KARACHI: Every Rilli, or colourful quilt, fabricator has her own story. Each Rilli illustrates the maker’s traditional strength, creativity and the love for colour and design.
This artwork also gives a clue to the life of the woman who made it. The colours used in the quilt gives visual feasts and expresses the pattern and the imagination of the maker.
Pakistan has a rich culture of Rilli-making, especially in Sindh and Balochistan. Rural women from these areas are engaged in Rillis-crafting as an occupation to support their families.
Rillis are made from torn clothes and; therefore, the most typical colours are white, black, red, yellow, orange, green, blue and purple. However, there are some unique regional and tribal colour palettes.
The three basic types of Rillis included patchwork, made up of pieces of fabric cut into squares and triangles and so stitched together; appliqué, made of intricate, cutout patterns in an exceedingly sort of shapes and embroidered quilts, where the embroidery stitches form patterns on solid coloured fabric.
Sindh is largely renowned for producing beautiful Rillis. But for the last few decades, the tradition of Rilli-making is diminishing, as the women are now not finding it a profitable business.
Arbabi, a middle-aged woman from Matiari, who despite having expertise in this artwork, is now looking after the daily chores at a house in Karachi.
“The lack of support for the art has forced many women like me to find other options to earn livelihood,” said the depressed Rilli artisan.
“I love making Rillis, this is my passion. But there are so many workers and our work is not in demand any more. Traders offer meagre amounts against our product, leaving us hand to mouth. I have to relocate to keep my kitchen running,” she added.
Rilli-making has changed with the passage of time because some women are now using motifs for fancy embroidery, glasswork and beadwork, which provides a more glamorous look to the merchandise.
In most cases, individuals and organisations acquire the services of these craftswomen and exploit them by offering a paltry amount for their work.
“My clients pay me Rs200 for a small Rilli, Rs500 for a big one and sometimes they reject the merchandise for one reason or the other, so I’ve to bear a loss,” Arbabi said.
“Our families have no other sources of earning and; therefore, we have to sell our merchandise at a very low cost to the vendor,” Arbabi said.
Most of the time, Rilli-making requires more than one woman to complete the task, she added.
The lack of check and balance has made the lives of these craftswomen miserable, as organisations are exploiting the art by paying less to them, despite getting huge amounts for the same merchandise at their outlets.
Muhammad Ovais, chief executive officer of a non-governmental organisation, said that they have acquired services of around 50 women from BaghoDaro, a small place in Khairpur Mirs, which is famous for Rilli-making.
“I have hired around 50 women from BaghoDaro for Rilli-making. Our organisation is supporting these women by paying them handsomely for their artwork,” he said.
For Ovais, Rilli-making is a traditional art and should be recognised at the international fora and their organisation is engaged in introducing the artwork to the world.
“Through our network, we are also selling these merchandise abroad and getting good feedback,” he said.
Besides BaghoDaro, Hala, Shikarpur, Kashmore, Khanot, Matiari, Sekhat, Sehta, Badin, Thatta, Mithi and Nagarparkar were also recognised for their handcrafts, where over 75 per cent of women, used to work and earn their livelihood through this craft.
Arbabi said that it took almost a week to make a normal-sized Rilli, while it takes around 20 to 25 days to complete a big one.
Besides Rilli quilts, other items, which are in high demand, included bed-sheets, cushion covers, pillow covers, ladies kurtis and shirts, she added.
“Owing to extreme poverty and competition, I cannot raise my price because the clients buy it from other women at a low cost.”
“I and many more women like me are not satisfied with the payments we are getting for our labour but we compromise due to our hardships. The people should realise our problems and give us the due amount so that we can also live a healthy and prosperous life,” Arbabi said.
One interesting aspect of this artwork is that these craftswomen do not use any paperwork or tools to make their patterns, rather they are making all these merchandise on their learnings, which they acquired from their mothers and grandmothers.
According to Ovais this craft has no boundaries, as thousands of women from Sindh, regardless of their religion, sect, tribe or caste, are making Rillis and other patchwork.
“These women belonged to marginalised and poor segments of the society. They used to earn from this craft but due to the lack of support from the government departments, the women are switching to other trades to fulfil their basic requirements,” he said.
There is a dire need that the government and other relevant organisations should take initiatives for these vulnerable women.
These artisans should directly be linked with the market. The government and other organisations should establish training centres so that these women could be imparted training about the latest designs, methods and above all the importance of value addition in their merchandise.
“With a direct link with the market, the craftswomen will get a better price for their merchandise,” Ovais said.
Unfortunately, despite having talented women, most of the products of rural Sindh have a minimum penetration in the urban markets, which is a cause of concern, while the production and sales of other non-farm products are flourishing in urban areas.
What is needed are the efforts for the entrepreneurship and skill development of these craftswomen so that they can get international recognition and also improve their livelihood.