One of the most interesting (and a bit depressing) things I found by working in the Indian craft industry was the (large) proportion of male artisans to female artisans. It is true that India is still a conservative nation and the attitudes toward women in the work force generally are not great. But as I grew up in Australia, it was common belief that such work was for women - in our art class at school the girls did the best work, there were only about 5 boys in my cohort of 60 doing fashion design at university. The industry in India for textiles, crafts and arts is grand and diverse, so I found it most unusual that wherever I travelled, I was mostly met by men. The reality around this issue became clearer after I spent a bit more time around the rural areas. Women are not to work at all, that is the tradition and norm amongst most rural families, most are not educated either and as majority of the craft sector resides in rural India, the industry is dominated by men.
I have often heard from both men and women, interestingly enough, that women don't have a good enough hand for craft work, or as they say here 'saaf haat' (=clean hand). But doesn't practice make perfect? Some artisans I have met, started practicing their craft at the age of 7 or 8, continuing well into their 40s, 50s, even 60s. So obviously they have a good hand at what they do, right? I find there is a reluctance for change in India, but change is inevitable, we are but only humans and that's what we do, evolve and adapt.
Having said all that, there are some really impressionable organisations I have come across, working tirelessly to provide an alternative to the status quo. One of these organisations is The Skill Centre by Udayan Care, a workshop I collaborate with for the Sari not Sari purses. The Skill Centre set up a sewing unit a few years back, taking on board a few ladies from around Greater Noida in India, who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and trained them to stitch for some small in-house production. These ladies have families, children to take care of, they can't work long hours nor can they travel too far for work. Most of them having been housewives, had not ever worked before. Whilst some families can be supportive of such work (i.e. Suitable and respectable enough for a woman), some families do not approve of even a part time job working at (an all women) sewing workshop, this has been the case for a couple of the ladies here.
The UC Skill Centre however has done a lovely job of making sure these ladies are well taken care of, giving them an ethical work environment. When one visits the workshop, there is a feeling of family with all the ladies working together, enjoying their tea time and helping one another with a challenge. They feel spirited and uplifted by the purpose and financial independence that the work gives them and I've been lucky enough to observe these ladies over the past 2 years and it humbles me to see the change in their attitudes, to see how so little (not so little for them) can better someone's life.
So in honour of these ladies, a true example of #balanceforbetter, a Happy International Women's Day!
Visit Udayan Care's website to learn more of their efforts.
Words & Photos: Mandish Kalsi.