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Exquisite weaves that changed Vandana’s life

Nov 22, 2013

Out of the total number of weavers in India some 60 per cent are women and 40 per cent belong to the lowest of the lower rank on the social ladder, writes Mehru Jaffer.

Lucknow: There was a time when Vandana Verma, 28, a resident of Banda district in Uttar Pradesh, did not know the difference between synthetic cloth and pure cotton. Just another girl out of millions of others from rural hinterland of the state, Verma looks back at herself as an illiterate, poor and very shy girl. That was about a decade ago. Her mother, a village woman, introduced her to Vanangana, a community-based rural women's organisation. Verma was first educated at Vanangana, a 3,000-member-strong organisation working for the rights of women, particularly on violence issues and Dalit rights, in Chitrakoot and Banda districts of the state.

After 14 years, when founder Madhavi Kuckreja transferred the leadership of the organisation to the local women and moved to state capital of Lucknow in 2006, the young woman went along with Kuckreja to help her set up Sanatkada, a craft and weavers’ store in the city.

Soon Verma found herself travelling all over the country from Assam to Andhra Pradesh in search of goods made mostly by female artisans and weavers. During her travels she gained an understanding of fabric, learnt to recognise the difference between silk yarn and wool, between chanderi and chiffon. But of all the places she went and the people she met, Verma was most struck by the Bodo women from Assam. She spent many days with the women weavers well known for using an extra warp technique in their weave. The first time she saw a Bodo weave, she could not help but repeatedly run her hand over the simple frame of the loom – that, incidentally, it is present in almost every home – which captures and transforms all the lovely motifs inspired by nature into exquisite cloth.

Today, Verma talks with awe of the way the Bodos have been weaving their way through life for centuries. All Bodo women are taught the skill from a very young age. In fact, Verma smilingly admits that she finds it difficult to let go of the ever-so-fine home spun quality of the dokhna, which is a wrap that Bodo women wear around the chest. Some dokhna are plain cloth while others are a rich tapestry of stories woven in a riot of colours that trail down elegantly from the chest to the ankle.

“I want others to also experience the joy of holding in their hands elegant weaves such as the dokhna created so delicately with skilled hands,” she says, glancing at the yards of handspun material housed at Sanatkada’s premises where she works with at least two groups of artisans from Assam - Aagor, a cluster of 112 women, and another called Mulberry, with 85 female members. But Sanatkada, which literally means a place for crafts, is not just about buying and selling for Verma. It is also about learning about the way of life of other Indians. She had no clue about the wealth of weaves and handicrafts that have survived through the ages around the country. The store is in contact with nearly 3000 artisans from Kashmir to Karnataka, engaged in 110 groups.

“In 2006, we started off by opening the shop in a small room. We were three women who sat for weeks in the same room not knowing what to do next as we had no customers,” recalls Verma. Fortunately for Sanatkada, the opening of their store also coincided with the growing popularity of the social media, which was what helped their business to eventually take off.

Together with Nasreen Khan, cultural coordinator, and Hamida Khatoon, social affairs in charge, Verma was encouraged by mentor Kuckreja to make aggressive use of social networking to spread the word about their work. Constant exposure on Facebook has given Sanatkada the recognition it was looking for. The organisation is now appreciated for pampering visitors by forwarding emails to them and personally inviting them on their mobile phones to on-going events such as exhibitions, cultural festivals and film shows.

It is no exaggeration to say that many roads in the city now lead to a sprawling bungalow from early 20th century Lucknow. But even the many rooms, verandahs, courtyards and a front and back gardens that are now the home of Sanatkada, seem too tiny to accommodate visitors who often spill onto the streets during certain special events like ghazal or folk song-and-dance performances that are organised. After all, the vision behind Sanatkada was never to reduce it to being just a shop. The products on its shelves, of course, provide livelihood for lakhs of weavers and artisans. But together they also make a very colourful statement about the need to enjoy environment friendly, energy saving forms of art created by magical hands, often belonging to some of the most marginalised sections of society.

Out of the total number of weavers in India some 60 per cent are women and 40 per cent belong to the lowest of the lower rank on the social ladder. Some 25 per cent of these women belong to religious minority communities.

“We are very pleased when we are able to sell our goods but it is more important to introduce the works of our country's artisans to as many people as possible. That is why often exhibitions are more precious to me than sales,” Khan says.

Sanatkada is happy to show off its valuable collection of cultural wealth from around the country but it is happiest welcoming into its courtyard people from all walks of life, from different communities and backgrounds, to make its premises a living example of the very inclusive ‘Ganga Jamuna’ way of life that is the strength of any social fabric but is being threatened by the very divisive politics of the day. Khan, Verma and Hamida Khatoon are proud of Sanatkada that they have fashioned as the most colourful shop in the city. But its growing reputation as an essential meeting place for film buffs, lovers of literature and music and foodies – as well as a place where people can also buy, if they so desire, many a fabric and artifact made by India’s amazing artisans – is what makes this trio of young women most proud.

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