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In December I had the adventure of a lifetime traveling in India for three weeks! I was mesmerized by all the beautiful colors and patterns everywhere I looked– saris worn by women riding on the back of motorcycles, bright ornamentation on trucks carrying rubble, and tiny red bracelets and garlands of marigolds as offerings in roadside temples– the eye was always resting on something stunning!
This amazing trip was made possible by some international plane tickets that I received as partial payment for the Environmental Steward-ess garment that Delta Air Lines sponsored last year. It is a part of my current exhibition on display in the Atlanta Airport through May 2012.
While visiting this wonderful country, my partner, Nicole, and I were fortunate to visit a very special program in Mumbai called MarketPlace: Handwork of India. It is a fair trade, not-for-profit organization which creates lasting change in the lives of low-income women in India. An impressive 480 artisans are organized into 14 independent co-operatives which produce women’s apparel and home decor. In addition, programs offer educational and enrichment opportunities designed to help the artisans overcome personal, cultural and financial obstacles.
We were warmly welcomed to a gathering of about 20 primary staff members with a cup of masala tea (chai), a rose, and red powder blessings placed on our foreheads (bindis). As we sat around a circle with the whirring of the fans keeping the room cool, I gave a brief description of the recycled fashions that I make from trash and the environmental education goals behind my work. Then each staff member described their role in the MarketPlace while the team leaders explained the focus of each of their co-operatives. Many had beautiful samples and talked about their teams with great pride. Most of the work they do involves sewing and embroidery – clothing, purses, oven mitts and even computer bags. Like any successful garment business, MarketPlace has multiple designers (from around the world,) a quality control department, beautiful (and educational) catalogs, plus an excellent website and blog. I was impressed at how many of the staff had been with the organization for so long… some for over 25 years. MarketPlace is clearly more than an employer; it is a close-knit family that cares for each other!
Yogesh, pictured in the photo with me on the right, was our very gracious guide and translator for the afternoon. He gave us a special tour of several of the nearby workshops, many of which were located in one of the large city slums. We toured through some of the corridors and alleys behind the scenes off the major streets on the way to the various workshops. In one alley we saw a beautiful canopy of lanterns and flowers from the festival of lights celebrated in November.
At one of the workshops we met the manager’s wife who delighted in assisting us with picture taking and his daughter who wore a very clever smile and pranced cheerfully in her school uniform. Visiting the workshops and meeting the women that worked there was such a great honor and delight. The spaces themselves were very simple and some might be, to American standards, a bit crowded. But they are clearly very productive, and all the women were very good natured, laughing and talking. The close knit relationships were very clear and the banter, though we could not understand it, was delightful! Often someone would translate or ask us a question in English. One of the really neat things that MarketPlace provides is the capability of the employee to work at home since many of the women are mothers and wives who are also tending to a family.
MarketPlace is designing new products using “chindi”, scrap pieces of fabric. They asked us for design suggestions and we have been giving ideas as they come– hopefully they will be of some use. I’m sure, however, that their VERY creative group of artists and designers will have no shortage of fantastic ideas! On the right is a photo of a “patchwork fabric” they have created with scraps that can be made into any number of items.
Before we left, we watched some of the women practicing a play about domestic abuse. Even before it was interpreted for us, we were moved by the passion of the women. It was sad to learn about the role that in-laws (especially mother-in-laws) often play in domestic abuse. The issues of arranged marriages and dowries complicate the problem as well. This play is presented to the public for educational awareness and discussion of a topic that can still be taboo.
My favorite part of the day was captured in this photo. We spent a long time sitting and chatting with a group of artisans in the afternoon. We asked each other questions about our work and personal lives. I was stealing up-close peaks at their beautiful saris and scarves, thick black hair and lovely gold jewelry. Though I felt quite plain in comparison, I caught several curious glances my way too. Our day with the women and men who work for the MarketPlace rivaled even the exquisite Taj Mahal for my favorite experience in India!