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Empower Women & Enrich Tradition: In Conversation with Quilt Culture Founder, Rucha Kulkarni

Written By:  Naomi Joshi 

Rucha Kulkarni is a visual and community artist, whose current practice moves seamlessly into social and public practice through projects that utilize the inherent participatory nature of craftbased media as a trigger for social engagement and change. Being a woman from the Indian middle-class and witnessing the social despair of caste and gender inequality, Rucha’s work with women from less privileged backgrounds is an organic extension of her practice. Her intention is to create platforms which challenge the orthodox norms of the economy of creativity and create equal opportunities and financial independence for less privileged communities through their own knowledge, skills, and experiences. Together, Rucha and members from these communities, work to create textile art and interdisciplinary media installations, which aim to initiate discourse and generate awareness around feelings of disparities between privileged and less privileged neighborhoods.

 

Since 2015, Rucha has been working on a community art project called Quilt Culture: a social entrepreneurial project with 30 craftswomen from economically challenged, less privileged backgrounds, based in Pune city, India. The aim of this project is to “empower women and enrich tradition”. Their work focuses on traditional, hand-stitched, Maharashtrian quilts, known as godhadi, offering a range of bedding solutions and accessories like hand bags, pouches and more. Godhadi is made up of layers of up-cycled, used, old fabrics from the elderly ladies of the family. This deep-seated, cultural association allowed Rucha to closely experience and reflect on the vulnerable situation of women within the social fabric of India, with its precarious elements of strong patriarchal values and caste system. The intention of Quilt Culture is to challenge the capitalist top-down model, by following an egalitarian collaborative creative process, where all the women equally contribute to owning and running the project. The financial independence gained through this project helps in generating a sense of identity, awareness, and confidence. Now, Quilt Culture is owned and run by the craftswomen themselves.

Archana Jagtap is a young, educated woman from the community, who represents the business. A major part of the project was to provide Archana with a proper understanding of business, book-keeping and sales. I-Create India and the Pragati Foundation helped in the training process, and still provide necessary guidance. The No Borders Journal had the pleasure of visiting Rucha Kulkarni at the opening night of the Beyond Quilting exhibition: an international research project on innovation and godhadi craft, including a cross-cultural workshop with Dutch and Indian designers/artists and Indian traditional godhadi craftswomen. Beyond Quilting is a non-profit initiative, which aims to put a strong focus on the power of innovative designs, with the goal of an organic culmination of contemporary cultural sensitivity towards fair trade and sustainability. This project works in collaboration with Quilt Culture, supporting the godhadi women in encouraging their independent business through the possibilities of an online market. The initiative strives towards social, economic and environmental sustainability by generating financial opportunities for less privileged communities, and recycling waste fabrics into beautifully crafted products.

How did the project of Quilt Culture come to life?

The basic idea was helping less privileged women make a living from their craftsmanship, where eventually, no one, not even I, would be their leader. They should be the only ones running it. In the beginning, it was quite the task because I had to help them with a basic understanding of business, bookkeeping, etc., while at the same time, continuing to work on their craftsmanship to the level of market needs. It took about three years to develop everything. Now, before coming here [Amsterdam] in 2016, I handed it over to them completely; they’re the ones who are making the quilts and selling them. Before coming to Amsterdam, I made some arrangements with international contacts, where people consistently make orders. But in the end, it's not just about the money or even creating the platform, it's really about the womens’ empowerment and mobilization. In order to maintain their power and success, there needs to be some kind of interaction with the globe, not just making and selling locally.

Where did you find these women? Did you reach out to them?

