Voices of Mela: Personal Stories from Women Artisans Who Inspire Change
Throughout this week leading up to International Women’s Day on March 8, Mela Moments will celebrate the accomplishments of women artisans, designers and leaders who epitomize this year’s theme “Inspiring Change”.
Mela’s women artisans truly epitomize the spirit of “inspiring change” despite differences in religion, language, caste, income, education or ethnicity. Their stories of struggle and achievement come from all over India, showcasing the diverse and rich culture of the subcontinent and the important role that female artisans play in continuing the priceless traditions of craftsmanship and art. Sharing their first-person stories is our way of celebrating these extraordinary women and the remarkable artisan groups with which they work.
Among the verdant hills and lush rice paddies of rural South India, poverty and lack of opportunity make life a struggle for many. Founded in 2008, ROPE INTERNATIONAL is a social enterprise that aims to transform the lives of women artisans through providing steady employment within a safe work environment. Currently, almost 1,000 local women work in a unique rural design studio that has produced more than a thousand original designs for handcrafted home décor and lifestyle products. ROPE has improved the lives of many rural families by providing training and reliable employment to rural women who can now contribute to their household incomes. Ensuring fair labor standards, comfortable work environments and safe working conditions are all part of their mission. In addition, benefits such as access to medical care and educational scholarships for employees’ children are also offered.
Name: Anjana Pappathi
Occupation: Weaver, Rope International
Location: Chennai, Tamil Nadu
“My name is Anjana Pappathi and I have been working for ROPE for three years now. Before I got this job I worked for a daily wage at a factory that made match boxes. It was 25 miles away from my home so the daily travel was very difficult and the work itself took a toll on my health. I feel lucky to have got a job at ROPE where I earn a fixed monthly salary and have good job security. It is much closer to my home also.
When I first started here they provided very good training in making all types of craft products by hand. I especially like to make baskets but I enjoy working on many different items. Learning to do my work well has created a feeling of confidence in me.
I am still living at home with my mother who is a widow. My sister is married and it is important to me to take care of my mother in her old age. My job at ROPE allows me to do this. Even if I get married, I want to be sure that my husband will agree that I continue to take care of my mother well. Without ROPE this would not be possible.”
Among the snow-capped peaks and verdant valleys of the Himalayan foothills of north India, a revolutionary experiment is quietly changing the lives of village families. Through the untiring efforts of local businesswoman and visionary, Mukti Dutta, women who expected to live their lives in poverty now own a stake in a cooperative that makes exquisite handcrafted cashmere and lambswool accessories for exclusive retailers around the world. Panchachuli Women Weavers was founded three decades ago and has provided training, employment, education, medical services, and most importantly, hope to the women of this isolated valley.
Name: Munni Mehta
Occupation: Cooperative Member, Panchachuli Women Weavers
Location: Almora, Uttarakhand
“My name is Munni Mehta and I am a 54 year old mother of 3. I have been part of Panchachuli Women Weavers since its inception. I started working with Mukti Dutta (founder of the organization) shortly after I got married. Although I grew up in Almora, I moved to Ranikhet (a nearby village) with my husband after marriage but often returned to visit my family here. It was during one of those visits that I met Mukti and she explained to me her plan to start a women’s cooperative in this area. I loved Mukti’s idea and decided to help her with this project. Very soon, I became so involved in it that I decided to leave my youngest daughter in the care of my husband in Ranikhet and move back to Almora to help set up the cooperative. Today, my husband is still at Ranikhet, my children are all married and I have two grandchildren as well.
Most of the women artisans at Panchachuli Women Weavers come from remote rural areas. When they came to us some of the women had never even visited a city! But today, these same women are standing on their own two feet, commuting from their homes to the Center in buses. They have learned to conduct themselves well in public and are paying for their children’s education with the money they make. For all these changes in their lives they have Mukti Dutta to thank. I wouldn’t be lying if I said that the women artisans at Panchachuli equate Mukti with god! She is the reason there is cooking gas in every house, children studying in English medium schools and hospitals and clinics to take care of the health needs of the people in this area.
I love working at Panchachuli. Perhaps if we women were still at home doing only housework, we would never have met so many other women or learned so many useful skills. Now we have a community. We have incomes. These things have helped me tremendously. All my children have had good educations, and I was able to provide a safe and comfortable home for my family. And personally, I have benefitted so much. It was my dream to take Panchachuli places and to see it grow and prosper. Today that dream is becoming a reality. And Mukti Datta is the force behind it. She has given us complete control of the organization. I have been working here for almost 18 years. My only hope is that I will be able and fit for another 18 years so that I can continue to work and serve Panchachuli.”
When Chanda Shroff went on a famine relief mission to the Kutch region of Gujarat state in 1969, the last thing she expected to do was to found a company. Nevertheless, when she arrived she was surprised to discover that in this culturally diverse and geographically arid region, rural women have excelled in the craft of embroidery for generations.
Originally created by girls preparing their dowries, each tribal group in the region had its own particular style of embroidery and lexicon of stitches and motifs. Seeing the hardships of these women and the delicate beauty of the art they created, Chanda and her family were inspired to found a philanthropic venture to protect and preserve this craft while empowering the women who practiced it. Today Shrujan provides a living for 3,500 women in 100 different villages, transforming their lives and their local economies in a significant and sustainable way.
Name: Sajjan Sisoda
Occupation: Embroiderer, Shrujan
Location: Bhuj, Gujurat
“Twenty years ago, when Chanda Behan visited my village, she asked us if we were keen on making a living doing embroidery. She said she was willing to train us if a sufficiently large group was interested in learning. 25 women from my village put in their names for the training workshop. My friend Laxmi put in my name as well, even though I had never held a needle in my life!
Shrujan’s people soon came to our village to set up a workshop. They assured us that they would teach us everything…and they did. They gave us cloth, needles and thread and slowly trained us for six months in our own village. They also gave us Rs 250 every month as a stipend. The first two months were tough but I stuck with it and soon learned to embroider.
Working with Shrujan has been a blessing for so many reasons. Whether I earn Rs 1000 ($20) or Rs 10,000 ($200) a month, I know that the payment will come like clockwork: always on time, always reliable. Some women in my village also do embroidery for private buyers but I believe in Shrujan the most because it’s like having a government job; there is security here. Today, because of the money I make, I can buy my children new clothes, bicycles, bangles and even pay their school fees without having to depend on anyone else. I have taught my daughters to embroider and my eldest one even ran an embroidery workshop at her in-laws’ village some time ago.
Life for us has not been easy. I attended school only until grade 4. In my community, called the Jadeja community, women do not study beyond grade 10. They involve themselves in household and agricultural activities after that. There are other communities in my village where girls go on to complete high school and some even go to college. We do not follow that practice. My daughters went to school till grade 6; one of them wanted to drop out earlier to pursue embroidery full-time but I made sure she at least completed grade 6. Today, she is 18 and one of the fastest workers in the village. She wants to continue working for Shrujan even after she moves to her husband’s village. I also have 2 sons and want to make sure that they at least complete high school.
Shrujan has not only given the women of my village an income, but also an excuse to get together on a regular basis. I love my time with them; we talk, gossip, share our happiness, sorrows and discuss our sons, daughters and of course embroidery! I am the first woman in my family to earn a living and my family, including my husband, is proud of the work I do.”
Mela is proud to partner with Rope, Panchachuli and Shrujan and to help support their women artisans. To purchase their exquisite handiwork click here.