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Some things never change

KALPANA SHARMA


Girls always wind up taking care of siblings and the family instead of going to school.

RAJIBEN has five daughters and a son. She lives in the newly built Jawahar Nagar, off the road from Bhuj to Bhachau in Kutch. All the 330 houses in her village collapsed when the earthquake hit Gujarat on January 26 last year. In less than a year, she got a new, earthquake-resistant house. She is one of the lucky ones.

But has a new house led to a change in outlook? Not if you speak to women like her. She brings out a suitcase full of intricately embroidered cloths that she is preparing for her daughter's dowry. Her eldest daughter is only 13 years old. "But in our community, we marry them off at 15 although they cohabit with their husbands a few years later," she says.

What about education? Will she only educate her son or will her daughters also be sent to school? Rajiben sends her two younger daughters to the local school but says she cannot spare the older ones. "If we send all our girls to school, who will look after the other children," she asks. "In our society they say that an educated girl is a problem because then she will go away with an educated boy."

It is fascinating to watch this coexistence of old and new even as the outward appearance of the villages of Kutch is changing in the rash of post-earthquake reconstruction. But in villages where the women are organised, or have had contact with non-governmental organisations that have emphasised women's self reliance, things are different.

The Kutch Mahila Vikas Sanghathan (KMVS), for instance, has been working with women in the area for over a decade. These women have formed savings groups, have revived and supported traditional crafts, have set up systems of quality control for the craft and have found markets for them. They have also learned about education, about health, about their rights as women and about water conservation. In these villages, the designs of the homes have incorporated women's needs. KMVS has promoted the traditional bunga or round design that has been used in the northern grasslands of Kutch by the local communities. The traditional structures were made of a wattle frame covered with mud and a thatch roof. The new structures consist of a steel frame and either compressed earth blocks or rammed earth and a tiled roof. Both techniques use a mixture of mud and cement. The quantities have to be right and the bricks have to be properly cured. But once this is done, the structure is supposed to be stronger than one made of cement. A further plus point is that such structures are more suited to the extreme environment of Kutch. The design also lends a continuity and familiarity to the villages.

Unlike Jawahar Nagar, where Rajiben lives, which could be an urban settlement except that it is in the interior of Kutch, villages like Rodha where KMVS is involved in reconstruction, merge with the surroundings. A sign of the extent to which this style is accepted is evident when you see women decorating the inside walls of their new bungas with the mirrors that they fix with clay. You cannot do this on white washed plastered brick walls in the other settlements with the same ease.

The other striking fact about some of the new constructions in Kutch, which suggest that women were not consulted, is the location of the kitchen. In many of the completed settlements, you find a small shed outside the pucca house where the women have built their stove. Most women have no option but to use fuel wood for cooking. They collect branches from the areas around the village. A "kitchen" inside a house that does not accommodate this type of fuel becomes dysfunctional. There is no outlet for the smoke and the women say they do not want to blacken their entire house with soot.

If the women had been consulted on the house design, it is more than likely that they themselves would have suggested an outside semi-permanent structure that would accommodate a stove that uses wood as fuel. Instead, as in Sahib Singh Verma's showpiece, Indraprastha, the women were promised bottled gas but as with other promises, nothing has materialised so far. The women laugh off the inconvenience and have composed a poem that goes: "We have a house but it has no plaster on it, we have a cot but it doesn't have strings on it, we have a cylinder but it has no gas in it!"

You certainly need a sense of humour to survive this kind of bungling. You also need imagination and resilience. And if things are better today than they were a year ago for at least some people in Kutch, it is because of these qualities in the women in particular.

Despite destroyed homes and broken lives, the women have picked up the threads of their trade. Once again, in the villages of Kutch, women are making masterpieces of embroidery of a kind you will not see anywhere in the world.

The public face of Kutch is its craft. But most often what we see in the city is the crudest forms of the craft. You have to travel through this arid yet beautiful region to see the real beauty of the work that emerges from these remote villages.

Each community has its own distinct design and form of embroidery. Only the informed can spot this. To the layperson, the difference may not seem apparent. But the colour, design, stitches are all rooted in specific histories and life patterns. These adornments are also part of their daily attire; the finer work is kept for special occasions. Reconstruction and rehabilitation after the earthquake has to take into account women's livelihoods needs. And in Kutch, crafts such as embroidery are not something outside their lives; they are a part of it. This is also a viable livelihood option if it can be supported.

As we leave Rodha village on the edge of the Rann of Kutch and head back to the urban chaos of Bhuj, a strikingly beautiful young woman, no more than 14 years old, walks up to me. She is dressed like a bride. And she has a child on her hip. I ask her whether the child is her son. "No," she says, "he is my brother." Some things do not change.

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