The intricate motifs of chikankari were never so fine in the eyes of the women who created them until they were appreciated by Runa Banerjee.
The hexagenarian has got these women artisans their due share in the market and freed them from the exploitation of middlemen. Banerjee is the founder of Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA-Lucknow), an autonomous organisation of chikan artisans established in 1984 and has the current strength of 8,000 women. Another 80,000 women are indirect employees.
The impetus for setting up SEWA-Lucknow came from a UNICEF sponsored study in 1979 on the condition of chikan artisans. The study established that the industry, employing over 40,000 chikan artisans in and around Lucknow, was highly exploitative and enabled middlemen's excesses. Consequently, chikan artisans living in shanties were poor, unhealthy and could not afford to send their children to school.
In 1984, 31 women came together to register an organisation of women artisans under the 1860 Society's Registration Act for 'chikankari.' SEWA-Lucknow was thus formed with the agenda of doing away with middlemen and the organisation was to act as a platform from where the artisans could address the market directly.
All the women artisans without other sources of income are now earning by producing this craft and are contributing to their family's income. By doing so, they have been able to create a space for themselves in the family as well as in the society.
The aims and objectives were simple - to organise and empower women artisans and self-employed women to establish sustainable livelihoods for poverty reduction and rights-based development.
Starting SEWA was never easy, recalls Runa Banerjee. There was opposition from those already in the chikan business as they were getting work done by paying minimal wages to the poor artisans. It took several months to roll out our business in the state capital. As SEWA-Lucknow was determined to address the poor financial condition of the artisans, other players in the market tried to scuttle the project.
"We needed designs but those in the industry would deny us. There was a negative campaign against us. It was an odd situation. As chikan artisans were available only in Lucknow, there was no option but to stay on. We did our survey well and wanted to help the poor artisans earn a better livelihood," she adds.
Life has changed completely for 37-year-old Nasreen Siddiqui, an artisan. She was miserable 20 years ago and was not able to make ends meet. To support her family, she got in touch with SEWA-Lucknow.
There has been no looking back for her ever since. “Why should I look back? SEWA has transformed my life. The bad days are over. It’s time to celebrate women empowerment.Today, I earn Rs 10,000 and am extremely happy with the atmosphere in which I work,” she says with a big smile.