Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Silk Roads, Other Roads: Proceedings of the 8th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 26-28, 2002, Northampton, Massachusetts


Copyright 2002 by the author.


Monghiben Rabari is attending an exhibition and sale in Mumbai. Her traditional embroidery has taken her from Vandh, her village of mud huts and camels on the seacoast of Kutch to India’s most cosmopolitan urban metropolis. She is thrilled by the glittering bustle, and by the customers’ enthusiastic response. She deals directly with them, as a professional artisan. And not only do the customers buy; one woman is so impressed that she wants to learn embroidery. She engages Monghi as a teacher during the afternoon lulls of the exhibition.

Surely, we have succeeded in the transition from tradition to profession. Crafts have become viable both economically and culturally. Women are earning fair wages for their art, and also respect. I ask Monghi how she likes being a teacher.

“Sometimes it seems like all we DO is embroidery!” she exclaims in exasperation.

Thus Monghi provokes me to examine whether embroidery today is viable, economically or culturally, to the Rabaris who execute it?

Rabari Traditions

Traditionally, Rabari women practiced embroidery as an integrated part of their nomadic existence. Embroidery was an affordable aesthetic expression of community, subcommunity and status within that community. Embroidery was portable, created wealth. A woman adorned herself and her household with her own efforts, utilizing time between more essential chores. The glittering pieces that a girl embroidered for her dowry were considered a contribution to the marriage exchange. Women worked as artists, without thought of time, concentrating on making the most beautiful contributions they could, knowing that their work would be appreciated by community members who shared their aesthetics and values. Not only would Rabaris not think of dowry pieces and personal adornment in terms of commercial value; they feared showing them lest outsiders would try to purchase them.

The Advent of Commerce

In the last four decades many changes have impacted traditional embroideries and women embroiderers of Kutch. During this time Kutch, like most of India, has seen increasing population, increasing cultivation and deforestation. With less grazing land, it is difficult to maintain large herds. Rabaris have adapted by relying more on sheep and goats than the original camels, and herding in nuclear rather than joint family units.