a group from the village, including two women, participated in the Delhi Dastkari Bazaar for the first time, running their stall and interacting directly with customers and other craftspersons from all over India. They sold Rs. 67000/- worth of goods. This was a real breakthrough since it brought a much greater understanding of group action, independence and cooperative working as well as matters like quality control, sizing, and consumer preferences.

With Sherpur- Khilchipur firmly on its feet, Dastkar moved on to Kundera and Kailashpuri villages. Craft skills identified were leatherwork, mat and fan-making. The Kundera leather artisans responded well—mojris, juthis began to reach the Delhi market regularly. This development was significant also because these artisans constituted another male craft group in the Dastkar umbrella.

Kailashpura, was a much greater challenge. Dastkar was able to identify basic skills in embroidery, mandna painting, fan- weaving and miniature rag-doll making. However, being engaged in agricultural or dairy work, most of these women could not spare any time to hone up their skills enough to produce saleable items. Dastkar therefore, decided not to expand its project in this village for the time being.

During the first five years, Dastkar was based in a small room in Sherpur village. As the project took root, this room became a centre where people of different castes and religions, occupations and ages came together to learn new skills, or often, simply to interact and observe. Topics of discussion were vast and varied—birth-control methods were canvassed along with colour combinations; old women realised that writing their name was as easy as threading a needle!

Dastkari Kendra

Soon, the small room could no longer cope with the ever growing numbers.  The official Dastkar Kendra was therefore, opened in January 1993 on a plot that was leased from the Foundation and with the help of grants and donations. The Dastkari Kendra – DASTKAR’s Craft Community Centre at Ranthambore was conceived as the culmination of the first phase of the DASTKAR Ranthambore Project.  A bringing together of the various elements and these incorporated in our income generation programme in the villages around the Ranthambore Park – community building, training, production sales and social awareness.

It was intended to serve as

  • Craft Production Centre

  • Project Office

  • Sales Outlet

  • Training and Workshop Space

  • Creche

  • Design and Sampling Studio

  • Craft Documentation and Display Centre

  • Raw Material Store

  • Dormitory

  • Local Community Centre

The centre is functioning from August’ 92 and provides an income in traditional skills to over 100 people. The Kendra today house a production centre, raw material store, office, sales outlet, training workshop apart from accommodating a guest house and a local community centre. It is a non-sectarian workspace for group interaction, utilised for the development and production of crafts, like block-printing and tie-dyeing, that cannot be done in homes. The existence of this facility has also enabled the conducting of a large number of training programmes, on topics ranging from tailoring, pottery or dyeing techniques, on the one hand, to cooperative management, accounting, legal literacy or adult education, on the other. The Dastkar Ranthambore project is currently being run by a local Project Coordinator—Ms. Ujwala Jodha, supported by four office staff members. In September 2000, the Ranthambore shop was inaugurated.

The following Craft skills are being practised at the Kendra today:

1)      Block- Printing

2)      Tie - Dye

3)      Patchwork

4)      Pottery

5)      Leather

Giriraj Prasad and his group of bandini tie & dye women make pomchas for the village women to embellish with sequins embroidery. The traditional Sawai Madhopore black and red pomcha has been developed in different layouts and different colours: purple, green, yellow and orange, as well as a natural dye range in indigo, beige, brown, grey and fawn and a summer range with white as the predominant colour.  A Ranthambore Dastkar pomcha featured prominently in Mira Nair’s international award-winning film, Mississipi Masala.

Babu Lal Nama was an out of work hand-block printer whom DASTKAR encountered in our search for local base fabric for our patchwork garments and soft furnishings.  He had a wonderful collection of old block designs handed down in his family from the time Sawai Madhopore was a famour centre of indigo block printing.  Babulal was encouraged to restart his printing business, using traditional alizerine and vegetable dyes, colour ways and motifs.  We have also developed a new range of block designs usine motifs from the village children’s drawings of the flora and fauna of the region.  Babulal earned Rs. 19,600 through DASTKAR last year.  He is a home-based craft, with members of his family doing the printing.  However, he and Giriraj have been motivated by the new areas for income generation in the villages.  The Dastkari Kendra is the venue for these training programmes.

