Category Archives: India Trip 2012

Top Three Reasons I got Involved with Anchal

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I can’t express how grateful I am to have had the chance to work with Anchal this past few weeks in India. Devon and Colleen, the directors of the organization, have been more than generous with giving me such a unique opportunity.
Why did I gravitate toward this social enterprise? Because it focuses on:

1. Female empowerment. Many of these women are presented with an enormous amount of obstacles to finding health and happiness. They are poor, enter a trade at a young age, are married at a young age, and have children at a young age. Many of them spoke about how proud they were to be earning as much as their husbands through Anchal, not to be sitting at home while the kids are at school. To make use of their brains and hands. This is an inevitable revolution of half of the world’s population, check out girleffect.org if you haven’t already.
2. Conscious consumerism. Anchal’s products are made from 100% recycled saris, and bought from sari vendors from poor areas. They are produced by disadvantaged women, who for the first time in their lives, gain economic independence and freedom from the systems that exploit them. Through the product, the consumer is connected with the maker and her story, which raises awareness about the broader social issues (sex trade, poverty, gender equality etc.). In other words, the stories and broader social issues are woven into the product. I can’t think of a more literal example than Anchal’s narrative pillowcases, in which the artisans take images from their life and stitch them into the fabric.
3. Well-designed cross-cultural products. Often handicrafts from different countries are designed with more consideration of the culture they come from than of the culture they hope to sell to. A product that aims to be successfully cross-cultural must consider the tastes and strengths of both. This is the essence of good design (i.e., understanding your customer). In the case of Anchal, the quilts convey the tradition of kantha and India but still do an excellent job of catering to the Western palette.
These are the core aspects of Anchal that have most attracted me, as they resonate most with my core values: equality, connection, beauty.

What organization inspires you and why? Which of your values does it most align with?
If you feel inspired to get involved with us, let us know here.

-Maria

Through Their Eyes

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There have been two ways that I feel I have communicated and connected with Anchal’s artisans. Neither way has been by using verbal language.

I talked about the first way in my last post: play and laughter. When we goofed around, I began to understand more about each of their personalities, what moved them, and how close they were to each other. It also helped build rapport and trust between us.

The second way of effective communication has been through the eyes.
Indeed, one of the first things I noticed about them was how much their eyes sparkled, were alive, in a way that I have only seen in children. They are present with you. I don’t know if it was the lighting on the center’s rooftop but their eyes seemed to glow like ornaments in the sun, purely reflecting the world around them.
Often an eye-lock with an eyebrow raise was a way we told each other we understood each other. And even if we didn’t understand exactly what we wanted to tell each other, we conveyed the emotion of it through our eyes.
During the interviews, though all of them know I don’t understand Hindi, they still looked me straight in the eyes when sharing their hardships, stories, worries, complaints etc.

I felt their eyes held tremendous wisdom and experience.
(Note: Please take this post with a grain of salt. I can’t say objectively that their eye gazes were different or special, but only that that’s the way I perceived them).

The Language of Play, Last Day with the Artisans

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Leaving the artisans was harder than I thought it would be. We were beginning to really bond and play, but like most of the sweetest things in life, my time with them ended at its highest point.

After sitting on the floor all day, conducting interviews with each of them, my body was screaming for a little bit of yoga. (By the way, they seem to sit on the floor for hours, but don’t seem to mind one bit; many of them are more than twenty years older than me.)
I went up to the rooftop to see the progress that had been made on the baby quilts, and began lifting my hands over my head to do some basic stretches. This caught the attention of most if not all of them, who were amused. I turned to them and smiled “Yoga.” They giggled and repeated “Yoga.”

To my surprise, Basanti got up and stood beside me and started imitating my poses. This caused an immediate uproar of laughter and disbelief among the artisans. One of them, Anita, who became fond of taking photos with my iphone, grabbed my phone and started shooting us. We got through triangle, dancer pose, tree pose, upward dog, and poses we made up on the spot, even though Basanti was in a sari.

All of sudden, Kamala gets up and Basanti begins wrapping a scarf around her head like a turban. At this point, there is unanimous hysteria among the artisans. Though we were on a rooftop for all of Ajmer to see, Kamala did not shy away from grabbing between her legs to turn her skirt into a pair of pants. This was by far the highlight of my time in India so far.

After the shenanigans died down, Anita went around to each group of artisans to proudly show her documentation of the events that just unfolded. She would slide her finger against the iphone’s screen to flip through and when they got to the picture of Kamala, they all leaned back in a fit of laughter.

Mina, a veteran artisan who has been with the program since its inception, whipped out her array of toe rings and ankle bracelets. Next thing you know, I had fifteen artisans swarm around me, ripping my socks off and placing the sparkly jewelry on my feet. Nafisa and Shakuntela kept insisting on a diamond shaped ring with a green and pink stone in the middle, “good, good” they agreed. They sold me on it.

Finally, it was time to say goodbye. The ladies trailed off, waving, smiling, and placing their hands together in Namaste.
I can’t tell you the sparks they had in their eyes. During the interviews, I understood more about each of their lives, their greatest hardships: abuse, extreme poverty, health problems, attending to the home, often unfair expectations of their culture, family, and caste system.

One question I asked them was something my spiritual mentor had a knack for asking me, “Are you happy?”
And they all, with a big smile, nodded their head (the way Indians so, tilting on the vertical axis) “Yes.”

