“It used to be a very big thing. Now people don’t care much about it.” This is what a nun at an embroidery center in my hometown told me.
In our usual week-long Fall Break during October, I return to my home for that short vacation. A couple of weeks back, while I was still at home, my mother brought a very pretty box to keep my stuff in. All the little details were hand-embroidered on the box, and when I asked her where she got it from, she said that it was from a local embroidery center.
Later that week, she was going there to place another order for someone else from the same shop, so I went along. We went around 4:00 p.m. on a weekday and realized that we were the only customers filling in the empty shop. A very sweet nun, Sister Rosa, greeted us and took us into the room where they had displayed their work.
There weren’t as many items present there as in most boutiques or shops, but every single piece had a magic in itself. When we were talking, we got to know a little about the history of the place.
This center was within the property of Ursuline Convent which is a missionary school that was opened up in Ranchi, my hometown, more than a century ago.
In 1903, four Belgian nuns arrived in Ranchi named Sister Anthony, Sister Sabina, Sister Gonzava, and Sister Ursula. From then on to 1906, they recruited about six to seven local women and started teaching them how to do embroidery on cloth and a lot of different bases.
Finally, in 1906, the center was open to sales. These four sisters were the first teachers of the embroidery that was done here. Soon, it became very well-known as “Convent embroidery.”
Since then, people from all over India, and abroad, used to come and place their orders for the work to be done. The customers were the ones who got their own cloth piece and design. Then the workers would do the work and charge the customer for the embroidery done.
They sold, and still sell, different types of things like sarees, pillow covers, handkerchiefs, purses, tablecloths, bed sheets, bed covers, etc.
It was so well known and busy, that there used to be orders placed about two years in advance for a thing like a saree, an Indian traditional dress, and it took about five years to complete a full piece. Having one of these was a huge deal back then.
The reason why this was initially set-up was that the Belgian nuns wanted to do something for the people here in Ranchi and this was a way to help them financially along with promoting their art.
This kept on going for decades and in 2006, Ursuline Convent held their 100-year anniversary.
So coming back to me being in the display room, I was wondering why my mother and I were the only people present in there, and when I asked Sister Rosa this question, she said, “In the past 10 years, the number of orders we receive has started declining. These days, there is barely anyone who wants to come and get these items.”
Convent embroidery is now losing its charm. It is struggling for its existence and all the new fashion boutiques coming up are somewhat taking its place.
The nuns need to find a way to retain the charm and enhance it even more.
Photos by Priyansha Agarwal
Edited by Victoria Lee