With so many people, the answer to the state’s economic struggle lies in jobs, not charity.
Only Two Women in the World Knew How To Do This Embroidery 0
Saving An Art Form From Extinction
Pondicherry sits on the eastern coast of India, a former French colony that still showcases tree-lined boulevards and brightly-colored French architecture. Not too far from the old quarter, Anjali Schiavina, a longtime resident, is trying to transform the the fashion industry. Her company, Mandala Apparels, produces fabrics and textiles using only organic cotton — that too, grown primarily by female farmers. “Organic cotton in India is still a work in progress,” she says. “Organic food has really taken off. But textiles will take years to become mainstream.” Schiavina returned to India from Italy with a dream to work at the grassroots level, get her hands dirty, redesign the fashion and textile industries, and do something that would uplift the women of India. Mandala Apparels, does just that: she’s supported 70 cotton farmers, the majority of which are women — a rarity given that these farms have been traditionally run by men. To ensure the health of these farmers, and the health of their families, she encourages her farmers to do intercropping. That is, not just grow cotton but also the pulses, vegetables, rice, food that can sustain their families and feed themselves. “This is a big distinction because generally cotton is a mono crop. And that’s not healthy for the farms or the people who run them,” she says. Once the cotton arrives at her unit in Pondicherry, it’s woven by women as well. At her two Pondicherry-based units today, she’s hired and trained nearly 200 women to sew, inspect, and package products. “The women, unlike the men, I’ve seen are eager to learn. They’re happy to adapt and easy to work with,” she says. Upon entering her unit, you see lines of women, seated in front of sewing machines, diligently working away. Given Pondicherry’s dense humidity, fans are in full swing and doors are left open to allow for a breeze. The women are chatting amongst themselves. A manager, also a woman, is walking up and down the rows, monitoring their progress, giving feedback. It’s loud with all the machines humming, ladies talking freely, and some even breaking out in song. This is clearly not the traditional textile manufacturing unit. Schiavina chose to hire mostly women, after having experimented with male tailors who posed a few challenges: “They only want to do certain designs, or cuts,” she notes. “Then they take the money they earn, and buy liquor with it. It doesn’t even make it back to their families. From a social impact standpoint, it doesn’t really make sense.” Women, on the other hand, use the funds to feed and educate their children, she explains. “So why not pay someone who is actually going to better the household?” Hence, a sea of women in saris adorn Mandala Apparels. However, the pillows, commissioned by Mela Artisans, have an even deeper supply chain. The organic cotton used for these pillows comes from Schiavina’s unit; but the embroidery is done elsewhere — by another group of enterprising women. In the Sittilingi Valley, a four-hour drive inland from coastal Pondicherry, 50 tribal ladies are responsible for the embroidery on the pillows. Part of the Lambadi tribe, a group of gypsies that migrated southwards centuries ago from the Kutch region of Gujarat, these ladies have resurrected a type of embroidery that had nearly gone extinct. Dr. Lalitha, a local obstetrician running an organization called the Tribal Health Initiative, had been working in this region, providing medical care to these rural communities. She wanted to find an avenue for the families to earn more money. Traditionally, they’ve been farmers. But with the recent drought, they cannot make enough to support their families, she says. As a result, many have left the village for the city, looking for other work. As a doctor, she saw not only economic problems with this migration, but also the health issues that are likely to arise: people get sicker in the cities, working in congested environments, she explains. So how could she entice more people to stay in the valley and gain a livelihood? Dr. Lalitha met two older ladies in the tribal group who knew how to embroider — in a style that resembled Kutch embroidery from Gujarat but was still distinct to the Lambadis. “It was literally going to become extinct soon with just these two ladies left practicing it,” she iterates. So why not have the older women teach the younger ones, she thought. In partnership with Schiavina at Mandala, she set up a program for them to help each other and produce textiles for sale. Two turned into ten and ten has turned into 50 women who have mastered the craft. The ladies use a combination of 26 to 30 stitches, some of which are unique to the Lambadi and others that are used elsewhere in India. Families which were barely earning any income are now pulling in over $60 a month, which Dr. Lalitha says, is a decent livelihood in the area, given the low cost of the living in the Sittilingi Valley. Pillows produced in partnership with the Porgai group and Mandala Apparels for Mela Artisans. The group settled on the name “Porgai” for themselves, which translates to “pride” in their dialect — quite apt, as these ladies have become the local pride of their community. Check out Mela Artisan’s full selection of pillows done by the Lambadi women on our website. For more artisan stories, go to www.melaartisans.com.