The product range from the Kendra has grown to an impressive 80 odd items covering a wide spectrum of home furnishings, garments including lehngas, jackets and tops, bell totas and decorative mobiles, in addition to sarees and dupattas.  The Shyamota potters and Kundera leather artisans have been able to attain independent status as self-sustaining craft groups visiting Dastkari bazaars and other exhibitions on their own.

In mid 1992, Dastkar suggested that the craft group of Sherpur-Khilchipur village should organise themselves as a formally registered cooperative, with a vision that others in the area would follow their example, and all would be linked together as a cluster under the Dastkar umbrella. However, the literacy level in the village was a major hurdle. Although the group was working well, the members did not have the requisite skill to allow this community organisation to come into being.  Dastkar therefore decided to delay this transition until after organisation and leadership had developed organically.

The Dastkar Ranthambore Kendra has changed their attitudes to society, caste, marriage, purdah. Initially, in the village, women of different castes and religions wanted separate timings to come to the room where the Dastkar coordinator had lived and worked. The first time a harijan woman came for work she crouched outside the door. It was she herself, not the upper caste women, who explained - with shocked disbelief at the Dastkar coordinator’s naiveté - that she could not enter. She had to be literally pulled in. When a Muslim child pee-ed on the floor, the Hindu women fled in horror and wanted the whole place lippai-ed! Today, the men and women in the Project work, travel, cook, eat and drink together, marveling at the folly that kept them separate for so long. At the annual picnic the men make the women sit, and serve them - Hindus and Muslims, harijan and upper-caste, alike. The local doctor says he can recognize a DASTKAR craftswoman from half a kilometre, just by the way she walks and holds her head. The groups do not always follow a religion or caste bias and therefore some of them have a mixed representation across caste, religion or craft, a trend that Dastkar has been happy to encourage.

Self-Help Groups

In June 1993, Dastkar suggested that the women participating in the programme should save a minimum of Rs. 20/- per month into a recurring account. The objective was to encourage the habit of saving.  This small amount did not really pinch the pocket and would otherwise have, most likely, been spent on unnecessary trinkets. The Project Coordinator was made responsible to collect the money each month and deposit it in a bank. Twenty-six women joined this savings club, which worked such for around 1-2 years. 

As the project was growing in scale, so was its requirement for working capital. This was explained to the craftswomen who were told of the need to create a joint revolving fund for sustaining production. The women understood that anyone who wanted work from the Kendra would also need to join the savings group., and thus, a collective savings group took shape.

However, when the local bank was approached for a loan against these collective savings, the request was turned down. Instead, the Bank Manager urged the women to form a self-help group. After a lot of deliberation centred around how the group would function, the Dastkar Swayam Samuh Sahayata group came into existence. Since that small beginning, the Dastkar Ranthambore Project has come a long way in setting up and successfully running Self-Help Groups. Today, there are five groups, all working well. 

Working Rules

At the first meeting, the working rules were laid out. It was decided that all members would contribute a particular sum each month. The amount to be saved was decided by ALL members, who thereafter were bound by it. The collected amount can be loaned out to the person whose need is the greatest, which fact is also decided by the group. This amount is given at an interest, which rate is also decided by the group, as is the time limit for repayment. The member taking the loan has to arrange two sureties from within the group. In the event of default, the member is fined Rs. 5/- per day of default. Meetings are held regularly each month at a predetermined date. All members are required to attend and absentees are in fact fined Rs. 5/- The fine for delayed contribution/repayment is also Rs. 5/- per day

At present, Dastkar is working with women from three villages adjoining the sanctuary/ Kendra and with two other villages i.e. of potters and cobblers. Informal research however reveals that there are more traditional craft skills in other villages of the District, which have not as yet been developed.