Friday, April 1, 2011

We’re in Business!

The best news to share is that the softgoods enterprise, an official part of the new ODAM Rural Crafts project, is up and running.  Wednesday Sathya and Muthu began paid work and they will be joined on Monday by Vijarani, who will work as an assistant to their production.  I had them begin a partial week to clean and organize the new work area, one side of the front porch of the ODAM office, and to get the machines and fabrics ready.  Once that was completed, I had the women start working on perfecting prototypes of a doll pattern I am hoping we can add to our product line.  We only had these three days to “play” as we need to get into elephant production to meet the order Ponchulli asked for some time ago.  However, since stuffing won’t be in until Saturday, this seemed like a good time to try our hand at creating dolls.  I admit I am not a doll maker, having created just one baby doll for my first daughter, which must mean it was made about twenty-five plus years ago.  I have looked at any images and websites related to dollmaking that I could access and didn’t really find much that I felt could translate into a simple product here.  However, long ago when we were first discussing what might well with Ponchulli, she pulled out some rather ugly puppets with wooden heads and said that she had many customers ask for such a product dressed in south Indian clothing like saris.  Obviously carved wooden heads like they had were out of the question for the area as wood is really expensive and we already have feedback that items need to be light for tourists to take home so those particular puppets were only shared as a concept.  I know that puppets are bound to be less marketable than dolls so decided boy and girl doll sets in south Indian clothing was the goal.  After a couple pathetic attempts, I finally believe I have a workable doll body concept and so had Sathya and Muthu spend time developing suitable faces for embroidery.  This has been an interesting challenge.  When I first mentioned to Muthu a couple weeks ago I was working on a doll, she immediately suggested we buy plastic heads from the market.  She really considered this a good suggestion and I’m not sure she really bought my explanation that this would 1) not produce a salable item, at least not for the international market; 2) be too expensive for the product; 3) not work within the recycling concept central to the ODAM Rural Crafts project; 4) add significant raw material costs which leave the community (likely funding the poor in China who are manufacturing these); and 5) be downright ugly (I have seen these heads).  I think she resisted the idea of working on creating a face right up until the first nice face was embroidered – and she could see it was both attractive, relatively easy, and unique.  The love affair with cheap plastic runs deep in this area.  Though the women did not complete the dolls on Friday when they focused on them, I think they were beginning to understand the process it will take to create them.  In some ways I think it was difficult for them to transition from the style of production used for elephants to this project.  One highlight for me of the experience was coming back from lunch on Thursday and having a casual conversation with Sathya before Muthu arrived about the dolls.  The women had been working at drawing up faces but couldn’t let go of trying to draw lifelike features and I kept suggesting they think about cartoon faces, simplifying the lines as much as possible to allow a reasonable amount of embroidery to work.  Kitu had suggested that I show them the simple line drawing of the Indian woman with hands folded in Namaste position – a very attractive image being used on many items related to Indian tourism that we bought imagined they’d be familiar with.  This particular image has very few lines and creates a highly stylized, easily recognizable woman.  As we were talking about this image, Sathya and I realized we could change the arm structure of the doll slightly to create a doll with her hands in Namaste position, which is actually “Vanakam” in Tamil Nadu.  It was one of those incredibly synchronistic moments where two creative minds come up with more than either had and I was so inspired that this could happen even with the language barrier we battle.  How cool is that!  So we will try working up some dolls with what we are calling “hug arms” that look like they have hands clasped because of a knot in the arm fabric, and some that have folded hands.  It was a really positive spin to put on the dolls and I think it will make them even more attractive as south Indian representations.  I realize how much I really missed working with Sathya while we waited for the project to get back in gear.

Yesterday I had started the day with a rather interesting experience – I woke early and got up to exercise.  As I started doing stretches on my balcony, I happened to look across the main street and saw a monkey perched on a sign on top of the building.  I once saw a monkey racing through trees from my front porch (so the other side of town) and was told that one came down the street in front of the ODAM office chased by children one day when most of us were out of town, but monkeys don’t pass through Tiruchuli often so it was exciting to me.  I got my camera and took a couple pictures as he casually walked around and then a second monkey popped up.  The two of them ended up crossing to a residential rooftop a couple buildings away and then they opened up the water cistern on the roof and messed around in the water supply.  I’m not sure if they were drinking or playing but they were obviously very familiar with how the system worked and made themselves quite at home.  The idea of a monkey messing around in the water that the household uses to wash (and potentially drink?) didn’t appeal much to me and made me grateful the water I use is stored underground.  I’m probably deluding myself thinking my water is any cleaner, though.  I haven’t had a chance to see if the photos captured much – even on maximum zoom the monkeys were pretty small.

