“I’ll put a gold border and give it some pleats. We can also add a few cut-outs on the sleeve, but that will be another 30 rupees.”

These are routine conversations Sharada Makwana has with her clients, some of whom she says can be quite particular about the length of the sleeve, the kind of lace and the weight of tassels attached to the strings that tie-up the daring low-back saree blouses. “I can also make flowers with the cloth and add them on as embellishments,” she says proud of her skills, and then she goes on to show us just how she does it.

Sharada and other local saree blouse tailors like her, are Kushalgarh women’s favourite fashion advisors. Afterall, almost all young girls and women of all ages who wear sarees, need that 80 cm of cloth to be tailored just so.

In an otherwise deeply patriarchal society where women don’t get a voice in public meetings, and the sex ratio at birth is an alarming 879 females per 1,000 men (National Family Health Survey, NFHS-5 ), women’s agency over their clothing is something to cheer about.

This small town in Rajasthan’s Banswara district is filled with tailoring shops. The men’s tailors are split between those stitching shirts and pants, and those who make wedding attire like kurtas and even coats for winter bridegrooms. Both are rather sedate affairs, the colours palate not venturing beyond an occasional light pink or red.

PHOTO • Priti David
PHOTO • Priti David

Left: A view of the shopping street in Kushalgarh, Banswara. Right: Sharada Makwana standing in front of her shop

The shops of saree blouse tailors on the other hand, are a riot of colours, twirling tassels, glinting gota (gold and silver edging), and scraps of colourful cloths strewn all over. “You should come a few weeks later when the wedding season will start,” says the 36-year-old, her face lighting up. “Then I will get very busy.” She dreads rainy days as then no one ventures out and her business drops.

Sharada estimates that there are at least 400-500 blouse tailors in the small town, population of a 10,666 (Census 2011). Kushalgarh tehsil however is among the largest in Banswara district with over 3 lakh people, and her customers come from as far as 25 kilometres away. “I get customers from Ukala, Baolipada, Sarva, Ramgarh and other villages,” she says. “Once they come to me, they don’t go anywhere else again,” she adds smiling. She says her customers speak on clothes, life in general, their health and children’s futures.

She bought a Singer machine for Rs. 7,000 when she started, and two years later picked up a second-hand Usha sewing machine for smaller jobs like saree peeko (edging) which brings in Rs. 10 per saree. She also stitches petticoats and Patiala suits ( salwar kameez ), and charges Rs. 60 to Rs. 250 respectively.

Sharada also doubles up as a beautician. At the back of the shop is a barber’s chair, a large mirror and an array of make-up products. Her arsenal of beauty tricks extends from threading eyebrows, to removing body hair, bleaching and haircuts for small children, especially fussy babies, all charged around Rs. 30 to 90. “Women go to bigger parlours for facials,” she points out.

PHOTO • Priti David
PHOTO • Priti David

While the shopfront is covered with blouses (right) made by Sharada, the back of the shop has a barber’s chair, a large mirror and make-up products (left)

To find her you have to get to the main market in Kushalgarh. There is more than one bus stand from where roughly 40 buses leave every day with migrants going into Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. Banswara district has a lot of distress migration as there is only rain-fed agriculture and no other livelihoods.

Down a narrow street in Panchal mohalla of the town, past the bustling market of small sweet shops selling morning snacks like poha and jalebi , is Sharada’s one-room tailoring shop cum beauty parlour.

The 36-year-old lost her husband eight years ago; he was a taxi driver and struggled with a liver problem that finally took his life. Sharada and her children live with her in-laws and her late husband’s brother’s family.

The young widow says a chance meeting changed her life. “I met a madam at the anganwadi who said try out the Sakhi centre and learn whatever you want.” The centre – a not-for-profit initiative – was a place where young women could learn marketable skills. Timings were flexible and she would land up when her household chores were over; some days she spent an hour or up to half a day. The centre charged a monthly fee of Rs. 250 for every student.

PHOTO • Priti David
PHOTO • Priti David

Sharada learnt how to sew at the Sakhi centre, a not-for-profit initiative where young women learn marketable skills

PHOTO • Priti David
PHOTO • Priti David

Sharada's husband passed away eight years ago, leaving her to take care of their three children. 'It’s a different feeling to have your own earnings,' says Sharada

“I liked the sewing work, and we were taught very thoroughly,” adds a grateful Sharada who asked to learn more than just blouses. “I said to them, teach me whatever you can, and in 15 days I mastered it!” Armed with new skills, the entrepreneur decided to set up on her own four years ago.

Kuch aur hi mazaa hai, khud ki kamayi [it’s a different feeling to have your own earnings],” says the mother of three who did not want to depend on her in-laws for everyday expenses. “I want to stand on my own feet.”

Her older daughter, 20-year-old Shivani is studying to be a nurse in a college in Banswara; 17-year-old Harshita and 12-year-old Yuvraj are both in school here in Kushalgarh. Her children, she says, prefer the government school for higher secondary and so have shifted out of private school when they come to Class 11. “They change teachers too often in private schools.”

Sharada was married at 16, and when her eldest daughter got to that age, the mother wanted to wait, but no one listened to the young widow. Today, she and her daughter are trying their best to get the marriage, which remains on paper, annulled, so that the young girl is free.

When the shop next to Sharada fell vacant, she persuaded her friend, also a single parent, to set up her tailoring store. “Even though each month the earnings are different, I feel good that I can stand on my own feet.”

Priti David

Priti David is the Executive Editor of PARI. She writes on forests, Adivasis and livelihoods. Priti also leads the Education section of PARI and works with schools and colleges to bring rural issues into the classroom and curriculum.

Other stories by Priti David
Editor : Vishaka George

Vishaka George is Senior Editor at PARI. She reports on livelihoods and environmental issues. Vishaka heads PARI's Social Media functions and works in the Education team to take PARI's stories into the classroom and get students to document issues around them.

Other stories by Vishaka George