Chandigarh enterprise brings Punja Dhurrie out of homes

Naseeb Kaur’s granddaughter was recently married, and part of her trousseau was a punja dhurrie. That dhurrie, though, very different from what she is used to making at Roundglass Impact, a social enterprise founded by Sunny Gurpreet Singh whose aim is to revive the art of the punja dhurrie, while creating a community of support for women.

“These are more modern, and different,” says the 72-year-old Kaur, who never misses a day at the Khuda Ali Sher centre, where she weaves all-purpose mats, coasters, table runners, pillow covers, and the like, along with 16 other women.

Every day, these products are designed and created by the women, and shipped across the world. The past two years, in fact, have seen phenomenal growth of the initiative, under the leadership of Sakshi Bhatia Chopra, associate (as is everyone at the company), Roundglass Impact, an offshoot of Sabtera Foundation.

The Sabtera activities, that of reviving the disappearing art of the punja dhurrie, was deemed a dead end nearly five years ago, when Sakshi took over the project as a challenge.

COVID struck about a year after she took over the flailing project.

With no other way to reach their work out to people, Sakshi took to Instagram to post pictures of their products marketed under the name Sabtera. When internet celebrity Mallika Dua featured their creations, the power of social media was brought home to the team. Orders poured in, and the team worked hard to fulfil orders. Artisans were added to the roster as well, and the team of artisans expanded from 11 to 25.

Punja dhurrie is a traditional weaving craft which uses a tool shaped like a claw (punja) to beat the warp in place. The craft originated in India and became popular in Punjab and Haryana, and featured intricate designs featuring local flora and fauna, geometric designs, and the iconic wave-like Lehariya pattern.

Most women, especially of the previous generation, know how to make a punja dhurrie, says Sakshi. In large families, it was also a time for women to unwind and discuss problems. With smaller families, this sense of community is lost and projects like Sabtera help women find that safe space. That is echoed time and again in the women who work here.

Naseeb says she likes coming to the centre and working and meeting other women. Gowri says she “feels fresh after the day” at the centre. Tej Kaur, another artisan, says she loves coming to the centre and creating something every day. Another artisan had been battling mental health issues and her doctor recommended that she resume working at the centre, and she has now reduced her medication.

“More than the money we make or the dhurries we sell, these are the things I would call measures of our success,” says Sakshi.

There are other successes she can talk about, however. The project has helped the craft come out of figurative hiding. “We wanted to bring this craft out of the homes, as most women who had the knowledge did not have the need to make money from it. Consequently, it was also disappearing,” says Sakshi.

Sakshi saw that there was a group of women from other parts of the country who had migrated to Punjab as labourers, who were yearning to try something different. They soon became part of the Sabtera team. Women who did not even know what the craft was, are now ambassadors of the same.

One of them is 34-year-old Gowri Rao, originally from Andhra Pradesh. She has been in the Chandigarh region for over 12 years, and started working with Roundglass only after her friend and neighbour told her about them during the lockdown. “I already knew kadhai (embroidery) work,” she says. “And in this one year I have learnt so much.” She is now out to schools, teaching children in workshops on the craft.

The Punja dhurrie has, in its own way, found its way out to the world.

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