Fifty Kilometres of a twisty climb in a car with no seatbelts and a reckless driver brought about many emotions; fear for our lives, awe for the beauty passed of long waterfalls, forrest greenery, monkeys and beautiful mountains and anticipation of what we would find at the top of the mountain providing we would survive.
At last, after two hours we arrive in Kodiakanal, a town like no other we have visited in India, so far. Houses seem to be built into the walls of the mountain. We feel the cool, peaceful breeze as we open the car door, soothing our troubled nerves. There is a huge shortage of water here and are encouraged not to take unnecessary showers.
We are taken on a short drive to a street of a few shops. Stairs lead us up three floors to a room lined with shelves of folded fabric in many colours and designs. Treadle sewing machines take up the floor space in rows. Young women diligently working, chatting, smiling and welcoming.
We are greeted at the door by Tiku, a small, greying woman. Phillipe, her husband too. This couple started Prowess some years ago to help exploited women to find empowerment through their sewing skills, enabling their children to attend school and even university. Some of these women come from homes too poor to have a dowry provided for them so are in danger of being married off to older, abusive men who have no respect for them. Through Prowess some have been saved from such a fate. The women are encouraged to pay off their sewing machines so that when they leave, they can take their own machines with them to give them independence and an ability to find work anywhere they choose.
If the women leave, they replace themselves. Profit is shared between the workers. They are paid per hour. Price is kept the same for 1 year. Prices go up but they try to keep these prices steady according to the cost of living. When a girl has a baby, she stops work for 3 months, then takes work home. They have their own bank account and OAF (Old Age Fund). The company gives a loan for a house empowering the women as some husbands are physical and/or mentally abusive. The idea is to pull them up into the middle class if they want. They are supported by a Catholic organization who support many NGOs.
At the end of the room are three other rooms. One a small toilet and utility room, one an office and the other another work room. The atmosphere is busy and harmonious. We meet Shanti, a woman who has come through a difficult time to become independent as a widow and able to support her family. She is being trained by Tiku to take over Prowess in the future. Shanti is very open to using more organic fabrics and new ideas.
We take time to look at the finished toys the women have made and selected some as samples. Purses, bags, mobiles, sitting frog, owl and pussycat puppets, colourful children’s aprons, mermaid, pregnant doll, starfish, whale, cat, monkeys. We also place an order for bunting and children’s cloth books.
Sushila is the oldest woman here. She has 20 years of tailoring experience making toys, quilting and embroidering.
“It’s like being in a family. The worst punishment is to work at home because of the support of the board and community. They guarantee that the earnings come into our hands each 30th of the month. I am an only daughter. Father passed 5 years ago so am supporting my mother. I am not married.”
Kala is a recent addition to the group. 11 years ago she came, and has 2 children. Her husband is supportive. He works as a school caretaker. They are sending their kids to college to learn computers and to study for diplomas in Computer Science and Commerce. Their daughter is 21 years old. Kala came to Prowess through a contact. She used to sew on the road. One of the teachers at the school brought her saying, she is a good worker. She does piece work. She likes making quilts best. This work is a big help in putting her children through school because he husband’s salary is not enough. Kala says that when she comes here, she leaves her worries behind.
Aloysia makes penguins. Working at PROWESS gives her independence as her parents are dead and she would otherwise be in the control of her uncle who would marry her off to whoever would want her without a dowry.
Prowess is a place of hope and contentment. A home away from home for the women where they can know community and the satisfaction of work and hope.
Our third and last day in Kashmir - we packed the car with all our luggage and squash into Sajad’s car. He has one last family he would like us to visit before we fly out midday. Travelling out from the city the roads begin opening up, lush fields, the sheer mountains peeking through the trees - but everywhere the effects of the flood waters still apparent - still a lush and beautiful drive.
At the gate of the Mirtariqahmad house, we are met by the Father and the youngest brother, who walks with the aid of a walking stick. They take us into a room where the two older brothers are seated and stitching. While the effects of muscular dystrophy can be seen, it’s the warmth of their smiles that is striking and the speed of their hands as the stitch. We discover later - mobility is extremely difficult. The two older brothers basically do not leave the room and the younger brother does so rarely, and only accompanied.
