Art that Empowers – The Desert Weavers of India

What a group of traditional weavers in India can teach us about community.

The Desert Weavers of India

You would be forgiven for thinking that the gorgeous handmade works by the Desert Weavers of India were valuable only for their beauty. There is no question that they are crafted with meticulous care, stunning mastery, and according to ancient tradition. But they are so much more than that, too. These woven treasures are the artifacts of a social movement that privileges equality, respect, and hard work.

“We dream of a just and egalitarian social order in which there is space for everyone, especially the weakest and the most deflected, so they can stand on their own feet and live a life of dignity,” says Mularam, a member of Desert Weavers of India.

In 1987, a group of traditional weavers got together and formed an NGO in the Jodhpur district of Rajasthan. They named it Urmul Marusthali Bunkar Vikas Samiti (UMBVS), which means “Development Committee of Desert Weavers.” What began with 30 artisans has blossomed into a collective that spans 90 villages and supports 170 families.

Every single one of them works in the tradition of their ancestors using techniques that have been passed down for generations. Together, they have been able to bypass the middlemen of the art world and have worked hard to challenge entrenched attitudes, like those towards women in the field of weaving. Female weavers, like Pappu Devi, have bucked the centuries’ old edict that forbade women from working on the loom, thus offering them an opportunity to create their own livelihood and express themselves artistically.

Using natural colors, organic dyes, and a unique weaving technique called pattu, done on a pit loom, these artisans have been able to create financial independence and earn the respect they deserve. But beyond their artistic contribution to the world, the Desert Weavers should be celebrated for their community outreach.

They provide community health services, relief and rehabilitation, social security, and educational opportunities through more than a dozen schools in surrounding villages. They support immunization efforts and malaria initiatives. They address the damage from flash floods and fires, along with the recurrent challenges of drought. This fall, we can all take a page from the incredible Desert Weavers of India who believe that our greatest responsibility is to help give voice to the voiceless. A noble cause for 2021.


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