Sunday, April 10, 2005

Weaving a lifestyle

March 17th:

Richa was heading to Lucknow on Thursday to meet a representative of a Delhi group who was in Lucknow for a training session. I was planning to accompany her, but dropped out in the morning due to general tiredness. I spent most of the day reading, writing reports and sleeping.

But before I forget, one interesting event organized by Vanangana in Chitrakoot dt. recently was 'Cricket for Peace', inspired by the event held in Gujarat. There, each team was comprised of 50% Muslims and 50% Hindus. Here, the rule was to have a threefold representation of Dalits, Muslims and the rest (which is typically Savarns and Brahmins). A tournament was arranged and the weeklong event had participation from a number of teams. “This was the first time a cricket tournament of any kind had been organized in the district and so there was a lot of excitement,” said Madhavi. Local politicians and government officials attended the final and there are plans to organize it on a yearly basis. Madhavi has been stepping back from Vanangana to encourage the local leadership and chose not to attend the event, though of course she was giving plenty of long-distance advice and support. “But they did it, and did a great job!”

March 18th:

As planned earlier, Richa and I decided to go to Khairabad on Friday. Initially, on realizing it was Jumma, the Muslim day of prayer, we hesitated, then decided to leave in the afternoon. We spent most of the morning talking about Sangtin's work and direction, her own experiences and how they have shaped her, the previous day's events etc. In recent years, she has gained a lot of perspective into how government works and how hard it is for sincere people to change the system. “Even for a 10 minute visit by a senior official, a village is transformed,” she said. “How can the officials really understand what's going on there?” And on the future of Sangtin - “We will work in very few villages, maybe 10. But whatever we do there – jam ke karenge. We will tackle every issue we can.” The current Sangtin team is all based in Mishrikh block of Sitapur dt. and so this will be their field area.

On the question of income generation and good group dynamics, she didn't feel too optimistic. “I have yet to meet a group that does not have a personality attached to it, who ends up ultimately dominating it.” I told her about the groups I know about and those that I have just a little information about and promised to do some homework. In August, Sangtin members are planning to visit Utthan and the SEWA dairy in Ahmedabad and MKSS in Rajasthan. If time and money permit, they could do more exposure trips - suggestions are welcome.

We headed out to Khairabad by tempo – it is about 15 km away from Sitapur. It seems the nawabs that ultimately ruled over Awadh hailed from this town. Now it is predominantly a weavers' community. One carpet factory and its owner, Jaleesbhai, are at the top of the food chain. We went to Jaleesbhai's factory in search of him, passing the area where yarns were being dyed, and were taken to his house, a palatial mansion. Jaleesbhai greeted us distractedly – his attention was on the cricket match and Sachin Tendulkar's batting. But he did talk to Richa about her work and even ordered some dresses for his wife and daughters. In the course of the conversation, we found out that there had been a split in the business between him and his younger brother a week ago. Therefore, the factory showroom was no longer in his hands – he was planning to open a new one on the ground floor of his house.

We headed downstairs to look at the carpets – earlier, Richa told me, she and Richa Nagar had gone through the streets looking to purchase rugs directly from the weavers. But they weren't able to get any and had to come to the factory. Downstairs, we headed into a room filled with rugs from floor to ceiling – the rugs ranged in size from 1' by 2' to room size. Two neighboring rooms were also filled up – there must have been atleast a thousand rugs there. Two attendants started showing us rugs, but they hadn't even seen the stock in its new storage space so far. So they had no idea where everything was. Richa said she'd come later and we said our goodbyes.

We had planned to meet Reshma's brother's family in Khairabad and went to the main factory to enquire about their whereabouts. Here, we met Jaleesbhai's brother and an assistant that Richa knew and got talked into tea and seeing more carpets! But somehow neither she nor I liked any that we saw. We made the appropriate responses and left the factory to Reshma's brother's house. He wasn't at home, but his wife and daughters were. They greeted us and another round of hospitality commenced. At times like this, I wish I could drink tea without it entering my stomach!

A relative at their house, another weaver, took the lead in informing us about the weaver community. It is predominantly Muslim and has been in this trade for centuries. The weavers do not own any land and so are dependant on their craft for survival. Once upon a time, they used to sell their 'daris' in the local market themselves. As he put it, “If we didn't sell any, we didn't eat.” Then came the advent of trading companies which began to ship daris to Lucknow, Delhi and foreign markets. The market became more vertical, with traders such as Jaleesbhai picking up orders and placing them with the weavers. “Oh, so the factory does not have any looms?” I asked. Reshma's sister-in-law and nieces took up the tale. The factory just supplies the yarns and designs. Most of the weavers have looms in their own houses. For bigger carpets which require 2 weavers, a 'freelance' weaver may be engaged. Finally, there are small 'kaarkhane' – workshops – which have a few looms and engage weavers. The price per carpet is set by the factory based on size, complexity of design etc. The weaver who picks up an order, say, of 10 carpets may complete them himself or farm them out at a lower price.

Reshma's nieces brought out some carpets they have been working on. One carpet, which takes a day to weave, nets them Rs. 100. “Of course, we have to first put the yarns onto spools,” said the older daughter. “That takes some time.” After resisting fervent entreaties to stay the night, we headed out to visit some looms and possibly buy some carpets. Downstairs, their loom was lying idle, but a few doors across, a weaver was hard at work on a simple 2' by 5' carpet. He said he could make 5-6 a day and that each netted him Rs. 10. Our main interlocuter then took us to his house. There, a magnificient carpet was in progress – this was made with 'shanil', a finer yarn and was room-sized. Two weavers work for 2 days to complete it and earn Rs. 300. As the numbers show, compensation for the weavers is a little arbitrary.

The last place we headed to in Khairabad was a workshop with about 5 looms and a number of weavers. Here we struck the proverbial gold – a number of beautiful carpets were shown to us. I picked up two and Richa one. She also placed an order for a room-sized carpet after discussing design changes on an existing one. During our wait for carpet finishing, we found out that this was a small-scale supplier, with orders from Lucknow, Delhi and Mumbai. They said they pick up orders from Jaleesbhai as well, but they have managed to establish their own connections. Was it better buying here than in Jaleesbhai's showroom? I think so, because atleast we conducted the transaction in the presence of the weavers. I've been trying to make purchases where producers are compensated fairly – it hasn't always been easy.

We headed back to Sitapur and booked a car for the morrow. The plan was that Richa and Vibha to accompany me to the ASHA ashram in Hardoi dt., drop me off at Lucknow and return to Sitapur. In our absence, Surbala had called and pieced together our plan even though Amma could not convey it accurately. She said she would join us. The day ended with packing.

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