The World’s Artisans Made This Year’s Agenda at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford 0
Last week, members of the Mela team attended the annual Skoll World Forum in Oxford, England. This is a gathering of the world’s mavericks — individuals who see the world as a more equitable place and are restless to reform it.This year’s theme was quite apt: fierce compassion. Compassion alone is not enough; yet coupled with drive, ambition, hunger and conviction, it transforms into fierce compassion and is intrinsic amongst this group of mavericks. Al Gore, a pioneer in making the environment a priority, exemplified the theme. He launched the Forum with a compelling presentation, reminding us that climate change is very much a reality. 2016, he said, is already one of the hottest years on record and we’re only four months in. Jeff Skoll and Al Gore share a special connection: they came together over 10 years ago to produce Inconvenient Truth, a hard-hitting documentary on climate change that revolutionized how we look at the environment. Al is bringing that message back to the forefront, except this time with some practical solutions that he outlined in his talk. It’s clear, however, that the solutions to this massive problem exist at the cross-section of government, private sector, and civil society. In fact, be it social change, poverty, inequity, or the environment, these three forces have to sync up to shift economies, to transform policies, and create thunderous momentum amongst the masses. Mela Artisans as a business with a strong mission couldn’t agree more. While the artisan sector might be the second largest employing sector in the world, it often goes unnoticed. Only when the three forces — public, private, and civil — collide can it grow and meet its potential. At the Forum, we sat down for lunch with friends and colleagues at the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise, a nonprofit that’s trying to flesh out, legitimize, and bolster this informal economy. Peggy Clark who runs this project at the Aspen Institute asked us a poignant question: What more needs to be done to build the infrastructure for this massive informal sector? What’s still missing? What will help? A few straightforward answers emerged:
1. Nonprofits or organizations focused on social change don’t always understand the nuances of business. And yet, many organizations that work with artisans are nonprofits. So the two have to come together to help each other: nonprofits can do trainings and help artisans improve their skill sets while businesses can create markets.
2. Design is powerful. Products have to sell themselves. The story is an added perk. Can this mission-driven product compete with what’s in the market? It may have a better story, a more powerful impact in the supply chain, but if the design is dated, or unappealing, it will not sell. So invest in designers.
3. Coalitions are needed. Alone one company can only create limited impact. A coalition of companies and nonprofits can be much more forceful.
4. No more charity buys. The era of buying stuff because it made you “feel good” is over. Customers want to buy products because they’re useful, practical, and fit into their decor or lifestyle. The t-shirt for a “good cause” is dead. Encourage companies to build viable products, not charity buys.
5. Market tactfully. Much like design, the marketing has to compete with conventional brands. Is it alluring, tasteful, exciting? Ethical brands can’t be preachy. They have to show, not tell, that their products are better — or worth purchasing.While these were clear takeaways of what the artisan sector knows, and can work towards, other areas are murkier.
1. Could artisans be compared to coffee farmers? No. The comparison between handmade goods and commodities such as coffee and chocolate are hard to justify. While coalitions, international organizations, and certification bodies have helped small-scale farmers connect to larger marketplaces, the artisan sector isn’t one global commodity. It can’t be treated with a homogenous approach.
2. An Etsy for the developing world? This seems like a long shot. While it may seem romantic (and ideal) to foresee a world where artisans in the developing world can sell directly to customers globally, the logistics of this are overwhelming and challenging. Many artisans don’t speak English, struggle with digital platforms, and don’t have any way of accepting payments. Plus, their designs need development. Thus, intermediaries will be necessary to help them connect to markets.
3. Capitalism will eek out injustices. The room was divided on this: can capitalism create markets and help alleviate inequalities? Historically, capitalism hasn’t been able to solve inequalities by itself. However, some argued the delicate balance of supply and demand can uplift the artisan sector in the coming years.What do you think? Comment below and let us know what you think the artisan sector needs to advance forward.
