Grey-haired Rewat Ram of Phalodi, Rajasthan, could easily get lost in the crowd were it not for the bright colors surrounding him. He sits, serenely confident, amid stacks of beautifully woven kurtas, dupattas (long scarves) and fabric in New Delhi's Chinmaya Mission hall, even as city buyers carefully examine the goods brought in from far-flung desert villages of Jaisalmer and Jodhpur in Rajasthan.
Ram and his co-weavers were participating in the first ever exhibition put up by Ranga Sutra - a newly established producers' company - in October, 2005. Explained Ram, "Some 15 years ago, I joined Urmul Marusthali Bunker Vikas Samiti - a weavers' group - through which over 170 weavers are earning a regular livelihood. We have managed to save the craft handed down to us by our ancestors. However, we have reached saturation point in terms of our sales. That is why we have now started Ranga Sutra. It will help us to develop the market systematically."
Sumita Ghose, well-known social worker who has worked at the grassroots level in Rajasthan, Assam and Delhi for the past two decades, is the central moving force behind Ranga Sutra - which she defines as a family of grassroots organizations coming together to find a space in the market today. Ghose's eyes sparkle as she traces the inception of Ranga Sutra: "Crafts-persons belonging to various grassroots organizations provided the inspiration. During the past five years, people like Rewat Ram ji have been saying that these organizations should open up a shop to directly access urban consumers. I found several NGO-initiated shops actually closing down - for instance the Dastkar and Udyogini shops (both in Delhi). I felt that there must be other strategies as well."
Hunting around for options, Ghose discovered the idea of a producers' company. A producers' company is midway between the usual private company on the one hand, and a cooperative on the other. Exploring the option further, she found that so far only two Haryana-based milk cooperatives have registered as Producers' Companies. Ranga Sutra is, thus, the first crafts cooperative to register as a producers' company. Says Ghose, "We thought, we've to do it in a way that is financially viable. The form of organization is important."
The overwhelming majority of Ranga Sutra's shareholders are craftspeople. These 1000-odd crafts-persons are the founding members of Ranga Sutra. They belong to four organizations: 68 are from Vasundhara Gramothan Samiti, Lunkaransar, Rajasthan; 350 from Bajju, Rajasthan; 123 from the Action North-East Trust, Kokrajhar, Assam; 350 from the Pan Himalayan Grassroots Foundation, Almora, Uttaranchal; and 170 from the Urmul Marusthali Bunker Vikas Samiti, Phalodi.
All these crafts-persons belong to economically impoverished, marginalized communities living in remote areas - far from airports, railway stations or even proper roads. Barely literate, denied connections or infrastructure, as individuals it would be impossible to sell their products to the wider world. Through participation in local grassroots organizations, they realized the power of working as a group. Wanting to further tap the potential and expand their reach, they responded to Ghose's idea of a Producers' Company.
The five groups contributed Rs 10,000 (1US$=Rs 44) each to the original share capital for Ranga Sutra. Apart from these five organizations, there are five founding members of Ranga Sutra - all individuals, including professionals from designing, business and the garment industry. Ranga Sutra has taken no funds from the corporate sector or from any funding agency.
Ranga Sutra hopes to combine the power of organization with the dynamism of a commercially viable outfit. Social commitment coexists, here, with hard-headed economic logic. Thus Ram foresees the income of each of the 170 Phalodi weavers rising due to Ranga Sutra. He says, "At present the average annual earnings of each of our weavers is Rs 25,000 to 40,000. Through Ranga Sutra's support this will rise. Weavers can then send their children to school, improve their health and food intake. Moreover, 20 new weavers will be able to join the organization every year."
Between them, these five organizations represent traditional weaving, embroidery, stitching as well as organic agriculture and horticulture. The Uttaranchal group consists of women who make hand-knitted garments, as well as fruit growers. The Assam group has women weavers from the Bodo tribe. The group from Bajju consists of women embroiderers - most of them refugees from the 1971 war. The Lunkaransar group has weavers from Bikaner and Churu districts.
The weavers from Rajasthan and the North East work in unbelievably bright colors, creating beauty from wisps of cotton or raw wool - belying the dark, harsh conditions of their lives. While Bajju specializes in embroidery, North Eastern and Phalodi crafts-persons interweave intricate designs into their fabrics - geometrical motifs passed down through the centuries, timeless in their appeal.
Registered in December 2004, Ranga Sutra's exhibition attracted a motley range of buyers and activist supporters. Ranga Sutra has already provided some design inputs, apart from the marketing support.
The idea seems to have taken off. Several other organizations, attracted to Ranga Sutra's philosophy and transparently honesty, took part in the exhibition. These include Satya Jyoti from Haryana, Charmkar Vikas Sansthan, Seekar, Rajasthan, Kullu Karishma, Himachal Pradesh and Shramik Kala Kendra, Karnataka. For Kakoli Banerjee from Satya Jyoti, the experience was invigorating: "Our organization is just one year old. This is the first time we have brought our products for bulk sales. Our goods are selling well here. In fact, we may exhaust all our supplies within these four days."
Satya Jyoti products are indeed attractive - juices, pickles, herbal teas and other food items, as well as stylish garments. Banerjee herself is a professional designer who left a hi-fi city job to relocate to Satya Jyoti's 30-acre farm in village Sarekhurd, Alwar, Haryana. She and her colleagues grow organic food, and teach sewing, embroidery and literacy skills to women in the village. Banerjee envisages Satya Jyoti formally joining Ranga Sutra.
Ghose wants Ranga Sutra to be "a place where rural meets urban, producer meets consumer, and products become a means for human connection". Already, it is a meeting point for many people's dreams. Its constituent organizations, already active in integrated community empowerment, and aesthetic creative production, are straining to further broaden their horizons.