Rakhee Roytalukdar Dec 15, 2021 Barmer, Rajasthan

A young woman’s idea of putting her embroidery skills to good use has resulted in a fashion brand that now employs 22,000 rural artisans and even weathered the pandemic by nimbly setting up online store.

The exquisite embroidery and applique on colourful clothes, fabric, home furnishings and accessories bear the distinct style of Rajasthan, the desert state.

Each creation showcased online has the creator’s details too. The e-commerce platform bears the name of Ruma Devi, the designer from a dusty hamlet.

Her odhni covers her head. It is a custom she is not willing to part with. Despite being the first fashion designer from Barmer district, the now sought-after 32-year-old Ruma Devi can never give up her traditional attire, the lehenga and choli.

Despite getting her inspiration from the sand dunes – the barren, brown expanse of the desert, she fills her creations with the colours of happiness – helping thousands of women earn a livelihood in the process.

A passion for embroidery

Having lost her mother when she was four, Ruma Devi grew up watching her grandmother stitch unique Barmeri embroidery on bed sheets, quilts and clothes. She observed how simple, colourful thread-work could brighten up a mere piece of fabric. 

Not just her grandmother but almost every woman in her hamlet in the Barmer district of the Thar Desert had the same skills. 

Ruma Devi (extreme right) decided to put the inherent skills of women to good use (Photo by GVCS)

Naturally, stitching and embroidery became Ruma’s passion. Then in her late teens she started stitching to ease the pain of losing her first child.

When she progressed from stitching to designing, Ruma Devi realised that she could use her skills profitably.

Conviction pays off

Slowly the idea of selling the pieces she designed started taking shape. She knew she had to rope in other women and form a group to accomplish her plan. They pooled in money and bought a second-hand machine.

Her family was aghast that she wanted to sell items that were traditionally stitched for household use, like small bags. But, after convincing them, Ruma Devi started by selling the bags in 2006.

She went to Barmer city and approached Vikram Singh, the secretary of Gramin Vikas Evam Chetna Sansthan (GVCS), an organisation working with rural artisans.

“Initially they didn’t give me any orders. But my persistence paid off. I haven’t looked back after the first order they gave me,” she recalled.

Singh, who still works with Ruma Devi, said, “She was from a small dhani (village), where women remain behind veils and are hesitant to voice their opinion. Yet she had enough conviction in herself and her products.”

Starting with small bags, Ruma Devi has expanded her portfolio (Photo by Rakhee Roytalukdar)

She completed her first order of 500 pieces in no time and was back for more.

“Way back in 2006, through these orders, she helped women earn at least Rs 600 a month,” Singh added.

Women’s needle power

Later Ruma Devi joined GVCS and formed clusters of women artisans by visiting villages, no matter whether it was scorching heat or chilling cold. She urged the women to put their skills to work and earn money, even though she was abused and accused of corrupting the village women.

She remained unfazed and slowly she brought the women together.

With no scope for agricultural or construction labour work in the desert, Sugti Devi (46), a migrant widow, struggled to provide for her three children. She said she could not even work as a maid because of the sparse population.

“I just knew how to sew because it’s part of our tradition. When Ruma approached me and delivered me work at home, it was like a blessing from heaven,” said Sugti Devi.

She earns between Rs 7,000 and 12,000 a month.

“I could educate my children. My elder son’s now employed and the younger kids are in school.”

Like Sugti Devi, 22,000 women from small villages in Barmer work for Ruma Devi, eager to earn money, dignity and an independence that is still unthinkable in these parts of the desert. 

Rural artisans walk the ramp

The women’s work got recognition in expos around India.

But when Ruma Devi was fascinated by a ramp show in Delhi and wanted to participate, the organisers literally shooed her away. She vowed to showcase her products on ramp one day.

Donning traditional attire, the women artisans walked the ramp with models wearing the clothes they designed (Photo by GVCS)

In 2016 she persuaded officials at the Rajasthan Heritage Week festival in Jaipur to give her a show. The next year at the Rajasthan Day celebrations in Jaipur her collection Handmade in Rajasthan, a tribute to Barmer, had women artisans walking the ramp.

“The show was a hit,” Ruma Devi recalled.

“The extraordinary zeal of the women gave me confidence to carry on with the work and expand as well. Fashion designers come knocking at my door and I have enough work to distribute these amongst my fellow women,” she said.

Women artisans storm the digital world

With the women stitching and embroidering many products, Ruma Devi opened her own boutique in Jaipur. But soon the pandemic halted their work.

Opening an online store seemed the only way out.

They approached EdelGive Foundation, who helped the women develop the e-commerce platform. Smart phones and digital literacy workshops help the women navigate the digital world.

Managing warehouse and inventory online – every single thing was new for the entire team. But the artisans were determined to make it work, because for them it was empowerment. 

The online store links each product with the artisan, giving a face to the designer product. The women learnt how to market their products on social media. 

Now the team adds new products every week. They are also able to analyse trends and make products accordingly.

But despite stitching fashionable products, Rumd Devi and her artisans always don their traditional attire. For them the lehenga and choli are their identity.

“Although it makes me stand out among other fashion designers, it helps me stay grounded,” said Ruma Devi.

Rakhee Roytalukdar is a journalist based in Jaipur, Rajasthan.