Will There Be Another Generation of Wood Carvers in India? 0Generations ago, Kashmiri artisans, known for their skills in carpentry and woodcarving, migrated southward from the northern tip of India in search of work. They set up workshops in Saharanpur and a bustling community of wood artisans emerged. Today narrow alleys in Saharanpur, a small city about 200 km outside of Delhi near Shivalik hills, leads you to busy workshops where artisans are sawing, sanding, and cutting wood into frames, boxes, decorative items, and more. The smell of sawdust permeates the neighborhood. Stacks of wood are perched against old brick structures in makeshift warehouses. Sitting on terraces, overlooking these alleys, artisans chat amongst themselves as they transform the materials into works of art. Two types of wood are quite popular with the artisans: sheesham, or more commonly known as rosewood, and mango. While sheesham is stronger, harder, and a denser wood, mango is more malleable and softer. Sheesham wood is local, from the state of Uttar Pradesh; dried wood from the forest is collected by the government and sold to wood-based businesses. Given the concentration of wood workshops in the city, carpentry has become a way of life. But with the recent push for mechanization, this trade is at a critical point: will a new generation of young men follow in their father's footsteps? It's been a generational craft. Even the owners of the workshops are young men, who have take over the reins of the business from their fathers and grandfathers. Each company, or workshop, has anywhere from 50 to 200 artisans working for them. Some are full-time staff, others are contractors, brought in on a daily basis, according to the needs of the business. Over 10,000 artisan units exist in the city, employing nearly 50,000 individuals. The government even provides a small subsidy to support the trade and the state government has set up the Wood Craft Design and Development Society to voice concerns in the industry. One business owner who now runs a successful workshop in Saharanpur, overseeing 150 artisans, started as a wood carver in the 1970s, earning about 200 Rs a month, or $4. Today his artisans get paid more than that each day for their efforts. Mohammad Ayub is one of those men. A local, he’s been working as an artisan for over 20 years in the same workshop, specializing in brass inlay (that is, when wooden tables, boxes, and bowls are accentuated with brass and metal). It’s detailed painstaking work requiring layers of metal to be embedded into the wood and filed down.
What is Good Design? 0Dipali Patwa is the Chief Creative Officer here at Mela Artisans. Earlier this year, we received news that she had been selected as a finalist (!) for one of the biggest honors in design, the Fashion Group International Rising Star in Home and Interior Design. This is no small feat and calls for a closer examination of her creative genius. Dipali grew up in India, immersing herself in fashion and the performing arts, and developed a passion for textiles and product design. She received her training in fashion design in Mumbai and completed a six month internship at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Her early career in India included working as a design consultant with SEWA, a massive non-profit devoted to women’s livelihoods as well as being the Creative Director for Fabindia, one of India’s first brands focused on building an artisan-based supply chain. In 2000, she moved to the States and to New York City where she found herself working with well-known brands like Ralph Lauren, Martha Stewart, and Laura Ashley. Dipali has always been interested in the cross section of heritage and modern design: a play on how the old and evergreen can be adapted, and yet preserved, simultaneously. We chatted with Dipali to learn more about how she conjures up award-worthy patterns.
Q: What is good design to you? How would you define it?Good design is a matter of perspective, context and taste. We all live in a global world and yet we as individuals are craving to find that connection in people we associate with, things we cherish, places we visit, experiences we share. Good design is an amalgamation of all of the above and yet I have my own perspective that makes it unique to me. When I am able to relate and take those ideas and convert them into something that is tangible, that to me is good design. But what makes the process meaningful and “good” is when you touch the life of an artisan. The artist is giving life to my idea and on the other end, the consumer who understands the connection. That just completes the circle.
Where do you draw your inspirations from?India inspires me! Asia draws me! The world engages me!
What is the toughest part of the design process?Understanding the limitations and yet pushing through to break the barriers of traditional techniques, cultural nuances and helping bridge the gap between old and new, vintage and modern, east and west is probably the toughest part of creating a brand that is seeped in tradition but speaks to the modern consumer. That is challenging but also what makes it rewarding.
Walk me through one of your favorite projects.One of my favorite projects is a more recent development work that we did down south of India in a cooperative village cluster managed by ROPE, which is involved with hand loom weaving. Hand loom weaving is a dying art form. The process itself is fairly labor intensive and the production output is limited, which creates quite a few challenges. I wanted to figure out a way to work with one of my favorite weaves, Ikat. But I wanted to see if there was a way to give it a new twist. So we met with two separate clusters of weavers. One involved banana and sea grass weaving and another involved the Ikat pattern. And I thought, wouldn’t it be lovely if we were able to use the banana fibers and sea grass as the weft yarn and have the Ikat warp made and have the weavers experiment it. It also helps having incredible partners like ROPE who are willing to take that extra step with us, working in the field, and helping this process come to life. So we collectively created a wonderful piece of textile that is a combination of traditional Ikat weave in cotton yarns, juxtaposed with banana fibers weft inserts, yielding in beautiful table linens. Our first collection of Lali and Leela Ikat Table Linens will debut this fall.