Kitu purchased one hand loomed sari from the government store last week but decided she really wanted a second created by the first weaver we saw a couple weeks ago.  Chittra, our translator for that weaving excursion, had a lot of difficulty with English but we thought we had worked out that the man could show us samples of silk colors and different trim designs and that Kitu could then select what she wanted on a sari to have made special for her.  We were going to return to his home the Saturday following our initial trip but that ended up being our trip to Kodaikanal so the visit was postponed.  Since Kitu will be leaving tomorrow (Sunday) to spend a couple weeks touring Kerala with her mother, she was hoping to arrange the visit this weekend so the order could proceed.  She didn’t get around to arranging this until Friday morning and Chittra wasn’t available for Saturday so we decided we’d do this Friday evening.  Chittra was teaching at the KGBV school so we waited at the bus stand and got on the bus she was on to head to Arrapukutti with her.  We then took an auto rickshaw to the weaver’s home, which was a rather complicated journey because there was a lot of road work in that area (remember, it’s election time here and the best time for road construction to take place!).  When we finally got to the weaver’s home, we learned that our concept of him showing us various options was totally inaccurate and that he cannot just decide on a color for one sari.  The long threads (I think warp) take a long time to load so he uses the same color to create six saris.  He can still vary the cross thread (weft? – I forget) so they are not all identical.  Then we get clarification that he can’t really sell them to us, though that was the impression we had on our first visit.  He has a middle man who works from another town who handles the sales of his saris and we would have to work through him.  This wasn’t a severe problem but Kitu has her heart set on purchasing the sari that she knows this particular weaver created.  As it happens, the warp threads he has now loaded on his loom are the most beautiful, intense, deep, rich purple/blue color and he has just completed a sari and it is ready to remove.  It was a great treat for me to see the process for removing it and it involves having about six inches of the next sari completed to provide stability to the exchange.  The sari he removed had a weft thread of violet so the two colors were unbelievably iridescent together and the gold threadwork on the sari was exquisite.  Kitu decided to try to find out if she could make arrangements to purchase this sari so Chittra dealt with the dealer by phone and they arrived at a price which was probably reasonable, though more than I personally would spend.  The newly removed piece would have to be ironed (I think this involved a blocking process) before Kitu could have it so we were making arrangements with Chittra to get it the next day to bring to the office when it occurred to Kitu that perhaps she might prefer the next sari on the loom, the one that so far was only about six inches complete.  The weaver was using the same color for the weft thread and I cannot even describe to you how vibrant this color is (though I wish I had the language for it).  The weaver, Chittra, and the weaver’s wife all tried to convince Kitu that the two color version was better – apparently the one color sari is for “rural” women – but Kitu decided that the other handloomed silk sari she purchased last week was two toned and this would provide a nice contrast.  Both were stunning so she really couldn’t make a bad decision.  She finally elected to wait for the one he is now weaving since he’ll be done by the time she arrives back from Kerala so there’s no significant delay. 

Kitu and I then went back to the shops in the area as I wanted to buy a couple small things I’d seen there before and it was rather fun energy on the streets on Friday night.  As we’re walking along there suddenly appears in front of us a small parade of children following two strange parade dolls (for lack of a better descriptor) the type used for parades in South America.  I really had to run through crazy traffic to catch up and try to get ahead for photos but the pair stopped in front of the funny looking police station there and began dancing to a drummer.  Hopefully the photos will be worth posting.  Initially there were only children interested but once I began taking photos, quite a crowd collected.  I was as much a draw, I believe, as the dancing figures.  It is surprising to me how excited the folks in Arrapukutti can get over foreigners since they so often have them just half an hour down the road.  We finally extricated ourselves from the masses and made it to the bus stop, which was strangely empty.  Turns out the bus stopped moved across the street since we were there two weeks ago – good thing Kitu had the sense to ask.  We made it back safely on a very full bus – but it was a pleasant journey and the interactions with folks was amusing as usual.  It’s always an adventure here – which is amazing for a small rural area.  Perhaps everything just seems like an adventure to me.  Unfortunately some weird setting on my camera had been inadvertently pushed and all my pictures were fuzzy.  It took almost half an hour for me to figure out how to reset the system to defaults so at least I'm back in business.

