Jessica Helfand | Report

Better Living Through Artistry

DOSA designer Mona Shah with women artisans at the SEWA Trade Facilitation Centre in Ahmedebad, India. Photos: Jessica Helfand

In a refurbished textile mill in the Indian city of Ahmedebad, four women in sarees sit barefoot and cross-legged on the floor. One embroiders in a hoop, while another stitches silently at her side. Across the dimly lit room two more women kneel above a slice of fabric, gently placing circles of other fabric upon it: gradually, a constellation appears, and in her lightly accented — and perfect — English, the only woman in blue jeans explains to me what she is doing. “This is Orion,” she gestures, showing the emergence of a sequence that begins to resemble a familiar configuration in the night sky. She points to a stack of astronomy books perched nearby. “I’m trying to recreate the stars with the fabric,” she tells me, “the remnants, that is.”

She is Mona Shah — a textile designer working with Christina Kim of the Los Angeles–based Dosa — and her commitment to working with recycled material is not only a Dosa conceit but, I soon learn, an Indian one as well. I met Mona a few weeks ago when we toured the SEWA Trade Facilitation Centre, and where I saw, first-hand, the degree to which design functions in new and profound ways. It is to date the purest, most electrifying expression of design and social change I have yet to experience: the possibilities are not only endless but intoxicatingly gratifying on levels I didn’t think were even possible.

Founded in 1972 by Ela Bhatt, SEWA (Self Employed Women's Association) is a trade union that represents 1.3 million women organized into more than 11,000 producer groups, 200 cooperatives and 11 federations in seven states across India, with the greatest concentration of members in the western state of Gujarat. (Sewa is also a Hindi word meaning “humble service.”) In recent years, SEWA has expanded its organization to provide services such as savings and credit, health care, child care, insurance, legal aid and job training. In 2003, the association created a number of independent nonprofit entities capable of supporting 15,000 skilled artisan women from Gujarat. One such enterprise operates three retail stores under the Hansiba brand, so named for an elderly woman, Hansibaben, the first rural artisan of SEWA. She is now in her early nineties.

Ela Bhatt, founder of SEWA

Entrance to the Hansiba Shop, Mumbai

Facade of the Hansiba Shop, Mumbai

Villoo Mirza and Mona Dave of the SEWA Trade Facilitation Center with Gauriben Brahman and other female artisans

SEWA’s Trade Facilitation Centre (or TFC) is a cooperative textile manufacturing company with more than 3500 artisan shareholders. Rather than a sweatshop of working women, the TFC is employee-owned and produces higher-end (read “design-oriented”) fashion; it has, in addition, begun to produce show samples for many leading designers in Europe and Japan. It also manufactures clothing, jewelry and textiles for the Hansiba brand, now available not only in India but also for international export.

While approximately 60 percent of SEWA’s members lack basic literacy skills, the organization provides sophisticated training on a skills-appropriate basis — so a woman working in, say, SEWA’s organic farm (a third nonprofit business cooperative launched in recent years) will acquire math skills as she inventories seedlings, while a seamstress at the TFC, working with patterns, will gain comparable skills related to measuring and pattern-making. It is an extraordinary thing to observe: women helping women, providing benefits and engaging one another under a cooperative umbrella of give and take, education and training, growth and opportunity. A member of SEWA’s leadership team used the metaphor of a banyan tree to describe this model: “Each member contributes to the strength of the tree’s roots,” she explained, “while the branches grow independently, sprouting their own blooms.”

And so it is at the SEWA Trade Facilitation Centre, where hundreds of women cut and sew, measure and mend, bind and stencil. There are neatly queued assembly lines of women, working intently at their sewing machines, braids pulled tightly back as they carry on in an atmosphere that combines quiet diligence with nimble dexterity. The room is silent, except for the rhythmic whirring of the overhead ceiling fans. There is almost no talking. No one wears shoes. Spend one day in the streets here in Ahmedabad with its maniacal motorists and daredevil rickshaws and you immediately recognize the oasis of quiet that the temple or mosque so brilliantly provides. Step into the TFC, and you realize you’ve entered a parallel kind of environment: it’s a design temple.