That's a funny story, actually. I'm a visual artist, but I was trained as a painter and then I got my Masters in Art History from Emerson University. I was interested in social art practices for some time, and I did a project with Aalochana , which is a female research organization; they work on documentation and research. It’s based in Pune. They conduct two-day workshops, which take place in various neighborhoods throughout Pune and in bigger areas across Maharashtra. Their work is basically about women’s rights awareness, hygiene, childcare and more. I did a project with them, regarding how visuals can help de-personalize stories and aid women in opening up and sitting in their vulnerability. There was this poster which I displayed for an entire day; it was fifty feet by eight feet. At the end of the day, the idea was that women would come up to the poster and interpret the visuals. These women came up and talked about several possibilities of what the poster could mean; it depicted different stages of me wrapping my face. The exercise was depersonalizing, yet still involved the use of personal stories. This kind of process of distancing gave them the comfort to talk; it was about them but it also wasn’t. That whole day, as I spoke to the women more and more, I became closer to them. A few days later, they came up to me and said, “we’d like to learn something from you”. And to be honest, at that time, I really had no idea what I could do with them. They’re so comfortable in their social structure, so I found it strange to introduce something alien, something which is not of their culture, and force it upon them. So, I went there and spent some time researching and figuring out what they do. And to my surprise, each household had about 20-25 quilts, which the women had made over the course of generations. These quilts had been passed on. They were a way to gather, a communal gathering. The women would come together and make quilts, collectively. And so I thought, let’s do that. Let’s take advantage of what they’re already doing, what they already know. Take it to the next level. So that's how I found them.

In the practice of godhadi, do you add to the quilts as the materials become worn out, or is it necessary for the upper layers to become thinner so that the layers underneath can appear?

In the traditional practice of godhadi, I would say it’s the latter. This quilting project started as a revival of the godhadi; the quilts are made up of saris, designed as layers upon layers. If you look closely, you’ll see that each patch has several layers beneath it. If you remove the uppermost layer, you’ll see that the quilting stitches are so close to each other, they hold up the fabric. And you can see the fabric beneath it, so it creates a pattern. Even if the quilt begins to fade, there are still patterns beneath it, which surface, one at a time. It never ages. It keeps on creating patterns, which is how it is passed on from generation to generation. I’ve been working with this idea of memory quilts, since these godhadis are made up of old fabrics. They’re actually known as aajichi [grandmother] godhadi, because each quilt is made up of old sarees from your grandmother. It always has that particular smell; it holds the memories of your ancestry and family, the feel of your grandma. One’s family lineage plays a very important role emotionally in the general psyche of godhadi. I thought to myself: these memories, they can be felt in the fabrics, but they can’t be touched. It doesn’t have a tactile nature, but it’s a feeling, so how can I translate/transfer these memories into tactility and visuals? This was my personal approach towards the practice. During the Beyond Quilting project in my community art practice group, the godhadi women and I sat together and worked on daily memories. We questioned: when we start our day, what do we see? We made some drawings, and then based upon that, I developed what we spoke about into visuals. There are three layers to it; you can’t see it if there is no backlight, but when there is, the light allows the visuals to shine through via the curtain design I developed. Thin visuals are sandwiched, you cut the fabric to make a sandwich in between two fabrics. We made a teacup for chai in the morning - just a series of things we see in our everyday lives. There’s another series I’m working on with morning rituals; it involves Tulsi vrindavan, a holy plant that’s usually used in Maharashtrian puja ceremonies, also rangoli, and other traditional practices.

 

What is the purpose of the quilts? Are they gifted to someone or kept in the family?

Initially they were meant for the household only. Whatever discarded fabrics they had were used to make these quilts. Nothing was ever wasted. That’s the really amazing part of it. Godhadis can also be used in a million different ways. You can use it as a blanket, a floor rug, a sheet...It is versatile and limitless in regards to its usage. It really depends on each individual’s preference. It just becomes difficult when it travels around the world to other weather conditions, because, of course, what we use it for in Maharashtra might not be possible in other places. It might not be useful to use it as a blanket in other parts of the world. We’re thinking of other design interpretations to accommodate those ordering from different parts of the world.

Where exactly did/does the community project take place? Do you have a space in which you all meet?

Initially, we didn't have a space, so there was a kind of community hall, a prayer house for the Buddhist community where we used to gather. Over time, we slowly grew as a group and eventually we began using the floor above Archana’s home as a workshop space. She really wanted to take on a leadership role; Archana is a journalist by education, from Pune University. She was second in her class, a very bright woman. Once she began working with me, we thought we’d start it as a home-based production site, so that the women didn’t need to go anywhere, they could simply work from their home, at their comfort, and there are no fixed working hours. We are paying them on a product basis, so each woman can try her best to make some room for work in a confined situation.

