We’ve never seen her sit still. We grew up eating home made sheviyo (fine noodles cooked in multiple ways) and paapad (typical to Indian food, hard to explain but is spicy, made of pulses and eaten as an accompaniment with meals) made by her. We helped her make vaatiyo (baatis or wicker sticks for lamps) from raw cotton. And we swaddled babies and ourselves in godadiyo (quilts) hand stitched by her. Ajjee, my father’s mother, my beautiful grandmother, has been a constant in the lives of all her children and grandchildren and many many more of us.
Made usually of leftover pieces of cloth, Ajjee builds intricate patterns and designs, often a peacock or a cat for kids or a pattern of geometric flowers for older people or even a simple quilt made out of an old sari put together by a complex and even running stitch. Her talent and industry has been the stuff of legends. It wasn’t just family, she would make these precious quilts for anyone who came in to appreciate, ask for help and even those who made a simple, honest request (it’s getting tough for her now to be equally productive, but not for want of trying!).
This morning, the family proudly read her name mentioned in an interview in The Hindu with Patrick J Finn, who has just finished a book on quilt-making in India and I simply had to write this tribute to the most inspirational person in our family. Our very own rockstar- Hirabai Naik! Ajjee for some, Maee Ajjee for others, Ayee for many, a symbol of grit and determination, a beacon of kindness and love and hope. A person who rises above us despite all her human failings.
Always built small, Ajjee has become frailer with time but her spirit is indomitable. Today, even as she complains of feeling fatigue, her mind is still working on the latest designs. Beyond quilting, she is a master of re-use, making hundred of cloth shopping bags and gifting them to everyone. She doesn’t actively advocate their use, simply because she belongs to the generation that never made the switch to the plastic shopping bag! She just assumes everyone still carries their own cloth bags with them and I think it is remarkable that within her lifetime we have moved so far away from cloth bags and are now firmly marching back towards them, aided by supermarkets that charge us extra for carry bags in a bid to encourage some environmental sensitivity.
In small but fantastic examples like this, I increasingly see reasons for Indians to look back at the small things we are losing- skills, recipes, habits and ideas that make for a healthier, more responsible lifestyle that puts community and family first, but is also is eager to learn from others. To me, that (not religion, not ritual, not caste or creed, nor regional identity) is the essence of an Indian culture and I always look at Ajjee with amazement for all these values she taught me, without ever preaching but entirely by example!
We visited the Dastkar Nature Bazar on Saturday. It’s been my favorite place for pre-Diwali shopping in Delhi, followed by the Blind School mela. Blind School’s advantage always has been its fixed location. You know where to go and what to expect each year. Dastkar, on the other hand, keeps moving around and it’s not always convenient to get to. We skipped last year because I couldn’t get to Pragati Maidan.
This time though, the exhibition has moved to the Kissan Haat in Andheria Mod, near Chhatarpur Metro Station. Therefore, on Saturday morning, six of us, all women and all geared up to shop, hopped on at Huda City Centre to troop to the Dastkar Nature Bazar.
It didn’t disappoint. In fact, I thought this was a nice home for the exhibition and was delighted when someone mentioned that Dastkar had signed a 15 year lease for this space. I see no official announcement or press item to this effect though. I looked up to research what the Kissan Haat was originally built for. I always thought there was a mandi here, or some sort of direct selling farm produce type of establishment was going to be set up here. Whenever I drove by, I saw the signs and looked forward to such an announcement. Fresh produce markets would do so well in South Delhi!
But today, I found online that the government had failed to start this and finally decided, sometime during the Commonwealth Games preparation, to set this up as another Dilli Haat, replete with food stalls and crafts outlets. I suppose that is what they achieve by handing the space over to Dastkar. I don’t know what Dastkar plans. I heard there will be 4 exhibitions a year instead of an annual one.
For those of you who haven’t yet gone, do go! If not to buy, to just see. If you love handmade, hand crafted, hand loom; if you love original work and design; if you value authenticity; you will be happy here. Plus you have the satisfaction of buying directly from craftspeople of from organizations that work directly with them. I interacted with founder Laila Tyabji last year at the India Urban Conference at Mysore and was impressed with the depth of her knowledge of crafts-based livelihoods and her advise to urban practitioners on how to design and plan for such communities and how to integrate them into the economy. Here’s a link to a post wrote about her when she got the Padma Shri.
It’s on till November 9th. For pics etc, do check out the Dastkar Facebook page. Happy shopping!
Strong women, meaningful work- How Padma Shri awardees Laila Tyabji and Geeta Dharmarajan inspire me- Jan 25, 2012
I scrolled down the list of Padma awardees and of course, there are several I know of and several others who don’t mean much to me. But two of them are people I happen to have met recently and been very impressed by. Laila Tyabji, founder Dastkar is easily one of the most graceful women I have met and Geeta Dharmarajan of Katha disarmed me by her complete humility. My interactions with both reiterated my belief in passion being the driving force for change!
I meet Lailaji in the context of the India Urban Conference that I had been involved with in the latter half of 2011. I was helping a friend put together the ‘City in Public Culture’ theme and we had involved Ms Tyabji to speak at a session focused on the link between arts & crafts and development. She presented her case entirely from the point of view of the artisan, outlining clearly the linkages between livelihood, poverty and dignity; elaborating their struggles in the context of rapid urbanization, industrialization and socio-economic changes that have both created a market for the crafts and devalued them at the same time. Positioning the arts & crafts in India as not a dying industry, but one that is resilient and adaptive, Lailaji rued that India’s development agenda gave more credence to growth in sheer numbers than to skills and long-term growth agendas. Her empathy with the communities she works with, her clarity in her understanding of the political agenda and her commitment to offering the craftspeople a platform comes from an inner conviction that arts & crafts are linked with identity and dignity, two themes that lie at the very core of our existence as a society and will determine the legacy India is giving the world.
Having recently interacted with a community of leather workers, embroiderers and jewelry makers and seen first-hand the tremendous importance their skills played in their local economy and social fabric and indeed their self-image (especially in the case of women), I was able to internalize and appreciate further the content of Lailaji’s discourse.
I met Geeta Dharmarajan in context of the same project, when the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation called a meeting of the state and city-level nodal officers for the Rajiv Awas Yojna (RAY) with a selection of community-based organizations at HUDCO a few months ago. The meeting was unique in having the objective of building a platform for government officials at state and municipal levels to understand issues from a community perspective, in the hope that innovative approaches would evolve to implement the slum-free agenda of RAY.
Geetaji made a strong case for the role youth can play in implementing development interventions in low-income communities. She shared many examples of how youth empowerment and training had provided communities with the agile, skilled workforce that assisted local businesses to become more efficient. She spoke about how young people with a sense of purpose were changing perceptions in their families and larger communities. Later, she attended a follow up meeting specific to Delhi where she further urged the Ministry to consider a project for mobilizing youth to conduct government surveys, thereby collecting richer, more valuable, community-centric information that could be used for effective redevelopment designs for slums. Her focus and belief in youth was impressive; so was her ability to speak up for her cause in a much larger context and force audiences to pay attention through her simplicity and conviction. Speaking to her later, I was extended a warm invitation to visit their field areas and experience their initiatives first hand.
We don’t need to quantify the good work Dastkar and Katha have done. What strikes me most is that these organization work with, not for the communities they engage with. Just feeling the force of the personalities of these two women, the tremendous involvement in their work and the sheer respect they command is sufficient to know that they, through their organizations, are making significant impacts on the section of society that most needs our innovation, empathy and passion, not mere charity!