“We Introduced Skills That Were Traditional, Now They Are Generational.”

Founded in 1988 under Seva Mandir’s income generation programme, Sadhna is a women-led home-based worker enterprise specialising in textile crafts. When it was founded, Sadhna was unique because it introduced crafts – hand embroidery, applique and other techniques – to a community of women. Today, it has skilled and provided livelihoods to three generations of women home-based worker artisans in and around Udaipur (Rajasthan, India). However, COVID-19 threatens the future of the women and their hard-earned handicraft skills. HNSA speaks to Smriti Kedia– CEO of Sadhna – on Sadhna’s initiatives in skilling. 

Sadhna was founded over two decades ago, why did the organisation see the need for a livelihood programme in this community and why did it choose to introduce a new skill to women home-based workers? 

Smriti Kedia: Sadhna was formed as an NGO project in response to the drought that had hit the Mewar region (Rajasthan, India) at that time. We saw that this left people in misery. Also, migration is very common in Mewar. For generations, men have and continue to migrate in search of better livelihoods, leaving behind the women and children. Given these scenarios, Sadhna sought to provide women with an alternate livelihood. Traditionally, women in this region are not allowed to step out. So, we had to create work that could be done from home and, therefore, after studying models in Gujarat, we saw textile craft as a feasible and marketable option. 

Once you zeroed-in on textile craft as Sadhna’s mainstay, what was the organisation’s journey?

Smriti Kedia: The knowledge of the craft did not exist within the community. Some women, we found, knew basic sewing but not much else. In this way, Sadhna is unique and we had to invest in building skills from scratch. Every artisan in Sadhna has not just learnt the craft but has also learnt it against each fabric that we use. For example, an artisan works with silk differently from how she works with cotton. Sadhna has imparted these nuanced trainings over several years. 

When it comes to the organisation as a whole, Sadhna had to build its knowledge and its exposure to the market. We developed core principles where we knew we wanted to be a producer company that preserved handwork and crafted products that were sustainable. We have stood by these principles through the years. 

What impact has Sadhna had on the community over the decades?

Smriti Kedia: We began as an organisation of 15 workers and now have over 600 women home-based workers working with us. Apart from introducing the Tanka embroidery and applique work skills, we have also introduced tailoring as a craft wherein again women learned and mastered the skill and are ‘artisans’. Sadhna has also had a positive impact on the lives of its women home-based workers and their communities. We see that the very women who were scared to step out of their homes and largely lived behind veils are now in leadership roles at Sadhna. The livelihoods earned by our artisans have not just contributed to the running of households but have been instrumental in educating their children and giving wings to their ambitions.

Sadhna’s artisans form its backbone and Sadhna has worked extensively to provide them all with social security benefits of PF, ESI, Education scholarships and distress funds. When you walk into Sadhna, it is common for you to interact with artisans who have been associated with Sadhna for the last 20-25 years. They may not be active artisans but they continue to contribute in many ways. Sadhna is a story of empowerment. 

How has Sadhna worked to include new generations into its workspace? What new skills has it introduced to ensure livelihoods to its home-based workers? 

Smriti Kedia: We see that many children of our artisans have taken up the initiative to learn the craft. This is especially true for the rural and tribal areas. The young artisans join Sadhna once they are eligible, after the age of 18. The skills that we introduced, over two decades ago, were traditional. Now, our skills are generational. These days, the younger generation is even informing our design. We have a young, second-generation artisan – Neetu - who has won the prestigious Kamaladevi Puraskar (awarded by the Delhi Crafts Council to young artisans) working with Sadhna. Alongside, we also have many of the children of our home-based workers, who have received a formal education, exploring new avenues within Sadhna. They are involved in inventory management, travel to other cities for our exhibitions and showcases, and even intern with us. However, the challenge looms as the space for handicraft is shrinking given the ways of cheap and fast fashion.  Many from the younger generation do not see aspirational value in these crafts anymore. And this is a challenge for Sadhna too. 

Despite being skilled what are some of the challenges Sadhna’s women home-based workers faced in the aftermath of the pandemic? 

Smriti Kedia: The challenges were and are several. During the pandemic when there was shortage of work some of our home-based worker artisans have had to take up jobs with MNREGA (a programme by India’s central government where the rural poor are largely employed in infrastructure projects in exchange for minimum wage). This is a loss to Sadhna and a loss to the craft sector. Though Sadhna has worked to provide aid in kind and cash to her artisans, many of the artisans still working with us have had to take loans against the social security cover extended by Sadhna. While things have started picking up and 2021 is more promising than 2020, the threat of the third wave makes us all very cautious. We are confident that amongst the many challenges Sadhna has faced in the past 33 years this too will pass, making us more resilient.   

How can the government step in to support women-led home-based worker artisans at this point?

Smriti Kedia: The government needs to shout out loud for the sector at this point. In India, we have to comply by the same taxation and compliance norms as commercial entities. There are no benefits to being a fair-trade organisation that promotes and supports women home-based artisans. Without incentives and support from the government, the capacity of the craft sector will be compromised and its survival threatened. Some immediate support can come in terms of tax-free working capital, low-cost retail outlets in government-run handicraft complexes, boosting sales by linking us to government procurement channels and through revised taxation rules for social enterprises.  

What does the future woman home-based artisan of Sadhna look like? 

Smriti Kedia: Let us not forget that these are women who have survived a crisis. Therefore, Sadhna is positive that her woman home-based artisan of the future is confident, adaptive, multi-faceted and is an all-rounder!