Kolkata: Six years ago, Ruposhi Rong, then a gawky 18-year-old with big dreams, had to drop out of her Bachelor of Arts course within weeks of joining a college in Chinsurah in West Bengal’s Hooghly district.
Her father, an agricultural labourer with three other children, simply couldn’t afford to send his eldest daughter to college. But Ruposhi, whose surname literally means colour, did not end up in a brick kiln—the commonest and easiest choice available to her.
Instead of getting knotty fingers baking away at a brick kiln, Ruposhi’s deft fingers now make magic of silk threads that take a life of their own on the sarees she embroiders, in the air-conditioned comfort of a workshop, thanks to Anshul Gupta.
Gupta runs Prastuti Sarees, which employs about 350 women from villages spread across the districts of Bankura and Hooghly, creating petit point embroidered sarees, some of which can cost up to Rs100,000 each.
Gupta, whose mother Deepa made a modest beginning in 1992 making the traditional Bengali kantha embroidery sarees at home, now has three units in the two districts and boasts of an annual turnover of Rs5 crore.
Over the years, Prastuti has dabbled in zardozi, Kashmiri and Parsee sarees as well. Gupta, who claims to be the only maker of petit point sarees at “this scale” said that “the others are all housewives, charitable organizations and a huge unorganized sector.”
Apart from the 350 women employed directly in his units, Gupta says another 250-300 depend on him indirectly as they undertake some of the other segments of his work, which do not require close supervision and can be outsourced. These include designs which are more or less simple and can be replicated over and over again at speed, and does not require direct supervision.
Petit point, or small point, is a form of embroidery which originated in France in the 18th century and is still quite common in Europe and used widely in tapestry.
It was brought to India by the European settlers and the missionaries. It is a stitch that is made diagonally across the intersection of each horizontal and vertical thread of a canvas mesh on which the base material is placed and the stiches are so tiny that it is possible to bring out a myriad of details, hues and colours in a very small area. There can be as many as 1,000 stitches per sq. inch.
“Lots of colour threads can be used in a small area,’’ says celebrity fashion designer Raghuvendra Rathore.“Since it is very labour-intensive, the cost is high. Also, one needs a good planned execution of the motif, as each knot is significantly different to the one next to it.”
“We can use a multitude of colours to give each flower different shades, different hues,” says Gupta, who says his clients include Bharti Deveshwar, wife of ITC Ltd chief Yogesh Deveshwar, the ladies of the Burman family, which makes the Dabur brand of food and toiletries, and spouses of gazhal singer Pankaj Udhas and noted architect Hafeez Contractor.
However, before they can reach these high-profile clients, the sarees spend anywhere between 1,500 and 5,000 hours on the frames.
“It is this painstaking attention to detail and the time taken which adds value to hand-embroidered sarees in general, and petit point ones in particular,” says Mumbai-based designer Narendra Kumar.
“Every single saree that leaves my workshop is checked in detail by my mother and me. Even the slightest flaw in the shading of one flower among the many that make up a saree could lead to it being rejected and thousands of hours of work lost,” says Gupta.
To improve efficiency, Gupta assigns several workers to a saree. If one woman were to make a mid-priced saree, which takes 3,000 hours, she would take almost 18 months to finish it on an eight-hour-day, six-day week. Instead, teams of 10-12 women work on a saree and complete the embroidery in one-and-a-half months. That works out to a labour cost alone of Rs30,000-36,000 for such a saree, or about Rs10.50 per hour of work done, compared with a maximum of Rs6 per hour that unorganized embroiders pay.
The result: the cheapest of Prastuti’s sarees is priced at Rs15,000. “While the upper end can go as high as the client’s imagination, the premium offerings cost about Rs90,000,” says Gupta.
All of Prastuti’s workshops have the basics such as clean toilets, a rarity in the less organized workshops in the area. He also offers flexi-time to the workers, who can come in anytime from 6am to 6pm in summer and an hour less in winter. They also have the option of working less than the usual eight hours a day.
Of Gupta’s three units, two are air-conditioned and all have electronic time cards. “Earlier, there would be confusion regarding the number of hours we worked, but now it’s all there in the machine,” says Ruposhi, holding up her swipe card. The women, who work about eight-nine hours a day, take home a minimum of Rs2,000 every month.
For the untrained women who come to Gupta’s units, there is an apprenticeship programme. They are trained in the art of petit point by the ustads, or master trainers, who keep a keen eye on their wards’ progress.
Though they don’t contribute to the production process at this stage and often take as long as six months to learn the ropes, they are paid a stipend of Rs500 per month.
The air-conditioned workshops, while increasing productivity in the muggy heat, have also come as a relief to the girls, many of whom have never seen a fan in their lives. An excited Sabina Khatoon, 24, says, “The working conditions are very good here. In fact, we like working in summers. It’s so nice and cool inside.”
Another measure that has won Gupta the loyalty of his girls is interest-free loans to buy bicycles. “This is particularly helpful to the girls who have to come from across the Damodar river,” says Sabina, who has become the proud owner of a Hero Ladybird.
Apart from the tangible benefits of working in Prastuti’s embroidery workshops, the girls have also benefited in other ways.
“Many of us were considered a burden by our families and would be married off. Some went to men who abused them and others had to discontinue their studies. Now, at least, we have the power to say no,” says Tapasi Das, who works at the Khanakul unit.
But a senior member of the local Panchayat Samiti, who did not want to be named, points out that many men of the area are not happy that these women are asserting their rights.
Meanwhile, the fashion fraternity itself is divided over the future of petit point in India. Rathore says, “It’s good for a grandmother cushion, but hard to see it in mainstream India.”
“Still, any kind of embroidery will always have a market in India,” says Kumar. “We Indians love decorative stuff.”
For now, Ruposhi is finishing her graduation through a correspondence course and the money from Prastuti has helped her not only get an education but also a life away from baking bricks.