Ruma Devi beat several trained experts to bag an award for her designs. But that is only the surface of her amazing story, says Saimi Sattar
A pallu stays firmly fixed on her head. The hands are unwaxed, nails clipped short and painted red. Ruma Devi is different from the immaculately turned out designers that we often see on the ramp and Instagram photographs. But maybe it is this or perhaps that fact that she effortlessly won the Textile Fairs India Fashion Awards even while competing with 13 trained designers, which makes her stand apart.
To put things into perspective, the jury members included heavyweights like fashion guru Prasad Bidapa, designer Rakesh Thakore (Abraham and Thakore), chief advisor Rajasthan Heritage Week and publisher Seminar Magazine, Malvika Singh, supermodel and choreographer, Nayanika Chatterjee, designer Payal Jain and head, creative studio, Royal Enfield, Sarat Som.
While many might feel that this is one among the many awards that are handed out often by the fashion industry and nothing exceptional, one has to delve a little into Ruma’s journey to understand what makes it so path-breaking. Her life story is almost a throwback to the film, Sui Dhaaga. She hails from Barmer district of Rajasthan and has made it on the dint of her unflinching resolve to “do something” to alleviate her conditions. “There is hardly any rain in the area so there is no water to drink and no roads. Agriculture is not enough for sustenance and women just sit at home and do applique work and embroidery,” she says, with a slight lilt that is ubiquitous with the residents of the Western state.
As we sit down to chat in the temporary lounge that has been designed in hall number 10 of Pragati Maidan, she receives incessant phone calls congratulating her for the achievement. A gentleman, who is from her district and has set up a stall at the fair, is quick to snap a selfie with her. “Bhabhiji has done so well. I will put this on Facebook and Instagram,” he proclaims as he saunters off.
Ruma takes up her story from where she had left it and tells us that when she got married, her financial condition was not sound. The lack of education meant that not too many avenues were open to her. “I decided to make use of my talent. So 10 women got together and we made bags with embroidery and sold them. After a few months, we collected Rs 100 and bought a second-hand sewing machine in 2008,” she says. And things started turning around. Hungry for more work, Ruma approached an organisation, Gramin Vikas Chetna Sansthan, of which she is now the President. “The secretary gave us some stitching and embroidery work, which we finished on time and this set the ball rolling for future contracts,” she says as her voice takes on an element of child-like excitement. There is no trace of artifice and her voice rises and falls depending upon what she is talking about.
Having successfully fulfilled the order, Ruma decided to add more women. “I had started working as I was facing financial problems but there were a lot of other women who were worse off and couldn’t even afford a square meal in a day,” she says as she brushes back her pallu. By 2010, the 10 women had swelled to 5,000 and Ruma started marketing for them. “The same year there was a fair in Delhi, which we decided to participate in. At this time I discovered that there were more than a lakh artisans in Barmer who do applique and embroidery but no one knew about them,” she says.
But the going was not easy. In Rajasthan, where patriarchy rules, women are veiled and stepping out of the house to work is a strict no-no especially in the rural areas. “Often men were drunkards and wouldn’t care about how the family survived. Women worked at home and in such a scenario even if they got Rs 100, that was a lot. I walked from one house to the other as there were no roads. I had to practically force my way inside and then men often told me that I would teach their wives things that went against our culture. Even when my family didn’t say anything, my neighbours taunted me. But it is these people who now stand with us. Earlier, it was difficult to get even one woman to accompany me to Delhi, now 10 are willing to when I need just one,” she says.
But then as often happens, a push is all she needed. “My father-in-law supported me as he realised that if everyone is sitting at home, how would one eat?” she says.
The women started out with making cushion covers and bedsheets but soon market forces demanded that they up their game. “People buy one bedsheet or two but clothes have a greater demand. So we started making garments and doing fashion shows. Initially, we made kurtis and saris in cotton. Then we graduated to silks and now we make them on velvet as well,” she says. Ruma is excited about the different types of material that are available at the fair and wants to expand her repertoire further.
“We have a network of 22,000 women now, organised into several informal groups in the area. They are directly linked to the market for orders. Every group has orders worth about Rs 1-2 crore,” she says. However, it was not the larger picture that she looked at in the beginning. “This journey makes me so happy. When I had started, I had never thought that we would be able to do such good work. Apan ki roti ke jugaad ke liye kiya tha. Lekin aaj itni mahilaon ki prerna ban chuke hain (I started doing this for my own livelihood but now I’ve become an inspiration for others),” she says as the Rajasthani lilt again comes to the fore as she feels overwhelmed and happy with what she has achieved. But even in the midst of all the excitement, she has not forgotten the people who powered the victory. She says, “I sent a photograph to the artisans and told them that we have won the first prize. They are very happy and everyone is calling up,” which explains the barrage of calls that she receives within the 15 minutes we sit together.
Prasad Bidappa, with whom she had been in touch earlier, encouraged her to take part in this competition for a reason. He says, “I respect her integrity and her commitment to the thousands of rural women whom she encourages and empowers. She makes sure they earn money in their own right and are not dependent on their menfolk. She has created an amazing business. If we followed her example, we could transform rural India.”
The collection that she has put together is done entirely in black and white with hints of maroon. “Most designers want to use a wide variety of colours so we decided to stick with these two only,” says Ruma, pointing to 12 garments out of which eight were put out on the ramp and won her the prize. “These took about 1.5-2 months to make,” she adds.
Talking about the collection Bidapa says, “Her appliqué collection was classic and beautiful. She stuck to classic silhouettes and styles like the ghagra, the choli, the kurta and the sari. It was a clean, well-executed collection.” He goes on to point out that, “All the members of the jury agreed that she had made very good use of the fabric and her positive/negative appliqué work looked very sophisticated and stylish. The fabric usage was extremely important here and Ruma Devi was working with machine-made fabric for the first time.”
Ruma says that she also makes kurta, salwar, palazzo, dupatta, lehenga and Western wear. “Initially I had no understanding of the larger market and catered only to the local one,” she says.
Her exposure has now been placed on an elevator which will give her a bird’s eye view of the fashion market as the prize also entails a visit to the fashion capital, Paris. So while most people might talk about the wines, the cafes or even the various monuments of interest in the city, Ruma is focussed, “I will get to learn more as to what is happening in the fashion world outside and we will make our products accordingly.”
As often happens with working women, it is family that she falls back on to look after her child while she is flying high. “I stay in a joint family and my in-laws look after my seven-year-old son. Despite his age, he keeps on telling me to go and bag another award,” she says with a happy laugh, her voice taking on that sing-song lilt yet again.