In 2010, Kashmere University held an exhibition where disabled artisans could display their work. Shamlah, the designer from MESH, was there and so they were introduced. From there as Matthew put it ‘we have been travelling together.’ The partnership with MESH means that they can sell their products to a greater market, and get support - the middlemen at the local market do not give them a fair deal, taking the cream of their income. To sustain them the family has a farm planted within their house boundary, a cow, and also a small field which gives them rice - their field was damaged by the flood waters and their crops were ruined.
The fabrics come out and we get to see the exquisitely crafted embroidery. The range, detail and colour of the work is astounding. We see pieces that take from 20 days to 1 and half months.
We were able to create 5 designs based on existing patterns for Uplift Fair Trade products and these beautiful pieces are now available for purchase. Uplift is very grateful to be able to journey with these extremely talented artisans.
Anna was invited to be a guest speaker at a Fair Trade meeting that MESH had organised. She suggested that I go and visit Society For Child Development to see what they are doing there, and to ask for a few customisations to one of the products.
I was greeted at the large ornamental gate of SOCD - inside a four level concrete building, a bright bicycle wheel sculpture hung above the entrance and the large open courtyard had a blanket of petals in one corner where the flower petals had been salvaged from the temples to be dried and cut, worked into powder, paints and incense products.
“Kept left for the dog, please”, I just got to the left before a large dog stirred and its bark echoed across the courtyard. “He likes he’s sleeping” laughed my friendly guide. Into the office space past a number of tightly-knit desk spaces, a hive of activity all around.
In the office I sat and talked with the energetic Madhumita Puri, who’s vision for SOCD is to see disabled youth and adults given an opportunity to live a life of dignity and purpose. It was exciting to hear usually 80 and up to 120 disabled artisans are given work at SOCD, depending on orders. The products created here are made from recycled, waste or plant materials. Designers create the products, being mindful of the skills and capabilities of he artisans, as well as the varying nature of the materials they make the products from. SOCD has been able to put on a school as well, for disabled kids, which I was told was running that day. After being shown some of the new products that had been developed - and remembering to take photos of these to show Anna - I was invited to take a look around and explore for myself and see just what everyone was up to.
A group of blind artisans sat weaving fabrics together while others at a table were focused on rolling incense sticks together. Helpers sat with them making sure they had the bits and pieces they needed to complete their tasks. Was really incredible watching them.
Off this room I found the school for children with disability. Kids had just finished an activity and were about to have lunch. The class stared at me a little bewildered when I stumbled in and said hi. One boy though, had an enormous smile on and we shook hands, and everyone wanted their hands shaken and photos taken after that. Their faces on seeing their own picture.
Around the back and passed a door where many were sitting down about to have their lunch, to a beautiful outdoor area where a group of young men were making various things. One, with no right arm below the elbow, was using a paper-mache type paste to create bowls, another was creating the incense sticks. There was a few cheeky ones amongst them, and one was an absolute performer striking a bevy of crazy poses while the others laughed happily. He came at me saying something and Madhumita Puri exclaimed “Oh, Tskk!” and pushed him away gently, while he and the others laughed. I was definitely being teased!
After some exuberant hand shakes and thankyous I headed up stairs, where Madhumita Puri introduced me to the designers. Then on the roof area where many artisans sat weaving products like bags, purses, wallets together at sewing machines, and finally out where waste materials were being sorted and cleaned. It really was quite incredible to see how much was going on here - each room filled with activity.
Madhumita Puri showed me some products they had been developing as her assistant darted in and out of a back storeroom, retrieving the varying products. She talked a little about what it was like when a new person would come for work, describing that often the disabled youth have been treated as too special, have had everything done for them and so have never been empowered to do things for themselves. “I am not your mumma, I have to say” says Madhumita sternly and then breaks into laughter, “Oh the amount of times I have to tell them that.” She describes when a new person is trained in something, and suddenly realise they can do it themselves, the pride they take in that moment, in their creations, that sense of achievement. Dignity.
I can see the Madhumita Puri and the many others at SOCD have created an atmosphere of true empowerment, where providing an opportunity to work is opening up so much more.
Its our first real day in Delhi and we have headed straight to MESH design studio and plunged into ordering new products. The sampling is sweetly interrupted by a visit from two of the Tatting Ladies, from Annand Craft. We have a chance to hear about the project, see their latest products which they are delivering to MESH and to hear their stories. We are about 20 mins in and one of the ladies happily recognises Anna from her last visit to India!
