Not long ago, a couple of designers visited the lively town of Barmer in Rajasthan for a fashion show. Amidst all the glamour and self-assured skill she had inherited from her grandmother's crafting, a spirited local named Ruma Devi voiced her wish to join the show. "You are supposed to stitch," they said. "Fashion designing and participating in a fashion show aren't your forte," dismissing her dreams of fashion designing and strutting down the runway. Although it stung back then, this very moment, Devi knew she had to fight for what she loved the most—weaving. She was determined to carve a place not just for herself but also for countless artisans who often remain voiceless and faceless in the world of fashion.
Introducing Ruma Devi, a fashion designer, an Indian social worker, and a traditional handicraft artist from Barmer, Rajasthan. Back in 8th grade, Ruma Devi waved goodbye to school at her family's insistence and dived into household chores. When she hit 17, she was married off. Hailing from Rajasthan, the 31-year-old handcraft artisan Ruma Devi shattered expectations by introducing small yet impactful changes to her community with her magical embroidery. Ruma drew inspiration from her grandma's handicraft skills—using wool for clothes and traditional duvets for the home.
Ruma’s Journey: From Being a School Dropout To Weaving Dreams
Ruma Devi, a true go-getter, teamed up with two other women from her village. But it wasn’t as easy. She had to overcome heaps of challenges to get them on board. Ruma explains that stepping out of the house for work felt like trying to move mountains for women. But “Other than sewing, I knew nothing. I knew I had to work, I had to make a change in how I was living up until then, and the key to that was with me. I fell back on the one skill I had learnt from my dadi (grandmother),” she mentioned.
Ruma Devi, an epitome of rural entrepreneurship, began making hand-embroidered bags. She could embroider with a needle and thread, but she required a sewing machine to stitch it together for the result. With sheer determination, the fearless trio plunged into the world of sewing, overcoming every obstacle in the way. Even though we nailed the initial steps of handcrafted fashion, achieving that perfect finish and completing the creations called for a sewing machine.
This was when women’s empowerment emerged when Ruma Devi formed a group of ten women, each chipping in Rs 100 to get a second-hand sewing machine. As Ruma and the women hustled, they hit a wall when it came to market their creations. “Until then, it was always the men who stepped up to market products. We had no expertise or knowledge in the matter, so we had to learn every small aspect — from how to make a bill to whom to approach and how to package our products,” she says. It was quite challenging.
And guess what? It was the moment when by chance Ruma Devi and the women encountered Gramin Vikas Evam Chetna Sansthan, an NGO based in Barmer that helped rural ladies like Ruma. This was the major breakthrough Devi was waiting for.
As more and more work began coming their way, the group started recruiting more women artisans from Rajasthan. She says every woman they met shared a goal: being financially independent. And even though she was a quick learner, Ruma never had the chance to work outside her home and put this skill to use. Instead, with artisanal fashion, she used the skill to make her own clothes and entered the world of the Indian fashion industry.
From Barmer, Rajasthan To Harvard University
The school dropout’s success story is definitely more than this. Ruma Devi also fondly recalls receiving a letter from Harvard University inviting her to give a speech at the 17th Annual India Conference. It wasn’t expected, so even having to reply to the invitation seemed overwhelming. “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 said. Eventually, fortunately, the Bajaj Group 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.”
Ruma Devi And Her Impeccable Achievements
Today, Ruma Devi is largely associated with the best in the business in the Indian and international fashion world, like fashion designers such as Anita Dongre, Bibi Russell, and Abraham & Thakore, empowerment through fashion, among others. Her achievement extends to establishing a brand dedicated to promoting Rajasthan's handloom and textiles. Ruma Devi is the epitome of financial entrepreneurship that helps the local heritage grow along with women's empowerment through fashion. Ruma Devi has achieved so much through her achievements that Ruma has even participated in Rajasthan Heritage Week and ramp shows in IGHF since 2016 and has represented Rajasthan in Germany, Singapore and London!
Plus, Ruma Devi's presence extended to India's most popular TV program Kaun Banega Crorepati; she also took to the runway as a model for handcrafted clothing made by Thar women. In recognition of her impactful efforts, Ruma Devi was presented with the esteemed Jankidevi Bajaj Puraskar by the IMC Ladies Wing. She changed the lives of hundreds of women artisans by offering them the resources, support, and encouragement they needed for their health, education, and, especially, the self-assurance they needed to become full-time small-scale entrepreneurs.
The Present Day
Today, Devi's initiative now helps 30,000 women in 150 villages. Many of these women now have become tremendously financially and creatively empowered through their work. Ruma, who received the 2018 Nari Shakti Puraskar—a prestigious annual award given by the Indian Ministry of Women and Child Development to women and institutions that promote female empowerment—said, "I had always envisioned empowering women in rural India by making them financially independent and providing basic education."
Looking back at these achievements, 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 the sky's the limit."
Presently Ruma receives invitations from nations all over the world to present her work and give speeches at conferences. Her tale is often used as an example of incredible grit and resilience "Looking back at my experience of being invited to Harvard, it still feels surreal. Talking about my journey in front of such a large audience made me feel accomplished. I felt immense pride at the work that I do," she grins.
The Harvard fashion designer may not look like the huge fashionista she truly is, but today, she is amongst the most celebrated fashion designers, known for her quintessential Barmer patchwork and embroidery designs. And thanks to her, traditional crafts revival and sustainable fashion are possible today. And it will be for years to come with handicraft artisans like Ruma Devi. This was a story that offered hope, but above all, it is a shining example of what an artisan’s fashion entrepreneurship can do.