Narmada Chachi

For one of our recent projects, we invited a three Madhubani artisans from Bihar. Their train was late and since the ladies had never been to Ahmedabad, I went to fetch them from the railway station. I was surprised to find that the leader of the group was a wizened old lady. While I dropped her at the hotel, she refused to give her thumb impression insisting that can sign the register. And she wrote Narmada Devi in English, a lilting handwriting that is typical of someone who has been a painter all her life.

Narmada chachi (aunt) as everyone fondly calls her is the president of the self help group. Her grown up sons are married and live in cities while she lives in the village with her husband. While we often hear stories of male dominance and abuse towards women, this lady tells a different story. Her husband encouraged her to paint. He manages the household when she is away chaperoning the young apprentices in her charge.

As the grand old lady manages the group, orders materials from all over the country, deals with clients and allocates work to the team, she leads by example.

Take a bow, chachi!

Shanti Devi, Madhubani

Shanti Devi is a single mother of three children. Her husband was bed ridden since the time their kids were barely in school. She educated her children and got them (and now her grand-daughter whose father is a good for nothing fellow) married and settled in, built her family home and is the matriarch in the real sense. And all this in a tiny village in Bihar where in 2012, I had to walk the last couple of kilometres as there were no paved roads.

A Madhubani artisan by profession, she paints to support her family. And at 60 (approximately, as she cannot recall her age), she continues to do so. For someone this spunky and full of vigour, her paintings reflect the same. She unapologetically paints Draupadi‘s de-robing in the Mahabaratha while cracking the most sexually laced jokes. Her wicked sense of humour and forthrightness is her signature.

When she talks about the tough phase of her life, she recounts the patriarchy in her village. Every home has Madhubani painters and the ones with husbands willing to chaperone them get the best opportunities. She had to struggle against such odds to set herself up in her profession. When she was painting a pandal in West Bengal, she heard of her husband’s demise. She got her son to take her place immediately. She did not allow him time to grieve. A practical woman, she says that she always knew that this day would come. But the living need to survive.

I have the education and the exposure to be the person that I am. I wonder if I would have stood up to such a thing if circumstances were different. So here’s to the real feminist, the one who doesn’t claim to be one.

My first view of the Pulicat lake

My first view of the Pulicat lake

It started out as a day trip from Chennai. Pulicat lake is a lesser known tourist spot in Chennai. It is the second largest brackish water lake in India and is also a bird sanctuary. Even after living in Chennai for two odd decades, I had never ventured out that far!So at a whim, the decision was made and my brother and I set out to visit Pulicat. Without a proper map in hand,  we just assumed that if we followed the coast, we might just land there. What we hadn’t anticipated were the lack of roads and of course the signboards! But the grueling road trip did throw up its ‘picture perfect’ sights! The picturesque lake sparkled in the afternoon sun. There was hardly anyone in sight and I heard an 80′s Tamizh song playing somewhere far away. The driver was getting a little edgy and even I was almost willing to give up my search. But what I saw later on made the whole trip completely worth all the effort.

Pulicat cooperative

Pulicat cooperative

The Co-operative was started in 1958 and initially employed a few Muslim women who lived in the village. Pulicat was a Dutch settlement and this craft mainly catered to them.

Stack of red baskets

Stack of red baskets

 

Two colour baskets with handles

Two colour baskets with handles

 

Mutlicoloured saree boxes

Mutlicoloured saree boxes

Some of their designs.

There are predominantly 2 types of weaves- thadukumodachal (resembles small, diagonal checks) and thuppimodhachal (big checks).

Women members working together at the cooperative

Women members working together

More than 30 women work here. They sit together all afternoon and as they chit chat, their deft hands weave the most beautiful designs. This work earns them their livelihood and has impacted their lives in a big way. They have a sense of belonging and the money brings in the much needed financial security.

Coloured palm fronds used for making the baskets

Coloured palm fronds used for making the baskets

The palm leaves used for making these designs come from places around Pulicat. Surprisingly, Pulicat does not have palm trees! The leaves are then dried in the sun, their ribs are removed and sorted out, the leaves are cut into thin strips, dyed in boiling water and again dried. These dried strips are then woven into the desired design. To ensure pliability, the leaves are constantly moisturized during the weaving process. The ribs of the palm leaves are used to provide the framework for the designs.

The brave trio from the Pulicat cooperative

The brave trio

After the tsunami ravaged Pulicat and destroyed their premises in 2004, these women approached the government to help them set up again. As the personal compensation awarded to victims’ families was being delayed, these women decided that the best way out of the struggle was to start again. They forced the government to provide funds, started all over again and have emerged successful.

Though the work is erratic, they are slowly making some regular clients. This year, they have started taking bulk orders to make boxes and trays for weddings. Do contact me if you wish to help. From my side, I will put up an online store with these products very soon..

Today, as we deal with women empowerment issues of all kinds, we predominantly tend to focus on more urban issues. Women everywhere have their battles to fight and this gritty bunch has proved that success is very much possible. They have empowered themselves with their craft, gained economical independence and thus command the respect of society.

A classic case of women empowerment, these colorful designs reflect their attitude towards life. Way to go, ladies!

For more photos, please click here..