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Shamjibhai Vishram Siju

Interview Summary

Shamjibhai began the interview by talking to us about how marriage takes place in his community; he believes it has been carried out in the same way for centuries. One particular tradition followed is that the boy’s family give 125 rupees, along with a red, orange and green bandhanichunariand bangles to the girl’s parents. This, he says, is the minimum requirement for either rich or poor families. Instead of the bridegroom’s parents attending the betrothal ceremony itself, they are separately invited to another event and honoured as special guests, or khas. To give respect to their family, the boy and the girl usually do not question their marriage decisions taken by their elders. A staunch observer of these community traditions, Shamjibhai believes that anyone in his community who has not followed these conventions has faced problems.

In Shamjibhai’s family there are six brothers, including Shamjibhai himself, who is the fourth oldest. Regarding his brothers’ education he told us that his eldest brother Hamirbhai received a B.com from the commercial college of Bhuj in 1983. The second brother Ramji completed his education up to class ten and the third brother is Arjan who has an M.com LLB. Dinesh, fifth in line, has an MA in history, while the youngest, Rajesh, completed his education up to class nine. Shamjibhai’s brother’s son has a Masters in engineering. Under the brothers, sixty families are employed in all.

Shamjibhai’s ancestors, like many in the Vankar family, chiefly wove woollen blankets dhadkiand dhabdakhatha. Originally from Rajasthan, over time a number of different family names emerged within the community, such as Marwada, Meheshwari, Gurjar, and Chara; although they are also still collectively referred to as either Harijan or Vankar. Meghwar is also the term for their broader community. Shamjibhai adds that this family lineage (bhayat) therefore connects them to weavers in Rajasthan, and Banni weavers too.

They are a low caste community and as a result their forefathers, and to a lesser extent they themselves, have faced social segregation. Shamjibhai described how some of the weavers were formerly leather workers, and had worked on sheep and goat leather. Leather work was considered impure and degrading, and because of that the weavers were considered as untouchable. According to Shamjibhai, the three villages of Jambudi, Bhadra and Baladiya specialised in this leather work. Social segregation and discrimination was common. The Rabaris, one of the major customers of the weavers, would not collect cloth directly from their hand. Instead, the weaver was expected to keep it on the floor and the Rabari would sprinkle water on the cloth to purify it before use.

Shamjibhai recounted that his forefathers who made dhabdawandered from village to village as peddlars. In these times, the weavers had little money to produce bulk items and earned small profits. The village had two lakes, one for the villagers and the other usually for cattle; the Meghwar were compelled to drink water from the lake designed for the cattle. When wandering around in the village, a few kind-hearted villagers provided them with meals out of pity.

Shamjibhai also shared some useful and intriguing information on the formation of villages. Six houses in a settlement are known as a vandh, a semi-village. Ten or twenty houses makes a small village. Whoever establishes the village (often a Rabari or Ahir) invites others who specialise in a particular vocation such as Mochi (cobbler), Bawaji (temple priest) or Darji (tailor). In a new village, a Meghwar weaver is also often invited to settle but generally resides in the eastern extremity of the village. Shamjibhai explains that the wind in Gujarat and Kachchh blows from west to east, so the upper caste people commonly settle in the west to breathe ‘pure’ air.

Citing one more instance of social discrimination, Shamjibhai recalls that once his aunt, wearing slippers, passed through the place where village elders and Darbar met for a daily chat called choro. Next day the matter was reported to the family that the aunt had disrespected the presence the Darbari, referring to the fact that untouchables were not allowed to wear slippers as their walk may pollute the air.

In general however, the community’s relations with the upper caste hierarchy have been good. Although Shamjibhai himself has been subject to exclusion due to untouchability, it has become less visible in the last twenty years. In recent times, the family’s economically sound position has certainly improved their position in society.

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Before independence, a barter system was in vogue. In return for weaving the family were once provided with three farms to grow grain for their own use. The Rabaris have long remained important customers, their trade providing the weavers with the necessities of life even in difficult times.

For infusing the new life to the moribund weaving industry Shamjibhai credits a lady from Mumbai, Prabhaben Shah. Originally from Mandvi but settled in Mumbai, Prabhaben received an export order in 1965. She advised the weavers to change the weave from rough to soft, and from thick to thin. For five to six years, a group of weavers, Khatri and Rabari, worked with Prabhaben. Khatri dyed the thread, the weavers wove the threads, and the Rabari did the embroidery. In the process, they all learnt a lot about innovative techniques. Thus according to Shamjibhai, Prabhaben Shah was responsable for establishing a profitable base for the family’s business. Hereafter, things transformed dramatically drastically as the weavers realised importance of fine weaving and catering to demand. The business did well between 1980 to 1995.

Between 1995 and 2000, the hand weaving production of Kachchh was challenged by Ludhiyana’s (Punjab) power looms. The power looms copied their designs and flooded the market with bulk produce, dramatically affecting the sales of Kachchhi produce. As a result, many handloom concerns were compelled to close down. The abundance of cheap acrylic fabric also damaged the market for hand-woven fabric.

Compelled by these circumstances, the weavers of Kachchh extended their links with the national and international exhibition organisers, designers and buyers. Through this process, some of them developed a good understanding of the demand for eco-friendly produce. The use of herbal colours, for instance, has increased the standing of their products internationally.