Who are your design heroes?There are so many who inspire me. From master craftsmen to highly talented designers and entrepreneurs. To name a few, block printers of Sanganer to the Ikat weavers of Pochampalli to the blue pottery artists of Jaipur to Toda tribals of Nilgiri mountains and Banjara women of Gujarat. India has a rich culture and these artisans are the real heroes. At the same token, I am also inspired by Martha Stewart who was able to take a simple idea of good housekeeping and turn it into a multi-million dollar home brand, to David Hicks style and Madeline Weinrib’s textiles to Eileen Fisher’s flawless fabrics, and Fabindia’s simple idea of working with artisans and making it accessible to masses to Uniqlo’s innovation in apparel at mass market, to many talented designers like Prabal Gurung and Sabyasachi who are willing to take the risk and own it. It’s a long list.
Why is it important to weave together heritage and modern design?Ahh! Why is it? Without our roots and understanding of our past it’s hard to move forward. Once you understand it, you accept it and appreciate it, then you have begun your true creative journey. This is not to hold you back but to set you free! Heritage is an important part of my Indian culture and it holds me accountable to create a style that appeals to me. It gives me a unique perspective. In design if we are honest, we all know that somewhere, somehow the origin of that idea has existed. It’s how you take that idea and adapt it to make it relevant today, is what makes it your own interpretation of style, design, taste, your brand!
- Tags: Design
Notes From the Road: Mela Artisans in 2016 0
A Letter From Our Founder
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Dear Friends, I’d like to take a few minutes to tell you about the journey of Mela Artisans and the projects we’re working on in 2016 to bring you more beautiful, handmade products from India. I started this company five years ago with my daughter, Sonali Mehta-Rao. As a father, I have taken my family all over India -- adventures that led us to understand a larger global issue, mass manufacturing. As supply chains have shifted to volume and mass production, the art of making products by hand in cottage industries has declined. We traveled to villages in India where we met women and men who took pride in weaving textiles, laying mosaics, cutting marble, and crafting wood into pieces of art. Sadly because they didn't have the means to reach a larger market, their efforts went unnoticed. That’s why we started this company -- in an effort to support livelihoods and preserve heritage. In 2015, we created 7,000 full-time jobs for artisans in India. The bulk of those, or more than 4,000 jobs, went to women. You can read our full impact overview here. As the company has grown, we’ve seen individuals and communities thrive. For instance, in the landlocked and politicized region of Kashmir, we’ve seen a community of women refine their skills in embroidery, and give new life to a 15th century technique. In visiting the majestic valleys, I was particularly inspired by the story of Tasleem Akhter, a tenacious woman who went from being an orphaned child to a successful entrepreneur and is now mentoring other young women in the area. You can read her story here. As a group, though, these Kashmiri women have gone from earning $2,000 a year to nearly $60,000 last year -- all because we could showcase their products to new markets, like here in the US. We’re thrilled with their progress. That’s why in 2016, we’re hoping to affect more women artisan groups. We’ve seen that as women rise and gain financial independence, their communities flourish as well: more children go to school, their families are well nourished, and they seek healthcare for themselves and their loved ones. What we’ve also discovered, thanks to our expeditions in Kashmir, is that we should support more communities off the beaten path. This year, for instance, we’ll be introducing a new line of woven products by tribal communities in South India, such as the Toda tribes who live in the Nilgiri Hills near Ooty. They’re producing crafts that are endangered. That is, with such small communities (their numbers have dropped to less than 700 individuals), and few individuals who still practice them, these art forms are at risk of disappearing altogether.
These artisans are aging rapidly as well, as younger populations are seeking work elsewhere. For instance, in Erode, a town located 2 hours from Coimbatore, I met a man in his 80s who had been weaving natural fibers his entire life. He had to keep up the profession into his late years to support his wife and daughter who battles mental illness. It’s frustrating and saddening to see how his life-long toils have not been enough for this family. That’s why we’re trying to hit the root of the problem -- wages. By increasing their monthly pay, we hope to avoid these harsh realities. That’s what Mela Artisans as a company was conceived to do. And that’s what we’re going to continue to push for in 2016: connecting these artisans to new markets, with hopes that it impacts their earnings and quality of life. Join us in this venture that goes beyond just a bottom line. We’ve recently launched a beautiful new site where you can see all these handcrafted products and read more of these stories behind the world of Mela. As always, we’re keen on hearing from our customers. If you have ideas, suggestions, do drop us a line. Sincerely, Navroze Mehta Founder and CEO of Mela Artisans
Looking Back: Impact Report 2015 0
Mela Artisans started with a humble vision to support the work of artisans in India who were struggling to find buyers in a modernized, fast-paced, mono culture of production. Supply chains were focused on speed, homogeneity, and cost.
We decided to rethink that model by celebrating the variations of products made by hand, agreeing to pay more, and be willing to wait as they completed their works of art.
