Only Two Women in the World Knew How To Do This Embroidery
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.