How did the families first react when they realized that the women were financially profiting from their work?

Initially, it was not easy. Some of the women hid it for quite some time from their families. A few of them are still doing so, I won't deny that, but there have been some situations that surprised me. When I moved here [Amsterdam], I got a call from one woman's father-in-law saying “Oh, you’re leaving? Then how will it run? How will this work now?” And it was such a surprise. I thought “oh, you’re supporting the breaking of boundaries”. Now, slowly people are coming together. This story is definitely not the same for all 30 women, but progress is being made. Major things are changing.

Say I were in Pune, and interested in seeing where and how these women work - is there somewhere I could go and visit them?

Yes, we have Quilt Culture workshops. There’s a proper space that they use. It’s a very humble space because it’s on the second floor of a house. I won’t say that it's a posh place to be. But why not use what we can get? The space reflects the craftswomen who own it. We have to go to them to see what they make.

Can any women come up to you and say I want to join?

Anyone can come at any point of time. The only thing we’re particular about are the first few months of training, because since we are delivering to people across the world, there should be some standards, like basic craftsmanship. What we insist on for the first few months is a training process that lasts until the individual is confident enough to work from home.

 

Can you elaborate on how this kind of work has empowered the women in regards to their identity, self-awareness, confidence or ambition?

When Archana talked about this community project, she said, “it was the kind of thing that helped us realize who we are and what we’re good at”. Knowing that there are people in other parts of the world that appreciate and admire godhadi tradition enough to place an order, is in itself a kind of empowerment and a confidence boost. When we started, most women didn’t think anything of their godhadis; they didn’t think they were special, they thought they were simple household items. They didn’t find value in the practice of quilting. But now they value their craft and realize their knowledge on this practice is special. I think that moment of realization was truly transformative. Now, women are saving up for their childrens’ education. They’ve opened their own separate bank accounts. Archana’s 11-year old daughter has said she wants to become a business woman and sell these quilts around the world! And I’m so happy to see that. This work is positively impacting the next generation as well. They now know that all is possible.

I read a bit on your website about the concept of decolonizing art. Does that relate in any way to Quilt Culture?

It most certainly does. We don’t have a word for art, we have ‘shilpa’ in Sanskrit, which is a word that encompasses all types of artistic forms. There’s no separation between art and craft. It includes all 64 arts, from braiding your hair, to painting, sculpting and everything else. Even making a bed is an art form. If you approach art through a historical perspective, in the 20th century, we never had this kind of discrimination between art and craft. It was a very colonial thing to consider painting, sculpture and architecture as superior (higher arts), in comparison to the rest of the art forms. With this kind of community work, we are trying to argue that it’s not just about making art, but that living is an art itself. It’s a part of our daily aesthetics, we live it, and it's an art in itself. These women have been artists for generations. We have to reconnect to our roots, in order to see it in its truth. And it's not just about decolonizing quilting, but there’s a need to decolonize the general perspective towards certain Asian arts, for that matter. Even when I learned painting, for a longer time, I understood it as superior to other art forms. We have internalized that colonial perspective so much, it’s become normalized. A lot of South Asian art is portrayed through the colonial lens, the colonial gaze even. You see a lot of photographs being taken by white photographers, then and now. And it makes you question: how are we being seen by and as others? Unfortunately, the colonial depiction of us is what sells. Even the Indian designers and artists have internalized that perspective. That’s the biggest problem. It’s really important also for the women to realize that this is their craft, they get to own it. They've been doing it for generations. They don't need an outsider, not even me, to make them feel their work is of value. From the very beginning, I wanted to make clear: this is yours. I’ll help you get started, but you’re going to continue it simply because you can. This is the question: how do we see ourselves? Do we see ourselves and respect ourselves as we should? Initially, they were not allowed to do the business workshops and all, so I had to do it with them. But now they know, and now they run it on their own.

 

Do you have any hopes for this project beyond what it has already become?

I really wish to develop Quilt Culture as a competitive platform, where creatives from all over the world come interact, create something, and take things to the next level in their own ways and through their own ideas and resources. Beyond Quilting was the first project, I’m hoping it becomes an annual thing.