In the last five years, the company has evolved tremendously, allowing us to impact more lives, create more jobs, and give more back to the artisan communities we treasure.
This annual roundup gives you a snapshot of how a for-profit entity can create impactful change in communities by connecting people to markets that remained beyond their reach.
First, employment and jobs:
In 2015, Mela Artisans created nearly 7,000 full-time jobs for artisans in India. The bulk of these went to women: 4,195 of the full-time artisanswho created products for us are, in fact, women.
We helped establish about 100,000 total days of employment for the artisan community. That’s up from 78,965 days of employment in 2014.
Our deepest impact is in the state of Uttar Pradesh where we procure metal, bone/horn, and wood items for our home collections. Three cities — Moradabad, Sambhal, and Saharanpur — have the largest concentration of these materials and artisans who can assemble them into works of art.
Uttar Pradesh is one of India’s poorest states — and yet also the largest and most populous. The Economist stated that if UP were to be its own country, it would be the 5th most populous in the world, and yet have the GDP of Oman, a country of less than 2 million. Uttar Pradesh has struggled economically, being referred to as one of the regions that are poorer than sub-saharan Africa by UNDP.
Creating jobs is important to give livelihoods and keep alive these traditions.
One business owner who now runs a successful workshop in Saharanpur, overseeing 150 artisans, started as a wood carver in the 1970s, earning about 200 Rs a month. Today his artisans get paid more than that each day for their efforts.
Mohammad Ayub is one of those men. A local, he’s been working as an artisan for over 20 years in the same workshop, specializing in brass inlay. That is, when wooden tables, boxes, and bowls are accentuated with brass and metal. It’s detailed painstaking work, that requires a layer of metal to be embedded into the wood and filed down.
“I learned how to do this as a young man, at the age of 11 or so. A gentleman who lived in the same neighborhood as me taught me,” he says. Asked if he’d like to see any changes in his work today?”
“I want more work. I wish there was more work.”
He smiles. He has a daughter and son. Will they take up this line? He hesitates.
Wood-carving may not carry forward its legacy. While the workshops are bustling with activity, today’s youth in Saharanpur prefer to drive rickshaws than do their father’s or grandfather’s work.
“It pays more, it’s easier and it’s in demand. People need transport; people will always need transport,” the workshop owner says.
Secondly, beyond creating employment, we strive to put back 1% of our sales into projects that help the artisans.
Thus far, these projects have been concentrated around the health of artisans. By partnering with local non-profits who already have the infrastructure to deliver medical care, we can support other social entrepreneurs, like ourselves, and get the artisans what they need. It’s a win-win scenario.
In 2015, we partnered with Vision Spring, Sevamob, and Greenlight Planet — three innovative social enterprises in India.
Vision Spring helped us deliver 616 pairs of eyeglasses to our artisans in Kashmir and Erode. Given that many of them work on fine details all day long, doing embroidery, stitching, and weaving, their vision can suffer from the strain and scrutiny.
Vision Spring has given, or sold, over 2 million glasses around the world through a variety of models: from partnering with organizations like ourselves to having a crew of local salesmen (and women) who sell glasses for low-cost. Their aim, though, is very similar to ours: to help people make a better livelihood.
Deteriorating vision is not only frustrating but also costly, affecting an artisan’s ability to work, be productive, and consequently, earn. That’s why we joined hands with Vision Spring in 2014, giving out 130 glasses. In 2015, we multiplied that by five-fold and reached new artisan communities.
Coupled with glasses is the need for light to be able to see properly. Greenlight Planet, a Bombay-based social enterprise, sells and distributes solar lanterns to the 2 billion individuals living off-the-grid. In 2015, they helped us give out 163 lanterns to our artisans in Kashmir and South India.
We concentrated on these rural areas because they didn’t have access to electricity, leaving them to work in the dark. In fact, the ophthalmologists with Vision Spring informed us that the main cause of poor eyesight affecting our weavers in South India was a lack of proper lighting.
Lastly, Sevamob, an on-the-wheels medical company, provides care at the workplace. They came to Jaipur to give 75 artisans medical checkups. A crew of doctors and technicians checked for the basics: blood pressure, sugar levels, heart health, cholesterol, and more. Medicines were distributed for those who needed treatment.
Sevamob has 15 units that they drive around 7 cities in India currently, conducting health camps such as these for social enterprises, NGOs, and even for-profit institutions. Their aim is simple: make healthcare affordable and at your finger tips — literally. They prize preventative care. It’s not just about medical emergencies and visiting doctors when you’re sick. Rather, keep tabs on your health routinely. We couldn’t agree more.