Jaba Panposh village in Odisha’s Sundargarh district is a site of rebirth. Sitting in a small hut is 40-year-old Purabi Barik working on a tusser shawl with gnarled but deft fingers to create miniature floral motifs using bright-coloured threads. Surrounded by plastic beads, appliqué and fabrics of various hues, her home resembles an eclectic crafts workshop. Purabi was a farm labourer until a few years ago. Today, thanks to a young entrepreneur named Subrata Pandey, Purabi sustains her family by creating unique handloom pieces and sends her two children to English medium school.
She is not alone. Hundreds of women in the village have set out on a creative journey towards economic independence. It is Subrata who is changing their lives slowly and steadily, helping them craft a new identity for themselves. Through her initiative, Punarnawa Crafts, the Rourkela-based crafts designer has been training village women as artists, and aiding them to establish small-scale industries in handicraft and handloom sector. She is also giving them access to contemporary designs to make their traditional craft products increase in market value.
“I focus on skill-based employment where artisans don’t have to depend on anyone else,” says Subrata, a graduate from the Institute of Crafts and Design, Jaipur, who founded her company in 2011. Previously, she did research documentation in craft clusters at Aruvacode in Kerala; Baswa, Dausa and Jaipur in Rajasthan; and Gujarat’s Kutch, besides districts of Odisha.
As a youngster, she was always interested in fabrics and handicrafts. Subsequently, she began to train 65 rural women in appliqué. By 2017, she had trained around 800 artisans from nearby villages of Rourkela in textile and non-textile crafts independently and in collaboration with government and NGOs.
“We started stipend-based support for the aspiring young girls and women. We provided bicycles to married women, educational support to girls and hand-holding that was required in the initial journey,” says the 29-year-old Young India fellow, who has been featured in ‘Forbes India 30 under 30’.
The first-generation artisans she has trained at Punarnawa have been given artisans’ identity cards. “We produce and design our own fabric in ikat, cotton, linen, cotton silk, silk and block prints. We also work with tribals for our metal work and jewellery line,” says Subrata.
Currently, her team is working on a lingerie line using organic material which is elastic-free. Experimentation is her mantra to creativity; her women artists keep exploring opportunities with natural fibres such as hemp and siali in textile weaving. They are also using crochet and needle craft as a medium to enhance the handloom clothing line, sold under the brand name ‘Punarnawa: Soul of Artistry’ at exhibitions organised across India.
Recycling, Subrata says, is an integral part of the initiative. “Every inch of textile wasted in production in workshops is recycled into fashion accessories,” says the designer, who is empanelled as a consultant with the Design Clinic of Ministry of Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises, State Institute for Development of Arts and Crafts, and Development Commissioner-Handicrafts, Odisha. She has taken the next big step by expanding the ‘weavers’ repertoire by training artisans across the state in eight crafts—appliqué, embroidery, dokra, coir, Sabai golden grass, palm leaf, pattachitra and ikat. With Indian handlooms being the new fashion imperative, village women in Odisha are weaving a story of their own.