Hansiba: From an artisan to a brand name 
Azera Rahman

92-year-old Hansibaben (left) and other artisans of SEWA (right) display their designs
92-year-old Hansibaben (left) and other artisans of SEWA (right) display their designs

Twenty-three years back, Hansibaben was just another artisan in a little known village in Gujarat. Today, at 92, she has a cloth brand-named after her, which has reached such heights that international names are scurrying to have tie-ups with it.

It’s a little difficult to decide which story is more amazing — that the woman after which Hansiba, as the brand was named, was 70 when the whole journey started and she is still working at innovating the traditional craft. Or that 15,000 rural women manage the entire supply-chain of the company and take care of their families.

"Today we have tie-ups with international brands in the US, UK, Germany, France, Italy and Spain. As much as 30 per cent of our products are exported," says Reema Nanavaty, director of the NGO, SEWA, and the woman largely responsible for starting the Hansiba initiative.

"Our clothes have also been showcased in the Madrid fashion week and the New York fashion week," adds Nanavaty. Nanavaty said: "When I first went to the Datranai village in Patan district here 23 years back, and spoke to the women to market their craft, they looked at me with suspicion. After all, I was a woman with short hair, they said!

"It was only Hansibaben, then 70, who believed in me and gave me a sample of her work. We made the payment immediately. Then with some persuasion, 50 women joined us. To see if there indeed was a market for their ethnic product, we had a show in Mumbai and Delhi and it was a big hit," she says.

"The market loved the richness of the ethnic embroidery and the beauty of the handcrafted product. For the women, this was literally like a new lease of life," adds Nanavaty.

According to Nanavaty, the men of these families are mostly dependent on the rain for farming and most of the youngsters migrate to the city for a living. With their handicrafts now bringing in money, the families suddenly have a much-needed safety net.

"We set up the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) Trade Facilitation Centre in which the artisans were the main shareholders — 65 per cent of the sales went to them directly.

"In order to appeal to the market, we started innovating designs and held workshops with designers from the National Institute of Design (NID) and the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT)," she explains.

Finally, in 2003, Hansiba, the brand was launched, named after the woman, who first joined the movement.

"Hansiba was very well received. In Gujarat, there are many rural communities and each have their own pattern of embroidery. Thus we have about 19 kinds of embroideries. We started blending two or three different kinds of embroideries like Rabari and Aahir to create something new," says Nanavaty.

As the years rolled by, Hansiba had its stores in Ahmedabad, Delhi and Mumbai and is awaiting one in Bangalore. Like any other brand, it has exclusive collections season-wise, besides bags, stoles and scarves.

"With time, the talent of these women was recognised not just in India but outside too."

Spanish brand Zara is the latest to have a tie-up with Hansiba. In January this year, two of its designers came down to India to have a workshop with the women artisans and discuss the designs that appealed to the international market. The Finnish School of Design also had a workshop with the artisans last month.

The challenge amid all of this is to conserve the traditional craft.

"The risk with all the media attention and the glamour is that the traditional craft maybe lost in the scurry of innovations. Not just that, the kind of fibre that is used in the ethnic craft is becoming hard to find. Therefore, we are setting up a museum to conserve some of the last remains of the tradition," Nanavaty adds.

"The museum will also have a collection of tools. For instance, Hansibaben has her own spinning wheel, but her granddaughter does not, because the younger generation prefers to buy handlooms from the market instead of weaving them," she explains.

Hansiba will showcase its collection in a fashion show in Delhi in March and its protagonist, the 92-year-old Hansibaben, is expected to walk the ramp! — IANS