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I met Pabiben Rabari at one of the many handlooms and handicraft exhibitions that occur periodically in Mumbai. Standing behind the stall was a well-built and confident woman with colourful bags hanging that were so eye-catching, that I was intrigued.
The subsequent day, I decided to come in early, before the crowds come streaming in just to listen to her story. As I settled into a chair, the 36-year old Pabiben tells me that she belongs to the Rabari community in Kutch – an indigenous tribal caste of nomadic cattle and camel herders and shepherds. However, many are now abandoning the nomadic lifestyle and settling down in towns and cities.
Her story, at first, did not seem unusual for rural India. She narrates that she was just five years old when her father passed away suddenly. She had a younger sister aged three and another sister who was born just after the passing away of her father. These were extremely hard times and her mother found menial jobs to keep the home fires burning. Pabiben studied till the 4th grade as also her sisters, as there were no higher classes beyond that in their village of Bhadroi in the Kutch district of Gujarat. Being a young girl, there was little she could do to earn money, so Pabiben started to fill water from a well nearby and carry it for other people in the neighbourhood for a sum of Rupee 1/-. Gradually she started to earn more money by working in the salt pans and doing beautiful ‘lippan’ clay art. Alongside, she learnt how to do the traditional embroidery work from her mother and started to make clothes for herself as well as shawls for men. Learning this tradition was important for the girls as they would make pieces for dowry for their own wedding.
This was when that her story took an interesting turn. Thanks to the competition between girls, there were instances that some girls started making more pieces than required and it became a burden on others who could not do so. This led to the community leaders putting a ban on the hand embroidered pieces for personal use but said they could do it for others. To overcome the ban on hand-embroidered articles, Pabiben designed a new technique called ‘Hari Jari’ where a sewing machine was used to add the decorative elements. There were traders who came to the village, who were impressed with her work and started to giving her orders for the ‘Hari Jari’ bags. A non-resident Indian from North America bought pieces from her and they were a hit when she got back as everyone wanted to know the source of the bag. Soon these bags got to be known as ‘Pabi Bags’. Pabiben by then was married off to her husband Lakshman Bhai Rabari and she had to move away from her home to a life in a jungle. Pabiben found it difficult to adjust to life there and she convinced her husband to move back to her village. She joined an NGO (non-governmental organisation) where other women also worked.
In course of time both husband and wife thought that she must start her enterprise as quite often artisans are anonymous and almost never get credit for their work. It took her five years to start her venture. Though she was confident about her skills, she was not sure about the market for them. She got a few women together and started making the Pabi Bag as well as the traditional tote-bags. The first order from Ahmedabad fetched them Rs.60,000/- in 2014. Gradually, with the help of an organisation called Kaarigar Clinic, she set up her own brand and a website both called as http://www.pabiben.com.
This journey of entrepreneurship fetched her the Jankidevi Bajaj Puraskar for Rural Entrepreneurship in 2016, that gave her the much-needed recognition. Her enterprise now works for eight months making hundreds of designs and then travels all over India for four months on exhibitions. Her turnover per annum is about 25 lakhs and there are nearly 130 women working with her. What’s more, she has been featured in a book titled ‘ Millionaire Housewives’, written by Rinku Paul and Puja Singhal ( 2017, Penguin/ Ebury Press). Indeed, a long journey from earning Re.1 as a child.
As for me I came back with my own ‘Pabi Bag’ admiring the guts and gumption of this Rabari woman from Bhadroi.