Women at SEWA Trade Facilitation Center, checking hem stiching on newly sewn garments

TFC Workers at their sewing machines

A woman demonstrates stencilling: first, a thin plastic-coated sheet is laid over a piece of fabric; second, she places tiny pinprick-sized dots in the plastic to outline the pattern; and third, zinc powder is combined with water to create a dye that is fugitive, whereupon it is rubbed over the cloth. The rubbed residue creates a template on top of the fabric, which is then sent to the villages for embroidery: once it is washed, the dye disappears, leaving only the decorative stiching

Detail of embroidery

It is difficult to describe the degree of poverty in India because it’s not perceived as poverty so much as reality. There’s not a palpable sense of frustration so much as a spirit of commitment to one’s immediate orbit — family, livestock, rickshaw, whatever. People don’t stand on street corners buying lottery tickets hoping for a miraculous reversal of fortune, nor do they aspire to the level of material acquisition somewhat comically characterized in the United States by shopping at big-box stores. The entire scale of operation here is different, partly due to the fact that religion and spirituality play a more prominent role in everyday life, but also because there’s no time or space — or tolerance— for behaving any differently. In this context, the barometer for what constitutes wealth (money, possession) is, in a very basic sense, irrelevant. For women in particular, real currency is artisanal currency — so your knowledge of a particular kind of embroidery, for example, simultaneously links you to your family and to your village; it enables a transference of power, in that you pass along your skills to your children as your mother passed them down to you; and within the framework of SEWA’s cooperative stewardship, it provides thousands of women with a trade that is at once personally rewarding and, longer term, financially remunerative. (SEWA’s business model favors the artisans, with 65 percent of the purchase price reverting to the families of the rural women who make the actual work.)

Mona Shah and Christina Kim are but two of a small number of design emissaries working with the women of SEWA, but there are others: French sculptor Corinne Forget worked with women in the Kutch tribes, a drought-prone area near the Pakistan border where embroidery (there are said to be at least 16 different kinds) is a principal export. British designer Graham Hollick traveled a year ago to Radhanpur, on the edges of the Kutch desert, where he observed the kinds of skills and handiwork particular to this region. He spent two weeks working with SEWA members there as he developed methods for adapting their skills to his vision, and ultimately created a series of palettes representing not only color but also form, pattern and technique.

Put another way: Hollick reimagined what design could be based on, given the unique capabilities of these formally uneducated but remarkably gifted women. The point is to maximize the benefit for everyone: from better use of existing skills, to better access to the people with those skills, to better export of the best of what those skills can ultimately produce. If you consider design as a basic, nonverbal but intensely communicative process, you’ve got a sense of the degree to which design can function as an international language. Add to this the idea of an outside designer working with local artisans, and you’ve got an innovative model precisely because it’s not a top-down power play: on the contrary, the relationship with the incoming designer — and the process that follows — is managed carefully and respectfully. The big idea here lies in the notion of cross-cultural collaboration, cooperation and craft.

It turns out that while SEWA’s membership is enormous, it's not alone in its efforts to promote the value of design through a socially progressive production model. Mumbai-based Krishna Mehta is another designer who employs artisans (in Mehta’s case, disabled ones) in her own printing and embroidery facility in Gujarat. Mehta’s work is at once spare and spectacular: contemporary in cut and line and profoundly classical in terms of fabric and detail. Her extraordinary clothes — available for both men and women — hang on two long racks in a small shop in Colaba, manned by her sister, who also does the tailoring.

Jyoti Gokani, designer Krishna Mehta's sister, in her shop in the Colaba district of Mumbai

Examples of Mehta's kurtas for men

Examples of some of Mehta's block-printed silks for women 

Retail outlets like Mehta’s are enchanting, yet like most consumer-based showrooms, they don’t reveal the process in the product. SEWA’s Trade Facilitation Centre does. It’s an open atelier for incubating ideas: at present, the results are textile- and clothing-related, but there’s nothing to say that designers coming here can’t be product designers, type designers, graphic designers. If the point is to use design as an international language, then there’s no limit to the potential for exchange and education — which, in all honesty, goes both ways.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Business, India, Social Good

Comments [8]

"... there’s no limit to the potential for exchange and education — which, in all honesty, goes both ways."

Hear, hear Jessica!
So very true and often forgotten by top-down do-gooders... and very much echoed by Anil Gupta in the previous post.
Meena Kadri

I recently re-read the India Report (http://www.designinstitute.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=89&Itemid=91) and appreciated your entry even more, knowing that designers today continue to find joy in this exchange of craft and ideas.
Ann Enkoji

"...four women in sarees sit barefoot and cross-legged on the floor."
Traditionally India is a barefoot nation. Touching feet has always been a gesture indicative of deep respect while footwear considered untouchable!
"It is difficult to describe the degree of poverty in India because it’s not perceived as poverty so much as reality."