An example of how things happen all around me without my understanding is the other Muthu was working and her small son was there (he’ll be two next month and is such a cutie).  She suddenly put down her work and said she had to take him to eat.  Next thing I know she’s back and I notice he’s eating a big piece of cake and has frosting all over his face.  I ask and it’s birthday cake.  I’m still confused why she had this rush to go get him birthday cake and we finally sort out that there’s a bell outside (I hadn’t even noticed) that signals some child has a birthday and you can come out and get a piece of their cake.  Birthdays here seem to be more about giving cake than getting presents.  I never noticed the ringing bell and would never have realized it meant someone had cake available.  How often have I missed such events happening around us here because we just aren’t aware?  Another example is last week when we were coming back from Kodaikanal we stopped in a small place outside of Madurai to drop Elavarasu’s cousin off at his home.  As we were leaving Elavarasu pointed out a poster on an energy transformer on the street outside their home, telling us this was his uncle (Jayaraj’s brother).  He shows us a second one just down the road.  We then find out these posters were commemorating the one year anniversary of his death.  All this time I’ve seen posters all over and assumed they were politicians or something and likely many were similar remembrances.  Not being able to read the language certainly added to this lack of understanding, but I believe that I could be here for years and still find out I was missing vital pieces of the culture.  Probably a good lesson for me.

Another communication issue arose when I tried to talk to Sathya about her work here to get an idea of whether this opportunity is really a good be for her, something important to me to fully understand if this enterprise is doing good for the intended recipients.  Sathya had worked picking groundnuts (peanuts) the days prior to starting with the project.  She told me it was hot, backbreaking work and that it tore up her hands – and showed me how rough the top of her index finger was.  When asked, she said twisting the plants was very painful for her hands and that they had even bled from the effort.  Wanting to know if this work had been better paying – just to know if the present job is an improvement in that area since it obviously provides better work conditions – I asked how much she made per day.  Seems like a simple question – but poor Sathya couldn’t answer it that easily.  With Usha’s attempt to translate and both trying to figure out ways to explain this, I was able to determine that she was not paid in cash but for every 50 liters of groundnuts she picked she was allowed to keep 10 liters (I think this was actually kilos but this is what I got as an answer).  Then the question was whether she would use or sell the groundnuts, and it appears she will keep them.  In order to determine market price appropriately, I tried to get to what this amount of groundnuts was worth, but then learned that she doesn’t use the groundnuts as such, she will press the nuts for groundnut oil.  She couldn’t even tell me accurately how much she kept at the end of each day – not sure if she didn’t know the amount or just couldn’t figure out how to answer so I would understand.  Still trying to get at a monetary value (why am I so determined?), I am eventually told that she has never pressed groundnuts to oil so doesn’t know how much she will get, and therefore cannot answer what this is worth.  The exchange took ten minutes of rather frustrating conversation.  I, foolishly, thought I would just get a simple answer like 100 rupies which would make it easy to compare that income to her present one.  My main lesson – nothing is simple in India…

Tomorrow Kate and Ramsey leave Tiruchuli long term and Kitu will head for her vacation in Kerala.  It will be different to be the only volunteer here for my remaining time but I will be busy and can manage.  I know Jayama will make extra efforts to keep me company as she did this when I was the only one here for a couple days.  I also have my kitten to provide some companionship.  She now has a name, Neela, Tamil for Moon.  She always trails around after me and I started singing “I’m being followed by a moonshadow” by Cat Stevens which seems appropriate somehow.  The ODAM staff seem to have adopted Neela pretty well and the ODAM cat, now called Gus at least by the volunteers, accepts her more than I would have hoped for.  By the time I leave she will be able to drink the packet milk and will be much less dependent on me as a surrogate mother so I think I served my purpose for her.

That’s most of the news for now.  Hope you find your lives as joy filled and exciting as I find mine.

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