Amongst other questions Anna asks "where does the money you make go towards". They both answer, for their kids education, their craft has meant they have been able to put their kids through school. We can see on their faces their pride at this - education for their children means the cycle of poverty will be broken.
The fairtrade premium, the extra money they get has gone towards improving their electricity - the area they live is susceptible to power outs and they have been able to contribute to transformers which help the power stay on, no-one can do anything in the dark.
They graciously leave, but not after Jackie from MESH has put the hard word on them about selecting someone to come along to a workshop on Fairtrade MESH is running later in the week… It was fantastic to meet them, hear a little of their stories and see their latest creations.
The Tatting group began in 1999 in a leprosy colony near Delhi when some members of the Womens society there started to make products to sell. They were taught tatting skills by an elderly English lady called Eve. At the time, the ladies spoke no English, so there was a lot of demonstrations and gesturing, mistakes and laughter. As far as they know, they are the only group using this craft technique in India. The Women’s Society provides social activities and support for the women of the colony and meets regularly for different events and gatherings.
It sprang from the fact that the women could not go out to work because they were needed at home to look after their young children. The tatting group provided a way to socialise and learn new skills together and take work home to complete while they were caring for their families. They are happy that small orders throughout the year enable them to earn some income for their families needs. The women meet regularly to work together at the community hall and then take their work orders home. They each had a little box with their equipment in it.
Had no knowledge of tatting before. Celebrating her 25th wedding anniversary, has 2 children - 1 at college, one about to finish school. The project has made a difference in her life by providing an income to pay for their children’s school fees, books and household things.
Studies til year 10. She has a son finishing school, who wants to be a technical engineer and a daughter doing nursing. She especially enjoys the time together with other women. She was lonely at home on her own especially as her husband arrives back late from his work at 11pm. She likes the way the women share their problems. Before she had children she worked at a family planning clinic. She has been part of the tatting group since it began.
Anita is the womens group secretary. She explained that Mesh started the group in 1999 to provide cultural and social activities for the women. There are 58 members now. She is the contact person for the tatting group, speaks to MESH about orders. She organises the women’s work, draws up timelines, does marketing, purchases materials, provides samples and ensures the work is completed in time. Anita married soon after school and didn’t work after that. She has been a member of the group since it began but didn’t do tatting at first as her two sons were too young.
Gulshan is the president of the womens group. She is very proud of her children studting fine arts. As her husband is a teacher she doesn’t have a financial need to work outside the home. The difference the group makes in her life is that it provides a place for her to socialise with other women and forget her problems. She loves tatting now and can read and follow patterns but found it very hard at first. She is very proud of her work and really pleased that people in Australia like the products they create.
The difference the group has made is that the work is so much better than her old job working 12 years in an eport house. She is very happy becoming a grandmother recently and has 3 children. She has been involved in the group for 9-10 years and loves meeting up with the ladies to talk and work.
Did not want to talk initially but shared the story of how she lost her 12 year old daughter in an accident not long ago, she fell from a building. The group provided support, comfort and understanding for her over the time since the accident. It gave her something to do and a place to talk about her sadness. She is the youngest in the group and explained that she loves learning from the other women. If she needs help with anything she has so many friends to ask now.
Barbara Orrock reflects: "The thing that is striking about visiting groups like this is the community and friendship Handicrafts give. What is also so exciting on seeing the ladies talking about their children. The fact that they have been able to get their children through school and university is a massive achievement, ending the cycle of poverty."
After a 3 and half hour drive from Delhi, we begin a slow wind into a tight street in Upper Pradesh. We were greeted on the street by 4 brothers who run KHJ - who show us firstly into a small working space beneath their house. They demonstrated how beads and frames are smoothed and buffed, and then showed us into a nearby storeroom where a large variety of the products were kept. After a cool drink we are ushered onto the street and down a lane.
The strong smell of sewer enveloped us as we passed workshops in full swing each side. Generally people bent over cutting and sanding wheels, in semi darkness with low light and low air. One working area was piled in jeans with sewing machines setup within. Shortly we were shown into a gated, open air courtyard, the main working area of KHJ.
Seated on a carpet were a couple of Artisans who were filing down bangle rings. The brothers demonstrated for us the various processes involved including how they worked the bone, shell and resin to create various products - starting up a large, noisy machine which had several work stations where they cut, sand, buff and shape materials. They also showed us the large press which they were able to flatten bone out using pressure and water.