In 1974 Shamjibhai’s father Vankar Vishram Valji was awarded the national award by Indira Gandhi and V.V. Giri, the President of India. This was first award of its kind and set an example for the rest of the weavers. His father placed a great deal of importance to education and encouraged his children to study, although they have all subsequently decided to stay in the family business.

They have managed to retain parampara(traditionality) in their designs, but have also incorporated elements of contemporary design. Shamjibhai believes that if traditionality is retained in their manufacture, they will remain in high demand. Their innovation lies in the weight of what they produce; the lightweight shawls they now make are far from the 2½ kilo khathamade for the Rabari in the 1960s.

Shamjibhai also explained the meaning of each of the designs embedded in a shawl inclusing the koongri, meeri, popati, mathli chal, lath, chomakh, uthlana, kan Panjko sakrpara, satkhaniawith wings (pankhari), half vankio, and satkhani. Koongriare the curved upper designs of castle walls. The vankiodesign is derived from the zigzag pattern on the earth formed by bull’s urine known as dhanda moteno(urine of the bull). The uthlanadesign is derived from the kitchenware used in the making of chapattis and theplas(a Gujarati delicacy). The lathdesign based on straight lines, and dhonglaare an expanded form of the poptior koongri.

Their eye for colour is remarkable and their intricate work reflects their talent in this area. Shamjibhai strongly favours black, considering it the ultimate colour which gives the weaves a finishing touch and helps to enhance the design of the fabric. Many buyers also chose black-coloured fabrics and designs.

Each community in the region has their own woollen- or cotton-based traditional woven wear, providing regular custom. In recent times, machinery has reduced much of their work previously done by hand, and the ready availability of fine wool has cut down on the time needed to create a design. Although Ludhiyana power looms damaged Kachchh’s textile industry, new loom technology has resulted in it being easier to procure much softer wool. Shamjibhai imports silk thread from Bhagalpur (Calcutta) and the rest of the raw material from different states in India. Threads for embroidery are mainly imported from Mumbai.

According to Samjibhai, urbanization and the changing social order has resulted in the decline of the handloom industries; many urban women of the new generation do not know how to wind thread on a bobbin. Women without these skills when marrying into weaving families have faced some difficulties, as weaving requires the active support of women in the household. This has sometimes forced the husband to join the mills or become a labourer. Young women are also reluctant to weave as it is time consuming and requires immense patience. In the last fifteen years, this transformation has become particularly visible.

The family have been visited by both local and international buyers. They do not supply their goods directly but use the agents of foreign clients based in Mumbai and Delhi to collect their textiles. Shamjibhai strongly believes that despite the decline seen in his industry, 700 handlooms can be saved, but only if they partner with the foreign importers. They cannot easily match international standards with their products as for so long they have just catered for the needs of Kachhi and other Indian customers. To further expand the enterprise on world markets they also need a new type of international expertise.

In acrylic, the price of their products starts at 300 to 350 Rupees, and in pure wool and silk the range runs from 500 to 50,000 and even 100,000 Rupees. Natural dyeing and intricate designs raise the value of a shawl: the most valuable shawls are packed with numerous different designs, with none repeated. The threads are naturally dyed and use imported Merino wool from Australia. An extremely tight weave of around sixty threads per inch (compared to around twenty-four in a standard piece) is also a feature of the finest shawls. In 1999, Shamjibhai won a national award for a cotton and silk piece woven with naturally-dyed threads.

One important item for the weavers are the double-layered plain pieces called sirakh, which are printed and given to their daughters as marriage gifts. The daughter stitches the sirakh at home, and it is used only occasionally for the visits of special guests.

In the brothers’ business, each works in an area that suits his expertise. The accounts are handled by Arjan who has a Masters in commerce. The general management is overseen by Shamjibhai, who has worked on all stages of the process; weaving, dying the yarn, finalising design, and coordinating with workers. Ramjibhai works on the handloom and Hamirbhai works with the local community. Dinesh manages the outside work of the business. The youngest brother Rajesh who has been under training for the last five years manages some internal processes such as handing out work to the embroiderers. Hamirbhai’s son Kanji handles communications and responds to emails. All of them know weaving but each now handles a different aspect of the business. For moving the enterprise forward, the decision taken to expand the size of the workshop proved to be the correct one. After his studies, Shamjibhai himself travelled to explore other specialised weaving centres in India. He also visited the NID and attended a dying workshop aimed at business expansion.

To make lighter, eighty-gram shawls the brothers have trained their workers accordingly. The transformation from dhadki and dhabda to these type of shawls was a gradual one. First, just one or two looms were spared for the finer work and only later were the rest were converted to shawl making. Shamjibhai has visited New York, Washington, London, Korea and Cuba. Depending upon the climate, their items are often sold abroad. He told us that he finds Santa Fe’s climate quite similar to that of Kachchh.

They are a complete enterprise comprising both wholesale and retail concerns, and keeping this broader framework allows them to generate regular business. Yet, they follow the mantra of their father: ‘Never forget your start’. As a result their priority clients are the Rabaris, even though they generally have fixed requirements, and making their pieces is not particularly profitable.

Sale prices are decided on a piece by piece basis, and they keep little account of profit margins. Their weavers are paid daily and per piece; the earnings of the families employed under them purely depends on their daily output. Approximately, they can earn between 300 to 400 rupees, or even 400 to 500 rupees daily. Each of the weavers are giving work according to their skills and with which they are comfortable. Making the finer shawls is generally the responsibility of the most highly skilled weavers, while the others remained focus on dhabda.