One of them told me about her devotion to Goddess Kali, and how would pray over and over again for happiness and health. She believed Kali was the reason for everything she received, including Anchal, she told me.

All the women, when I asked them what they wanted their lives to look like in five years, mentioned they wanted their families to be happy, their children to be educated. None of them mentioned themselves.

-Maria

Report from Ajmer: New Anchal Products

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After finishing up workshopping with the women in Ajmer, the tailor Dumgar-Das and I headed back to the children’s village in Udayan with the prototypes the artisans had developed: panels for small and large pouches, circle and straight scarves.

On the way there, we drove through Jaipur to see if we could get some saris, though the morning market had long closed. We had no luck in finding the cotton saris we wanted, mostly because we didn’t have a sense of the main market.

I then had a sudden craving for Naan and insisted that we stop somewhere to get some of the oven baked bread in a local restaurant, as spoiled Western tourist might do. As expected, it was incredible. Fluffy and hot.

The next day in Udayan was Sunday, and the kids spent the day playing. Goats, cows, buffalos, puppies, geese all co-exist and cross paths.

Meanwhile, we started on the prototypes of the large pouches. We came across the challenges of getting the zipper to work with the kantha stitched panels and tried different combinations (inside liner vs. outside liner, by hand vs. by machine, using metal vs. using plastic zippers). We soon realized the kantha stitching of the foam was making it bend in a weird way so that the edges didn’t look that great.

We also played with sewing up the circular scarves we had, which look fantastic when wrapped around twice. I’m really happy with the way they fall.

In the evening, Jaimala, director of Vatsalya, came by and we got to talking over a cup of chai. I spoke with her about conducting interviews with the artisans during my next trip to Ajmer, as they work on scarves and baby quilts. We talked about the best way to collect their stories while keeping the utmost sensitivity and privacy of their work. Having interviewed sexual assault survivors, depressed adolescents, chronically ill patients, both in the context of program evaluation and research, I understand the importance of these women’s consent and privacy in participating in any interviews.

We’ll have to see how they go! It will be an interesting experience, especially with the language barrier and the fact that I have spent limited time with them so far. Whatever happens (and trust me, I have no expectations either way), I am simply happy to get to spend some one-on-one time with them, and just see who they are, as women with a profound desire to learn and grow. I head to Ajmer Wednesday morning.

-Maria

Anchal Intern Meets the Artisans

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In the morning, we left from Udayan to Ajmer and made it to the new HIV prevention center of Vatsalya, smack in the alley way of a main street in the city. Out in the main room, posters of cartoon condoms and HIV testing scenarios covered the walls. There was a little counselor room attached to it.

Instantly upon arriving, we were swept into the center’s celebration of India’s National Republic Day. Out on the rooftop, a long table had been set out with miniature Indian flags. There were a line of chairs covered in white cloths for the VIP guests. The Program Manager of the HIV awareness program insisted that I be introduced as a VIP speaker. Though I kindly turned him down the first few times, others insisted as well. Next thing you know, I was fully partaking in the event, no longer an observer. I conveyed my gratitude and honor for being invited to introduce Anchal’s new products. The women who were huddled together, seated out with their children, waved their flags in the air.

Once the event wrapped up, Santosh, Nita Shatan, Santosh T., Basanti, Anita, Soni, Kamala, Mina, Shanunkla, Natfisa, Koyel, Sunita, and Lakshmi stayed behind to start workshopping!

Dumgar-das spread out two blankets, and poured out the saris. Vandana spread out the prototypes of the scarves, and began explaining the guidelines. They listened carefully, asking questions here and there.

As they worked peacefully in teams, we set out some new color combinations, and started preparing the materials for tomorrow’s workshops.

At the end, the artisans trailed off and placed their hands together in “Namaste” as they passed me by the shoes. One said something in Hindi and they all laughed. I nodded and laughed too though I don’t know Hindi, and then one gestured “see you later?” with her hands, and I nodded and said “tomorrow.” She understood though she doesn’t know English.

-Maria

Anchal Intern visits Ajmer

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After a twenty hour journey, I finally arrived to Udayan, 40 km outside of Jaipur, at 5:00am and slept for a few hours before meeting Jaimala, director of Anoothi/Vatsalya, Anchal’s partner in Ajmer. She greeted me with a big smile and warm hug. We had breakfast and discussed the line of new Anchal products, specifically the materials needed for jump starting our scarves and pouches.
She introduced me to the tailor, Dumgar-Das, his wife, Gita, and the translator, Vandana, to go over the design requirements for each new product.

We set off to Anoothi’s main facilities to cook up some prototypes. Gita grabbed bags packed with recently washed saris and spilled them out on the floors. Strips of bright colors tangled in piles, and we started sifting for good combinations. We laid out the family colors and considered different matches. We started developing a prototype for each type of scarf, straight and circle.
I was amazed at D’s precision, strive for perfection, and passion for tailoring. He poured himself into every task, considered every option, and gestured questions wildly at Vandana. He would often nod to ask me if he was on the right track with his process, asking “Tikke” (Hindi for “ok”). Gita hovered close and nodded, pointing out any stains, snags, holes in the materials. Vandana, a PhD in psychology, clarified any questions or concerns between D and I. It was an awesome team effort.

By the end of the day, we had a sample of a straight and circled scarf we were pleased with. Dji also completed the cutting of the panels for small and large pouches.

Tomorrow, we will workshop with the women in Ajmer and further develop the early prototypes. I have a feeling they will be excited about the new products, and ways to play with their creativity.

-Maria