As per Word Bank report Poverty rate (Below National Poverty Line) Rural: 28 % and Urban: 26 %.
Comparing with times of 1947, India now has a diminishing segment of very poor people and is aiming to cross the threshold to join the ranks of the world’s middle-income countries.

Indeed we can't see the difference real life as in print!

SEWA’s contribution to generate tradition based employment for women and promote the value of traditional craft and design through a socially progressive production model is highly commendable and can a serve as an example for other states in India too.

unnikrishna menon damodaran

Its interesting i think SEWA- Self employed women's association, pronounced 'say-wa'. 'Seva' is also a hindi word, which means 'service' to anyone, which is what i think this organization does for the society and these women who work there.

'Bholu' is another brand set up up Jody Freid, an Australian who works with the indian society and then sets up schools and bholu centres for children. So she is utilising the craft and skills available in India and then actively setting up systems to benefit the same people and their families.

Also 'Panchachuli', again run by visionary called Mukti Dutta, she works with women in the Uttaranchal and does textiles, etc and with that builds schools, hospitals, leprosy rehab centres etc for the same people and actively preserve the forests of the area. Ive worked with them, she is like a godess to those people.
There are many like this in India but not enough,i absolutely love, admire and drive energy from these kind of organizations.
srishti rana

Firstly, my heartiest congratulations to you for your noble thought. I'd like to know, have you in any small way done or started helping women in your area....it may even start from the maid in your house - by educating her, teaching her some skills and even making sure her children studies. You may then even go to the area she lives and hold classes for the women and children in that area, with the help of like-minded people who believes that education is essential for the upliftment of the society.

m3 ds real

Hi, in our case yes our maid and her whole family was very much part of our family. Her daughters and us we grew up together, we shared our books, clothes, things with them. All of us spent time teaching them, including my mom, even baking cakes for their birthdays and now our maids 3 daughters are educated, we were involved in there marriages and proud to say that one of them thanks to everyones efforts is today in the indian police services and very much forging ahead.

Hi, this is incredibly moving and you are AWESOME!

I feel compelled now to share something with you which you might find interesting.

I've been a design & print consultant for more than 12 years, working from home, making a good living promoting the work of numerous graphic designers to my clients, and managing the entire process of brief, design, print.

I'm a grandmother now at 57 and although have been also immersed in self growth principles and courses for more than 27 years it's take me until now to realize what a contribution I can make to others.

I have developed 2 ways to do this using my own natural gifts and talents.

1. I have introduced "faaabulous fabric design" to my current design business - with the long term view of empowering women in countries such as India to become fabric designers. The idea being to have one arm of my fabric design business focused purely on the designs of these women and transfer them onto decor fabrics which can be ordered through my web site. Possibly tweaking them here in Australia to ensure they are commercially viable and within current color trends. The profits from the sale of these particular designs on fabrics to go back to these women in India and other countries with the intention to help them grow a micro business of their own.

I see the possibility of these women becoming autonomous eventually, and moving on to doing their own thing...ie; not remaining under my wing for ever - in turn allowing space for new women to come on board and go through the empowering process too.

I haven't yet had time to follow this idea through to find the right people to light the way forward with it but I keep speaking to everyone I can about this to grow some support and perhaps lead to the right people who already know how to make this kind of project viable for everyone.

2. I have spent the last 12 months and almost all of my available money developing a very special web site - it's a membership site which includes a hugely valuable FREE membership level - to help women entrepreneurs in ANY English speaking country, from any background whether it be poor or wealthy - to find their unique gifts and talents and create a business that they love, doing what they love, and sharing their gifts and talents with the world.

The whole idea around this and my own greatest passion - is EMPOWERMENT for women who KNOW they are not living the life they were born to live but who are passionate about doing so but are somehow stopped by fear of failure, or limiting beliefs of any kind - which are often submerged.

Here's both of my web sites - please take a look and see if there is anything there that inspires you or resonates for you, and if so lets see what we can do together. One is a traditional business through which I am trying to make a difference via the fabric design side of it, the other I have developed this last year purely around my own life purpose.

I am also looking for stories of women who felt the fear and went out and "dit it" anyway. Like me- and like you, these stories help inspire others to do the same in their own way. They just perhaps need to be supported, and to have the resources available to them to help them grow. That is my intention for every woman on the planet.

(membership site for budding female entrepreneurs)

(my graphic design & print consultancy)



I wanted to thank you for this great read! Definitely enjoying every bit of it I've bookmarked to check out new things to post Many thanks for this great post!

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