A school dropout who made it to Harvard: The story of artisan Ruma Devi

Dubai - When an artisan takes charge of her fate


Sandhya D'Mello

Published: Wed 8 Dec 2021, 7:18 PM

Last updated: Fri 10 Dec 2021, 4:31 PM

What do you think of when you think of fashion? Elaborately and intricately crafted designs that are showcased on the ramp? Or celebrities flaunting stunning outfits on the red carpet? Fashion is also an art, and while the designs are envisioned by couturiers, it is the artisans who bring them to life with their craftsmanship. They are the invisible force behind all that glitters on the ramp and red carpet.

A few years ago, a couple of designers visited Barmer, Rajasthan, for a fashion show. Inspired by the dazzle of fashion and confidence of the training in craftsmanship she’d received from her grandmother, Ruma Devi, a Barmer resident, expressed her desire to participate in the show. “You are supposed to stitch,” she was told. “Fashion designing and participating in a fashion show aren’t your forte.” The rebuff may have been hurtful at the time, but it was this precise moment that launched a zeal — to make a name for herself and many other craftsmen who often remain voiceless and faceless in the larger project that is fashion.

As she visits the Khaleej Times offices in Dubai, Ruma looks back at her journey with fondness and recalls how she turned every obstacle into an opportunity. Ruma was a child when she lost her mother, and being brought up in a household where it was difficult to make ends meet did not always allow her to dream big. She was in Class VIII when she dropped out of school upon her family’s insistence and got intensely involved in household chores. This also meant travelling 10 km every day to fetch water. By the time she turned 17, she had already been married.

Sometimes, it is precisely in the moments when it seems our destinies cannot be changed that resilience takes root. In Ruma’s case, it happened to revolve around her passion to showcase her special embroidery. She formed a group of women and managed to collect Rs100 (Dh5 approximately) in order to buy raw materials to make handbags with her special hand embroidery. This was it… the moment that would define the course of Ruma’s life.

Her intricate craftsmanship was duly noted by the local organisation Gramin Vikas Evam Chetna Sansthan and she went on to become the president of the non-governmental organisation in 2010. As part of these initiatives, Ruma would participate in many exhibitions where her work and that of many other women would get noticed. She did her first exhibition in Rafi Marg, Delhi, in 2010 and her first fashion show in Rajasthan Heritage Week 2016. She is now working towards promoting the craft of tribal artisans and minorities all over India. Today, she supports 30,000 women in 150 villages through her work. For many of these women, it has been an incredibly empowering moment as they find themselves having a creative and economic agency of their works. “I had always envisioned to empower women in rural India by making them financially independent and providing basic education,” says Ruma, who received 2018 Nari Shakti Puraskar, a prestigious annual award given by Indian Ministry of Women and Child Development to women and institutions that work towards female empowerment.

Today, the woman who had to pull out of school when she was in Class VIII has received an honorary PhD from Mahatma Jyoti Rao Phule University in Jaipur. She also shot to fame when she was featured in Kaun Banega Crorepati, the hugely popular game show hosted by Amitabh Bachchan, in September 2019. Looking back at these feats, Ruma says: “During the initial period of struggle, nobody believed that I could be successful one day, but my dedication towards my work proved that sky is the limit.” She also fondly recalls the time when she received a mail from Harvard University, inviting her as a speaker for the 17th annual India Conference. Apart from the obvious shock, she couldn’t gather enough courage to as much as even respond to the mail. “It would have been a huge expense for me to go to the US, but then they insisted not to let go of the opportunity,” she recalls. Eventually, it was the Bajaj Group that came forward to help her. “On February 14, 2020, I organised a craft workshop in the Public Health Department of the university where I taught the students about hand embroidery and they tried practising it themselves. I was very nervous but everything went really well. People connected to me really well and then I had some programmes being organised in Washington and New York.”

While she has already visited Germany, Singapore, Thailand, Sri Lanka, the US and UAE to promote the arts and craft of Incredible India, Ruma says she wants to market the handmade and handcrafted products of the artisans further in the Middle East through e-commerce, especially home décor and home furnishing items that involve applique, patchwork and intricate embroidery. “I want to bring in the latest technologies in the field of fashion to Rajasthan so we can ease our work process. Dubai has given me hope since entrepreneurs are given the required support and that’s exactly what encourages me to explore opportunities in this region. I can launch my brand here and use the UAE as our global gateway too. Currently, we export home furnishing materials to the UK and the US,” she signs off.

Hers is a story that offers hope, but above all it is a shining example of what an artisan’s resilience can do.


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