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Woman Warrior: Inspiring Change the Panchachuli Way

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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”.

Growing up in the foothills of the Himalayas, Mukti Dutta has devoted herself to helping impoverished local women earn a living for their families.  Over the last several decades, she has battled reactionary belief systems, corrupt bureaucracies and hostile local leaders, to establish a women’s weaving cooperative that creates exquisitely beautiful shawls, scarves, blankets and fashion accessories that are sought after by discriminating consumers around the globe. Speaking with Mela Artisans, she shares the inspiring story of Panchachuli Women Weavers which has become the driving passion of her remarkable life.

Mukti Datta, founder of Panchachuli Women Weavers

Mela: What was your inspiration for starting Panchachuli?

Mukti: I grew up here in the Himalayan foothills near Almora, speaking the local language and learning the customs from an early age.  My mother was Belgian and my father, Indian. In 1986 when I returned from college, the first thing that struck me as an adult, was the difficult lives of local women.  They were the ones who had to slave from morning to evening collecting firewood, fuel from the forest, fodder for their animals… And their families got hardly any benefit out of their backbreaking labor; barely enough to survive on. So the idea came to me to set up some alternative livelihood for the women.

Cashmere wool is spun into yarn using the traditional hand-operated spinning wheel or ‘chakra’.

Mela: How did that translate into introducing the village women to weaving and knitting?

Mukti: During my childhood, there used to be a very active annual nomadic migration from the high Himalayas into our valleys. The Bhotiya nomads used to pass through our forests every autumn on their way to winter in the plains and then in the spring, they would go back to the high mountains for the summer. The Bhotiya women had learned weaving and spinning from the Tibetans who used to be actively involved in trans-Himalayan trade before the Chinese occupied Tibet. So the idea of starting something similar here in my area came to mind.

Around that time, Dina Kaye, the daughter of the movie star Danny Kaye, came to India on a mission to look for programs to fund with monies from the Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine Kaye Foundation of which she was the president. I met her through common friends and we spent some time travelling around India evaluating various programs. She came to Binsar and spent a week with me here. By that time we had become quite good friends and she said, “Why don’t we do something together right here?” That’s when my idea was finally set in motion with Dina’s financial backing.

Scarves and shawls are hand-woven one at a time using a loom like this one.

Mela:  How did you go about involving the local women?

Mukti:  In those days, no one had even remotely heard of anything like a working woman. Everybody was just at home, busy with housework and childcare. So we started talking to the women and getting those who were interested to form small training groups. Eventually we were able to set up 30 centers with about 15 women being trained in weaving and spinning in each center. I brought down some master weavers from the Bhotiya tribe, enough to staff these training programs in the villages.

It took quite a long time just to train them. I remember the first lot of items they made was totally unsalable. We had to give all the blankets away to charity because nobody wanted to buy them! Eventually they got the hang of it though. When we decided to set up a more permanent production unit for these women, all the men got up in arms and were resentful that the women were getting more independent; that they had chance to get out of their homes and do something with their lives. But by that time there were about 600 women involved in this program, so the men were outnumbered and the women were very determined to work outside of the home environment. So we bought land here and in Matena village and set up two main production units with buses bringing the women back and forth. We started in 2001 by bringing about 100 women over here.


“We currently have 1000 applications from women waiting to get a job. These women come here in desperate conditions. Here in the hills, society is still very, very male dominated. Life is extremely tough for women….Most of the men are away working in town so the women are left to fend for themselves.  There is also a lot of sexual abuse and domestic violence.  So it is a very difficult life for these women and Panchachuli has shown them a path out of hopelessness.”

Mela: What was your greatest challenge in the early days?

Mukti: During the early days of Panchachuli, there was always this challenge of quality control. Whenever I would go abroad and try to market the goods over there, the reaction of people would be, “Oh, we have to help the poor women of India.” I was very irritated by that, because although I could understand their point of view, people should buy the product because it’s a beautiful product not only because of the story behind Panchachuli. So we developed the idea of differentiating ourselves by getting better wools, moving to vegetable dyes and creating something that is exclusive; something that is 100% pure. That’s when a group of us started trekking across the mountains into Tibet and buying cashmere wool directly from the nomads there.  As a result, the quality of the products improved a lot and we could put together a range of really beautiful products that were also quite exclusive.