Matthew translated: “The Artisans prefer to work here because here they (KHJ) provide all the fair trade standards, working conditions and working wages so they like to work here, but when there is no orders, there is no business… when they come they do just 8 hours work. 8 oclock to 4 oclock. They have a lunch break, tea break all that is privileges which are given here, but when they go outside in the commercial establishments, there is no lunch break, no tea break, nothing like that, they have to finish their work quickly and maybe that’s from 8 to 8, 12 hours work.”
Back through the lane, to the house and we were greeted by a full range of jewellery on display - much to Anna’s delight. Rings, bangles, necklaces, cuffs all created in the small courtyard we had just seen. Anna spent a good amount of time making her selections while the courteous brothers described how each was made, and what it consisted of.
Upstairs and rows of beautiful frames and boxes met us, again to Anna’s joy! The KHJ products are so beautifully crafted, there really is a workmanship about them - to see them all in this context was very special. By this time the smells of a home-cooked meal filled the space as she inspected the products.
With orders finally completed we were invited to sit and were given a generous and delicious meal - something with chicken, breads and dips - even when being far too full we were encouraged to have more.
After lunch we talked with the brothers about the business, about the disabled artisan that we had seen that day and their plans for fair trade. 23 year old, had been working with them for 3 years, initially approached them for work - when they discovered he had problems with his knee and the medicines he was taking was making him overheat - they took him to a doctor, who diagnosed it as cancer and he is having treatment, though they may still need to amputate. He now works with KHJ and his fair wages help him to pay for his medicine and to earn a living.
Women from the villages also contribute to this project, with the beading of the necklaces when the work is there - but it is all dependant on their order.
After lunch, the brothers had something else to show us, and we wound through some very tight streets into a much poorer area of UP. We pulled up to a couple of open paddocks, stacked with dung with some rough brick buildings on the other side. The brothers told us they had plans to buy this land and create a school on it for the local children, who had no support and nowhere to go. Later we were to find out that they were working with other members of the community to establish this, as the government would not help these people.
They took us to meet the family of the artisan and we were taken into a small space inside one of the brick homes. The floor was mud and dirt, Two cows were tied down inside a cornerstall in the main living space, the roof was roughly strung tarps, with darkened brick rooms towards the back. There were some 4 families living in there and a crowd of 30 - 40 people staring as we sat with them, all the neighbours kids had come to see.
Grubby little faces stared back at us, some smiling, some terrified as a little curious baby goat come to lick Matthews fingers. Their mothers started laughing, pushing them forward as Anna went into them to see who would shake her hand - they ran from her laughing, until one little girl shook it, and then they gathered around her shyly, or laughed into their hands. We met the Artisan who worked with the brothers and he beamed as his baby reached for Anna and was comfortable being held by her. Kids appeared on the roof saying things, that no-one would translate for us and an old man washed his feet in the corner probably wondering what had come to his house.
All those little faces peering at us - this was what the brothers had wanted us to see. Their plan was to create a school for these children who were left to wander. “There is nothing” one of the brothers said to me - Nothing here for them is what I understood, no future. The brothers with other members of their community were attempting to change that and hoped we would be a part of it.
There was a lot to think about on the journey back to Delhi.
We are welcomed very warmly and invited in to walk through the humble building. Inside a small community of artisans is at work, producing beautiful and intricate items, with immense detail, intricacy and skill. The sounds of printed blocks being slammed onto fabrics, the whirring of sewing machines – seeing the creativity and positivity in this place you wouldn’t think it’s a rehabilitation hospital for those suffering from leprosy.
In many ways when you visit Hubli you just don’t get the “down and out” feeling that might be conjured on a visit to a leprosy hospital. There is a positivity in this place.
Inside a beautiful lady named Sara Swaphi sits at a sewing machine putting together presentation bags, which have been screen printed in other parts of the hospital. Sara only has one leg and would find it difficult to get work elsewhere. In the hospital she is not only treated, but given work that pays her a fair wage, giving her dignity to earn a living for herself.
There are many others here, who have all been embraced into this uplifting community, given value and respect. In other parts of India they might be considered unclean and not able to find work because of their disability.
It can become very challenging for people with disability because of the broken roads, tough terrain and lack of accessibility in India. However in Hubli these needs are considered and valued.
As we spend the next couple of days in the hospital we see that this is much more than community, it is a family. A family we were privileged to be welcomed into for a short time, and one that Change Threads is proud to support.