Colourful sari scarves from my photoshoot last week

scarves

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A day of reflection on Day of the Girlchild

Today is the first ever International Day of the Girl Child, so I wanted to share with you why this day is so important in the little part of the world I am currently living. Based on my experience through volunteering with NGO RIDE (Rural Institute for Development Education), in Kanchipuram, South India.

In rural Kanchipuram there are still many landless tribal communities living pretty remote lives and affected by the caste system. Due to lack of education they are extremely poor, without any particular skills many end up working in stone quarries or as day labourers when the work is available.

It is still common in some of these communities for men to marry more than one woman, or girl; I’ve met a girl as young as 13 with a baby on her hip, accompanied by her husbands first wife. The role of the women is an isolated existence shared only with the other wives of the group. They don’t have the understanding of education to realise that it could help them out of poverty and provide their children with a better future.

RIDE tirelessly encourages and aids enrolment in school through all levels of society. They have had some success with the tribal communities through offering support, assisting with enrolment, paying for books and providing help with school fees.  However, even when the children do attend school, the girl is still vulnerable. She will be the one pulled out of school if help is needed at home, if someone is ill, if there is a younger sibling to look after, or if there is only enough money to send one child (the boy) to school. Without education, these girls are very much at risk, without sex education they are open to abuse.

RIDE has set up a system of support that reaches out to these children whether they are at school or not. Understanding that they will not necessarily get the encouragement from home to attend school, RIDE creates a safe and positive environment for the children at their centre in Arpakkam. They invite children from different communities to attend regular programs, to promote a positive attitude towards learning and play, and to create a safe and trusting environment where the children feel happy and able to express themselves. The children are taught though fun workshops, and encouraged to think positively about education and develop their own love for life and learning.

Being a grass roots organisation, RIDE is able to monitor and keep tabs on the children they feel are at risk, knowing them by name and understanding their individual circumstances. At the moment RIDE is focussed on the girls, as there are a few who are reaching womanhood without any real parental guidance. They are in need of support and counselling to help keep them out of danger and protected.

This is a slow, day to day challenge, but without RIDE, and many other grass roots charities and NGO’s around the world, these children and many like them would have no-one looking out for them. They are a great credit to OUR society as a whole and we should do all we can to support them in their tireless work.

To find out more about RIDE visit their website WWW.RIDEINDIA.ORG or their FACEBOOK PAGE

Power of the Senses

Yesterday RIDE (Rural Institute for Development Education), the NGO I am volunteering with, hosted a program for a group of which included both visually impaired and blind participants from Austria. The day was enriching for all those involved and began with children from RIDE’s school presenting some of their recent work to the group, sing songs, rhymes and recite text in English. I was then given the opportunity to explain the work RIDE does and answer questions from the group, imparting some of the things I had learnt about the weaving communities, child labour, customs and village life.

In the afternoon they were taken to a local village where they were given the opportunity to wander freely, meet locals and get a taste of village life. They also participated in a variety of activities including a visit to the silk worm farm, visit to a silk weavers house, and a visit to some of the more remote temples around Kanchipuram.

The groups own tour guide did a fantastic job relaying the unique visual experience of travelling around India to those who were partially sighted or blind. Describing the landscape around, the dramatic colours, the ever present ‘cow in the road’. The experience gave me a renewed sense of wonder. When we have had visitors stay with us for the first time it is always amazing to see India through their eyes. Spending time with this group made me ‘see’ it differently again, with the senses rather than the eyes. India is a full on attack of the senses; the noise, the smells, the piles of rubbish, the heat, if you can get through this initial onslaught I guarantee you can learn to love it!

A humbling day at work

This week RIDE (Rural Institute for Development Education) carried out a program for a group of 15 women who are all day labourers from the village of Arpakkam in Kanchipuram, in order to make contact with these women while also giving me the opportunity to learn first hand about their lives. The women work mainly in agriculture and sometimes stone quarries and struggle to get work on a daily basis. The process for labourers to get work on a daily basis is to stand at a collection point first thing in the morning and wait for a land owner to come and offer work. The landowner will chose their workers based on their looks and build alone and if you are not picked you go home.

RIDE provided the women with half a days paid work (paying more than their usual rate) to clear the ground of weeds at the RIDE training centre. I attended to be a part of the later discussions, however could not stand back and watch these women work. So I got the chance to be a day labourer, for all of about 1-2 hours (2 being a very generous estimate) in the searing Indian heat. It was an extremely humbling experience, especially as these women get paid so little for their work. The will usually get paid between 100-150 rupees for a days work (160 rupees = £2) and will only have very short lunch breaks eating basic rice with a watery broth. I suppose you get used to this situation but I don’t see how you can be upbeat, however we were laughing and joking and bonding with one another, the support of the group felt very strong.

