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Global Music, Connecting Cultures Stories from the Rajasthani Road... from world music ensemble LIBANA

Fostering Creativity on a Third Floor in Ahmedabad

USA | Sunday, 6 March 2011 | Views [1096]

Traditional Fabric Printing at Design SEWA in Ahmedabad  (photo: Allison Coleman)

Traditional Fabric Printing at Design SEWA in Ahmedabad (photo: Allison Coleman)

Going to Ahmedabad in Gujarat was almost a last minute addendum to our itinerary. The planning of this trip did not come together smoothly, and was actually quite stressful. In retrospect, I can see more clearly that our East Coast, North American drive and need for answers NOW was in culture conflict with a more spontaneous Indian approach to life. Hard to manage that difference via email with a ten and a half hour time difference! We put as much as we could in place before we left, and then resigned ourselves to the fact that more would get planned and settled once we had landed in Mother India. 

A couple of weeks before we departed, an amazing “old girl network” connection was discovered. Marytha had dinner with her close college friend Trisha and two close friends of hers (that particular group of four convenes for a shared meal about once a year). The fact that we were soon to depart to India of course came up in conversation, and one of the women said, “Well, you MUST be in touch with my dear friend Mirai Chatterjee, I am sure she would help you set something up. She is well connected. In fact she probably could have been Prime Minister!” 

Mirai Chatterjee is nothing short of a Goddess who walks on this Earth with an incomparable grace, beauty, intelligence, compassion, commitment to bettering the lives of Indian women, and remarkable air of peace. She is the current Director of an organization based in Ahmedabad, Gujarat that is well-regarded around the world—SEWA (http://www.sewa.org/) or Self-Employed Women’s Association. 

Since 1972, this trade union has helped over 1.8 million women who comprise a large part of the informal economy of India. 93% of the total workforce in India is in this category—people who do odd jobs or barely scrape together a meager living from various sources, with no regular salary and unprotected by any worker rights.  Of the vast women’s workforce in India, more than 94% are in this unorganized sector. 

Guided by the Gandhian principles of truth, non-violence, the integration of all faiths and all people, and the propagation of local employment and self-reliance, SEWA has moved tirelessly to organize women workers across India, improving work and income security, food security, access to banking their own money, health care, child care and shelter. By fostering self-reliance, the well-being of women—and thereby the well-being of their families and communities—is strengthened. 

Wow. A last minute possible connection to SEWA? By all means, let’s explore what opportunities it might present! Mirai openheartedly invited us to come spend time getting to know the work of this organization by meeting with some of their women’s cooperatives. And so, last minute changes to our itinerary ensued and we added on a flight to Ahmedabad. 

Our amazingly inspirational time together began with a morning prayer meeting at their headquarters. A prayer meeting conjures up one thing here in the US. There, it felt completely different. We gathered on the floor with all the women field workers in a beautiful peace-filled room, and they began their morning chanting in song.  Hindu and Muslim chants were included. This is the way they start their work every single day-—with a beautiful setting of their heart’s intention. By the end of their singing we were already so moved, and then they asked us to sing a song. Then everyone went about their workday-—with our mutual connection already having been begun to be forged through the vibration of chant.

Accompanying us through the rest of our time there would be our wonderful companion, guide, and translator Rashmi--who explained many things, answered many questions, helped us through menu options, navigated the rows of Kutch craft stalls at Law Gardens with us, attempted in vain to keep us on schedule, and gave of herself wholeheartedly to this band of American visitors in a city where English was spoken WAAAY less than in Delhi! 

After the prayer meeting, Mirai talked to us with warmth and inspiration about their work, and cast a mind-boggling perspective on the lives of women in India. She talked about the slow pace of change, and how she has come to think in “20 year bites”. But what had already been accomplished by this organization since 1972—a year that witnessed the undeniable movement of Feminism begin to change the thinking and the lives of women globally—was beyond inspirational. 

After a shared lunch seated on the floor, during which we were introduced to a woman named Lalita (who with an aura of motherly power seemed a bit like a Matriarch within the organization) we piled into two vehicles and drove to our first meeting with a women’s artisan cooperative. The chaos of Indian traffic seemed to have been amplified by a factor of a hundred in Ahmedabad. Driving through absolute mayhem, we landed at the end of street too narrow to drive a car into. We got out and walked our way down this street which, despite its narrowness, was jampacked with pedestrians, dogs, cows, motorbikes and the everpresent green and yellow auto-rickshaws. We were in the old part of the city, and the houses and shops vibrated with antiquity. Reaching the older-than-anything-we-know-in-the-United States building of our destination, we entered and were immediately greeted by a woman sitting on the floor doing traditional blockprinting on a large piece of fabric. Moving slowly up to the second floor, we passed other women sitting on their section of floor immersed in their own creative process with some gorgeous piece of fabric, and then on up to the third floor, where a group of these organized artisans were gathered on the floor in a beautiful old room filled with fabric, books, and a pervasive sense of peace.

We all sat together, with Lalita being our guide and translator. We learned about how it is not just traditional patterns and processes which were being remembered and created (although these were stunningly beautiful), but how the women are encouraged to create something new. Books are there to browse through and inspire their designs, so that these  fabric artforms--blockprinting, appliqué, embroidery, mirrorwork--continue to evolve as they become infused with the creative expressions of these contemporary artisans. This was the proud daily work of these women. Their finished pieces are sold in various SEWA stores in cities around India, and are beginning to move out into the rest of the world  No middleperson. The majority of sales income goes directly into the bank accounts of these women, bringing the aforementioned security to their lives. The concept of Fair Trade at its finest. 

Masala tea was brought in for us all, and after admiring their recent and current work, we asked if they ever sang as they worked. We were treated to a couple of traditional songs with inspiring poetry by the group of brightly clad women, and then a brave solo song and dance from one young woman. It was if a tsunami of energy poured through her, pushing against the societal history of shyness and subservience. She took the floor, we were mesmerized by her spontaneous performance, and then she sat down and covered her face with her hands as she giggled through the spirited applause of her Indian colleagues and American guests alike. 

We sang Woke Up This Morning for them, which they LOVED. And then, again, we joined our voices in a rendition of We Shall Overcome with these women who are bravely doing their part in the broader picture of social change for women in India. We cannot underestimate the profoundly entrenched societal forces that have to be indeed overcome and transformed for these women to have gotten to this point. They can now contribute to their family’s security and be protected in the process—all while sitting in a peaceful third floor room creating every day in the company of their beautiful sisters. I understood why We Shall Overcome—such an important song in the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s here—seemed to have been adopted all over India as a widely known anthem of social change. There is SO much to overcome in India. It is unfathomable how much there is to overcome in India. But thanks to the inspired work of women like Mirai and her dedicated colleagues, change IS happening—even if in 20 year bites. Despair and resignation is being replaced by hope and action across this vast land. 

Gandhi’s ashram is very close to here. There was sadly not enough time for us to visit it. However, this man who changed India continues to inspire the daily work of so many. Thank you, Gandhiji.





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