In 2005, we became self-supporting and formed Panchuchuli Women Weavers.  It was registered as a not-for-profit which means all profits are plowed back into the organization with the objective of increasing opportunities for our rural women to receive training, gain employment and earn a livelihood for themselves and their families.

Fashion model wearing a Panchachuli-made cashmere stole.

Mela: Could you tell us more about the products and materials that Panchachuli works with?

Mukti: Our most important raw material is cashmere wool which we get from Tibet and Mongolia. We make cashmere accessories: scarves, shawls etc. Then we have lambswool accessories too. The lambswool comes from New Zealand. And we make our own vegetable dyes. We use vegetable dyes for scarves, blankets, fabrics and tweeds. We also use merino wool which comes from Ludhiana (Punjab) to create a more affordable line of products for the local market. We also make and market a variety of natural fiber products from Himalayan nettle fiber and oak-silk fiber. We use these mainly to make household accessories like tablemats, and fabrics for draperies and household furnishings.

“I would also like everybody to know that every cent of the sales of our products goes back to either Panchachuli or the training of more women. So when you buy anything made by Panchachuli, you are actually doing a favor for our hill women who otherwise would have no hope of being trained to pull themselves out of poverty and despair.”

Mela: Tell us about the women at Panchachuli.

Mukti: Well, there is a lot of mutual support amongst the women. It’s like a big family. They all help each other and they are very close knit, no doubt. But once they come into work, then the most important thing is to instill that sense of discipline that if you’re working, you’re working. You’re not walking around, you’re not gossiping about who got married, who got divorced or who ran away from home. That is for lunchtime!

The cooperative’s logo is hand painted onto every label attached to a Panchachuli product.

Mela: Can you elaborate on your current role at Panchachuli?

Mukti: My role now is more like a mentor. Earlier I looked after everything. I was like the ‘boss’. Everything had to come to my desk and I filtered everything. Now my life is much easier because I have delegated responsibilities. You must bear in mind that at Panchachuli, there is nobody who is not from a village background. I have taught them, brought them up, held their hands and today by the power of training and delegation, they are able to look after their day-to-day affairs. This leaves me with a lot more time to look after the marketing and designing. So I have a more freedom and flexibility now. At the same time, my presence here is very important for the workers and everybody else. So I can’t just disappear.

Mela: Describe the development initiatives you have undertaken for the Panchachuli community.

Mukti:  The idea for a hospital came about because there was a need to treat various medical issues experienced by the women, primarily, but not exclusively related to gynecological and obstetrical needs.  So we had a gynecologist come over to the villages and we rented a clinic where she started treating patients and training local women as health workers. Over the years, that morphed into a hospital which now has a staff of 13 doctors in 5 specialty departments.  The idea of a school came about because the women needed to have childcare while they were working. So we started organizing village school councils, providing them funds for teacher salaries and infrastructure like buildings. As a result we now have seven schools- from primary schools all the way up to a girls’ intermediate college.

“All profits are plowed back into the organization with the objective of increasing opportunities for our rural women to receive training, gain employment and earn a livelihood for themselves and their families through the handloom way of life.” 

Mela: What is your hope for the future of Panchachuli?

Mukti: By the grace of God, so far so good. The women have become very professional. But I do think what’s important is to get enough markets to enable more women to be trained and employed.  We currently have 1,000 applications from women waiting to get a job. Here in the hills, society is still very, very male dominated. Life is extremely tough for women despite the increase in upward mobility these days. There is a lot of alcoholism, most of the men are away working in towns, so the women are left to fend for themselves. There is also a lot of sexual abuse and domestic violence. So it is a very difficult life for these women and Panchachuli has shown them a path out of hopelessness; that there is something you can do to get out of this rut. So many women come here in very desperate conditions asking for a job and I am not able to provide them with a job because you need to be trained first.  And in order to train more women, we must build more markets.  That’s why I am absolutely delighted with our association with Mela Artisans. I would like everybody to know that every cent of the sales of our products goes back to either Panchachuli or the training of more women. So when you buy anything made by Panchachuli, you are actually doing a favor for our hill women who otherwise would have no hope of being trained to pull themselves out of poverty and despair.

Our Panchachuli collection available exclusively at our Vermont store.

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  • Christina Mariconti
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