At the end of the day RIDE held a discussion with the women to find out about about the problems affecting them and their families. Their main issues were not having a sustainable income, with many only getting work for 1-2 days a week, much less during monsoon rains and flooding. Also, many of the women have husbands who work in the stone quarries and are dependent on alcohol, which is where a lot of their wages end up being spent. Some are also beaten by drunk husbands. One woman told the group that she finds it best not to ask her husband for money or challenge him and instead she makes do with whatever little money he gives her plus whatever she can earn. This highlights how important it is for these women to have their own income in order to support themselves and their children, the majority of whom are now in full time education and changing their future paths. I also heard some enlightening stories from the women, many of whom have continued to send their children to school against all odds, two women have children in higher education and are so enthusiastic about their future prospects.

What is important for RIDE is to have a presence in these women’s lives and for them to know that they have people on their side who they can turn to. Jeyaraj the director of RIDE, gave a talk about human rights so that they may understand a bit more about their rights both at home and within society. They were also given a talk about multi-crop farming and the possibility, even with little land, to grow some vegetables in order to feed their families during hard times.

After the discussion the women were given a free lunch, provided by RIDE and served by RIDE staff, plus a gift of a sari each, donated by members of a local doctors surgery. Most of the women only have one sari which they wear every day so this gift was especially poignant.

Kishkinda Trust women’s empowerment project in Hampi

My partner and I visited Hampi last month and stayed in one of their homestay rooms, living within the village of Anegundi and eating home cooked meals at a local family’s home. The trust has done tremendous work in supporting the local people to realise their true potential, capitalising on the tourist trade passing through Hampi while also staying true to their own roots and cultures. Anegundi is clean, well presented, friendly and happy. While there we saw very few other tourists, and were waved at by almost every child we passed.

I visited the production centre for the Kishkinda Trust craft shop, where they have developed banana fibre production and now produce all kinds of products from bags to sandals. The banana plant is so abundant in India, and at the end of a plants life it is cut right back to make way for new shoots from the root, therefore discarded trunks are in abundance. The Kishkinda Trust manage their own banana plantation providing them with endless potential for products. I don’t think there is one part of the banana plant you can’t use. You can eat the bananas (the obvious one!), the inner stem and the flowers, the leaves are used as plates and to wrap food, and now the fibres from the outer stem are used for a multitude of products!

The production centre supports women from the local Self Help Groups and forms part of a wider female empowerment program. The women are encouraged to develop products themselves and look to really enjoy their work, sitting in groups working away while chatting to one another.

‘At The Kishkinda Trust (TKT) in Anegundi, Conservation empowers communities and creates a way of life that considers culture as an intangible element permeating all activities in life- ranging from functional to ideational-  ecology, cuisine, crafts, design, agriculture, technology, education, markets and festivals.’ The Kishkinda Trust

A peek inside a kalamkari artists studio

Last month I accompanied an Indian contact, Mr N. Bond, to a town called Kalaastri in Andhra Pradesh; a temple town famous for Kalamkari fabric art – the art of painting directly onto fabric using natural plant dyes.

N.J.Bond is a contact I made through Ethical Fashion Network, he is an advocate and researcher in the field of natural dyes and has been keen to share with me his knowledge and promote their use. I have always been interested in natural dyes and so was keen to see this process of Kalamkari, which has been passed down for generations. The recipes are not written down but taught by master craftsmen to their apprentices over many years.

The fabric is soaked first of all in a milky substance, which will act as a fixative for the natural plant dyes when applied to the fabric. The pattern is first drawn onto paper which is used as a guide and traced through onto the main fabric. The pattern is made on the fabric using a pen like tool filled with the liquid dye. There are many stages which must be strictly adhered to to ensure the best result.

Alongside the many traditional patterns of the gods and other temple inspired designs, I also saw some more contemporary ideas which illustrated the potential for this style of art to be applied to the modern market. There are some designers using Kalamkari in fashion with an aim to promote and preserve this traditional technique. Designers include Upasana (watch their video on Kalamkari) and Vivek Karunakaran who promoted Kalamkari through a collection designed in collaboration with the Handloom Export Promotion Council showcased at the Chennai World Trade Centre earlier this year.

A peek inside a natural indigo dye house

Last week I visited Colours of Nature, a traditional indigo and natural dye house based in Auroville, South India.

Colours of Nature are reviving the 1,000 year old traditional technique of indigo dying, while using scientific research to develop the dyes and improve on the colour-fastness (one of the main issues with natural dyes in the commercial market). There will be more posts about natural dyes to come, as I pursue this field of interest and integrate it into my ideas for a collection…

Children’s day at RIDE’s Sevilimedu school

This week I was invited to accompany Jeyaraj to one of RIDE’s school in Sevilimedu village to participate as guest of honour in their Children’s Day celebrations!

The children, with the help of parents and teachers, dressed up as people of India past and present and included a mini Gandhi, Nehru and other key figures as well as fruit sellers, doctors, flower ladies and more. It was such a fun occasion and the children are so bright and cheerful. A real testament to the success of RIDE’s work!