She's an unlikely social crusader. Conservatively dressed, married into a wealthy Mumbai-based family of industrialists, Chanda Shroff is the moving force behind a project that sustains thousands of families in drought-prone Kutch.
Chandaben, or Kaki as she is universally known around Shrujan, the organisation she founded in 1969, is also the only Indian Laureate of the Rolex Award for Enterprise (RAE) announced every two years "to encourage a spirit of enterprise in visionary individuals around the globe".
Rolex launched the awards in 1976, but an Indian has never qualified as a full-fledged Laureate — there are five every year — yet. Chandaben received the RAE laureate in Singapore on Wednesday.
Chanda Shroff with her workers
"The selection committee was impressed by several elements of Chanda Shroff's work — the number of women who are benefiting from her project, the exquisite quality of Shrujan's work, as well as the breaking down of social and geographical barriers through embroidery," says Rebecca Irvin, the programme director of RAE's Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.
RAE also makes note of the fact that, given her social and economic background, Chandaben could "easily have led a comfortable life at home". Instead, the 73year-old seems happiest travelling through the dusty roads of Kutch or directing her energies to establish a design centre, her next big project.
The Shrujan story began in 1969. Kutch was going through its ritual drought and Chandaben and her husband Kantisen — both involved then with the Ramakrishna Mission — set up a kitchen in Kutch. "Women from nearby villages would come in beautiful, embroidered clothes," says Chandaben. "I thought, why not make this skill economically viable for them?"
Easier said than done. Problem one: Domestic embroidery is ingrained in the culture of Kutch, handed down from mother to daughter for generations; the idea of selling embroidery is just as alien. In the 60s, hand embroidery was actually on the decline and there was a growing reliance on machinery and synthetic fabrics.
Problem two: Many of the traditional designs and colours were just not apt for a commercial market.
Problem three: Funding was, and continues to be, a major source of worry; the women need to be paid upfront for work that will be sold later.
Problem four: Many of the villages that Chandaben wanted to reach out to were simply inaccessible; strangers were not welcome.
After extracting a promise from various members of her own family that they would buy the work commissioned from her, and getting a donation from Kantisen to buy the raw material, Chandaben got in touch with Parmaben, now 84, a resident of Dhanelti village. Her brief — to draw freehand designs on saris, distribute the embroidery work among craftswomen and send the saris back to Mumbai where they would be sold.
The women found Chandaben's colour schemes insipid compared to their own vivid purples, yellows and reds. They rebelled and had to be persuaded to abandon their own colour schemes. The first sale in October 1969 was a sell-out, profits were ploughed back into the project, and Shrujan grew.
Today, Shrujan employs some 3,000 women in 114 villages in Kutch. It has a design centre in Bhuj with 1,100 panels — some have taken over a year to embroider — by master craftswomen.
Chandaben is keen to document different styles of embroidery, both for posterity and exhibition value as much as for showing other communities the work and stitches that can be done. She plans to invest the RAE award prize of $50,000 in the design centre.
In Kutch, the Shrujan impact is evident. At Somraser village, Jamunaben, a former daily wage earner, says: "I am not educated but I am in service. I don't have to go and find work in the fields. I can earn a good living here in my home."
There's been another fall-out. "Even a few years ago, someone like Rajiben, a craftswoman from the Dalit community, would never have found acceptance by the upper-caste Ahir women," says Chandaben. "Now, she is their teacher."