In order to revive hand block printing and hand woven handloom, support and train more artisans, and in turn empower women, Aarti and Rohit Rusia founded ASHA in Chhindwara district, Madhya Pradesh.
The rich and traditional art of handloom block printing is breathing its last in the era of modernisation. While machine-made fabrics and screen printing have peaked in popularity, people who rely on traditional hand-woven clothing are left with very few options. Centuries ago, the Chhipa community from the Chhindwara district of Madhya Pradesh, comprising of 300 families, was involved in the art of hand block printing. Today, this art form is continued by a single family, headed by a 70-year-old Durgalal, amidst many struggles.
To revive the dying art of handloom and hand block printing, the husband-wife duo Rohit and Aarti Rusia started an organisation called ASHA (Aid and Survival of Handicrafts Artisans).
Multiple factors have led to the demise of hand block printing. In this traditional art, artisans use a wooden mould to engrave designs onto fabric. The key problem is that it is a very tedious and time-consuming process, explains 43-year-old Rohit Rusia, Co-founder of ASHA. “The profit margin is also comparatively very low since the cost of production exceeds the pay received by the artists,” adds Rohit.
Furthermore, due to the entry of mills and coal miles in the region, the artisans and families from nearby towns and villages suffered. While power mills provided similar fabrics at a lower cost, the coal mines provided new employment opportunities for the village. Slowly, artists started to prefer labour work to designing as the pay scale offered by factories were higher at a lesser effort. As youth also failed to take interest in their handloom legacy, this tradition died a slow death.
“Being a part of the hand block printing legacy, I felt that I need to do something to revive the tradition and culture; come closer to my roots.”
Although Rohit had a degree in pharmaceuticals, he was always attracted to block printing. His wife Aarti, a BA graduate, always encouraged and supported him to follow his passion. Hence in 2014, Rohit and Aarti, decided to work towards protection and promotion of block printing, handloom, handicrafts, and other art forms and simultaneously build a platform to train more artisans.
ASHA, sold under the brand name Cotton Fabs, is a one-stop destination for both manufacturing and sales of hand block printed fabrics and designs.
All the work – from the production unit in Chhindwara district to the hand-woven fabrics – is done by women. ASHA has made a conscious effort to provide employment primarily to rural tribal women of Madhya Pradesh. The team has also made efforts to train women in this art form and empowered them to work from home as well. Rohit says proudly,
“From stitching to cutting to designing, everything is done by the Gond tribal women. Our main aim is to get our artists and these women into the mainstream. Women empowerment is high on our agenda. Even this organisation is founded by a woman.”
The fabrics and designs developed by Cotton Fabs are not only traditional but they also provide a distinct blend of heritage with the current local flavour, art, and culture.
Corruption and exploitation of artists were other reasons for the downfall of this profession. While hand-woven fabrics required extreme hard work, the pay given to the artists was extremely low. The presence of middlemen only made the situation more difficult. Whether an item got sold for Rs 3 or Rs 10, the artists would get paid only Rs 1, explains Rohit.
Thus, ASHA follows the motto “Art–Artist–Customer” and it has been successful in eliminating the middleman from the system. Cotton Fabs deals directly with the consumers, thereby, a large part of the profits goes directly to the families of rural artisans. Currently, ASHA provides employment to 30 people.
To increase sales and have a global market presence, Rohit has adopted social media as the main marketing tool. They have their presence in Central and South India.
A large part of the Chhipa community continues to stay away from this profession; however, the organisation is slowly gaining recognition and respect in the state. Many youngsters prefer city jobs over handloom and handicrafts due to low sales and demand. Since Madhya Pradesh is not a tourist hub like Rajasthan, the sales are not high. Screen printed fabrics and the mall culture have eaten the traditional consumer base; however, the connoisseur of block printing recognises the value of hand-woven designs and continues to frequent the organisation.
Rohit realised that many people living in cities want to help, contribute to rural livelihood and in turn, purchase authentic products. Exhibitions and trade shows often become a medium to connect with metros and the urban consumers. However, funding has become a major problem in this regard. Since ASHA does not have a parent organisation and is presently bootstrapped, Cotton Fabs has some budget limitations. Yet, Rohit refuses to lose heart and says,
“If, at the age of 70, Durgalal wants to see this art alive; if any artist without any financial aid wants to see the revival of this tradition and culture, it is a big thing and it is the biggest inspiration one can have.”