Can you introduce the intention behind the Beyond Quilting project/workshop?

As I explained, godhadi quilts never age. Reviving that art practice was the initial idea, even within the Beyond Quilting project. Recycling is definitely very ‘in’ right now, and I’m pretty anticapitalist in a way, so one of my main concerns was: how do we recycle? When I came to Amsterdam, I realized that sustainable design thinking is something people are seriously thinking about and I thought, this is something we have within our traditional craft. My thought was: how can we bring these two together? And how can they communicate with each other? They are two different aesthetics, two different approaches, two different cultures working in different pockets. And this got me thinking that we should organize a workshop at Quilt Culture, where designers from the Netherlands can come. The first part of Beyond Quilting was the cross-cultural co-creators’ workshop at Quilt Culture in Kondhava, Pune, where we came together to research and develop innovative cultural products that resonate with the importance of fabric recycling processes in traditional Maharashtrian godhadi craft, and also in contemporary sustainable design trends. When I say we, I’m referring to various Dutch designers and artists, including Edith Rijnja and Harald Schole, who aided me in organizing the Beyond Quilting project. In the 2-week workshop, these Dutch designers came to Pune to research the form and process of traditional godhadi quilting. This humble attempt was a small but requisite step to generate discourse around the necessity of recycling old fabrics and rejuvenating this traditional craft in the period of the anthropocene. The workshop also explored and addressed issues of cultural appropriation and the role of craftswomen in the process of re-contextualizing the craft.

What is taking place here in Amsterdam? Are you merely sharing the results of your collaborative work?

Yes, we’re showcasing the results of our work together. The exhibition will be more of an introductory thing because godhadi quilting is an alien concept in the Netherlands. I have to start from the beginning. I’ll be giving a lecture on the topic: what is Godhadi? What is aajichi godhadi? Why is it emotionally so important to us? And I would like to revisit this idea of recycling in traditional ways, through craft. Traditional craft is based on recycling, reusing, repurposing, which all relates to the practice of sustainable design. I want to emphasize that there’s a lot of potential there to revisit this path of sustainability, ethical labor, etc. All these things are associated with godhadi indirectly, but we can actually make a structure where it is financially sustainable. People here are very aware of sustainability, so I want to address how fair trade and sustainability can work together. Although, this exhibit isn’t just about the quilts, it’s also about the technique itself. How do we see this technique of quilting through a different perspective? How do we explore it further? What are the possibilities of this technique? Simone Post, one of the designers, worked with Indian architects; she started research with Indian architectural forms. She wanted to develop this specific kind of pattern within the quilts. There were several challenges: godhadi is a found-object-aesthetics practice; you don’t have any control over what kind of material you can get. We work with discarded fabric and tailor waste. So at times, we were not getting the exact color she wanted. But there were a lot of saree borders that we had, so she started working with that. And she had some images of South Indian temples, how they are all built on stages, different levels. Simone began to research this, with the borders and the layered patterns. Each designer is interested in adapting the traditional practice of godhadi into their own version. Everyone has their own approach. Richard, another designer, created his own alphabet and embedded it within the quilting process. He’s a graphic designer, so his idea was to work with Morse code. You can order a quilt with your name encoded in it. He thought: how can visuals be language and vise-versa, how do they cross borders? This Beyond Quilting project was so special because it was about two things: they learn from us and we learn from them, an exchange on the level of knowledge. Realizing that they have knowledge worth sharing was itself a kind of empowerment for the godhadi women.

 

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The powerful, talented women at Quilt Culture come from economically challenged backgrounds. Their families mainly depend upon daily wages. Due to the corona virus outbreak and the subsequent lockdown in India, the operations of Quilt Culture stopped more than six months ago. This has made it difficult for them to earn a living. As Quilt Culture is a small business, it could only support the women for the first two months, and the remaining months have been critical. Sadly, three of the women even left the city with their families, hoping that they would get food in their home villages. The collective is working tirelessly so that none of the remaining women have to go through similar situations. Thus, Rucha has set up a campaign to provide a basic income to women which can provide food for their families, at the least. 50 euros can support a family of four for a month. We hope you can help the community with a contribution. GoFundMe link attached.

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