Saturday, November 26, 2011

Three Crafty Women

“Kaise ho, chacha (how are you, uncle)?!” yelled Mukti Datta to a townsman as she expertly maneuvered her jeep along the narrow hill road. My heart was in my mouth as I watched an oncoming car squeeze past, sharing the 10 foot wide unbarricaded road with us. But not Mukti. This half Belgian, half Indian woman of steel was something else altogether, and she made me a little nervous. 

“No, I don’t get lonely. There is so much to do here.” Saraswati’s quiet words pierced through me as I tried to make sense of her primitive surroundings- all of two little cottages divided by a vegetable patch, two youthful trees, a make-shift toilet and a hand pump for water. Oh, and the perk of no electricity after sundown! “I left Italy when I was 22 and came to India. I knew then as I know now that this is home. Why do I need to go back?“ she asked me simply. I looked around and had no answer. What does it take for a woman from a foreign land to make a remote village in South India her home for 40 years? I did not understand her. 

“Madam, khana lagaon (Madam, should I serve the food)?” The manservant respectfully bowed down and whispered softly into the Queen Mother’s ear. Her Highness Satvashiladevi Bhosle, or Rajmata (Queen Mother) as she is fondly called, adjusted her purple sari over her head, discreetly nodded and continued talking to me. “Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was my favorite guest,” Rajmata said with a smile. “He was so particular about how Indira carried herself.” She was referring to Indira Gandhi, his daughter who later followed in her father’s footsteps and became the Prime Minister of India in 1966. I had only read about both Prime Ministers in history books, yet here I was, seated with royalty, listening to a personal tale about having them as house guests. Rajmata wasn’t bedecked in jewels nor did she have a tiger as a pet (a disappointment to my active imagination), but she exuded grace and pride. She was a proper lady and I was in awe. 

My most recent whirlwind trip across India in search of unique handicrafts introduced me to such an eclectic mix of people, that I was still reeling from all the life lessons by the time I  touched down again at Mumbai airport. 

On the one hand,  there was the tomboy Mukti Datta, a force to be reckoned with, who almost singlehandedly spearheaded the movement that now provides a livelihood for over 1000 women in the hills of Kumaon in North India. With the help of master weavers like Kunthi Martiola and the Danny Kaye and Silvia Fine Foundation, Mukti set up Panchachuli Women Weavers in 1990. Today  the organization produces exquisite pashmina and lambswool scarves and shawls that are in great demand throughout the world.. Mukti lives in Binsar, about 30 kms from where her organization is located and when I met her during the monsoons, she was spending an hour and a half commuting that distance across muddy slopes and around hairpin bends, all in the blinding rain. I bravely hitched a ride with her back to the resort and by the time I got there, I was convinced there was no getting the mountain life out of this woman. Half Belgian she might be but she speaks Kumaoni, the local language, with a flair my grandmother would have appreciated (believe it or not, she was from this part of the world too). Mukti knows everyone, speaks of leopards roaming the hillsides and offers a ride to any local who asks. I could see how Panchachuli Women Weavers got to where it is today- they are riding on the back of their very own tigress.

…And on the other hand, I met the reticent Saraswati, a 60-something Italian woman who left her home at 22 to start afresh in South India. I was in Belgaum, Karnataka to visit an organization that promotes the weaving of jute and coir bags amongst a few women’s cooperatives in neighboring villages. It was only because we had time to spare that my guide suggested we stop over at Saraswati’s house/ashram on our way back to Belgaum. It was approaching darkness by the time we got to her place and when she first walked out, I was taken aback by her simplicity. Clad in a traditional midi (similar to a kaftan), with green glass bangles on her wrists and with her oiled hair loosely tied, she looked like a local villager. She had even taken an Indian name, Saraswati, meaning the goddess of knowledge, music and the arts.  It was only when her four year old granddaughter came running out that I realized she had not only raised her family here, but could also converse fluently in Kannada, the state language! Saraswati told me that the land on which her house was built was gifted to her by her Guruji, her mentor. She and her family use one cottage while the other is a working space for the women artisans to complete the bag making process. It is also used as an ashram when travelers stop by her village. I struggled to understand where Saraswati came from. Here was a woman who had voluntarily given up a life of comfort to live a rustic, hard life in a village where she was a stranger.  But the more I watched her talk, act and react, I saw that that was not the case anymore. She is very comfortable in her space. She is where she wants to grow old; with her plants, her family, her women weavers and her hand pump. She is at peace. It is I who struggles to understand, creating  chaos in the calm.

Thinking of  these two women my travels had introduced me to, I chanced upon royalty during the final leg of my journey to the city of Sawantwadi, located in the southernmost tip of Maharashtra in Western India. The Queen Mother completed the trinity of extraordinary women that I met. I say chanced because when I networked with her daughter-in-law in Mumbai, she never mentioned to me that they lived at the Sawantwadi Palace or that she had married into the royal Bhonsle family that once ruled the erstwhile  Kingdom of Sawantwadi. Imagine my surprise when ‘our meeting’ happened amidst  sweeping lawns, butlers, chauffeurs and of course, Rajmata (Queen Mother). Rajmata is herself a noted artist as well as a patroness of local arts. The craft of making round playing cards known as ganjifa is almost three hundred years old and involves the painstaking process of handpainting each card with unique iconographic illustrations. Because of the intensive laborinvolved in the technique and the disintegration of princely states in India, this craft (which was promoted by royal families across India)  faces the danger of extinction. Today, thanks to the perseverance of Rajmata, Ganjifa art is still being practiced and Sawantwadi boasts of being the only place in India where this technique  is still flourishing. Rajmata has opened up the Royal Darbar (audience hall) for ganjifa artists to work out of, she ensures they get monthly wages and has used her network of contacts to keep domestic and international buyers interested in the craft. I could see she is proud of her artisans and the work they are doing. Rajmata struck me an active, confident woman who despite her advancing age has a goal to achieve- to keep the art of Ganjifa alive for as long as she can. And I am in awe of her conviction to succeed. 

Reeling from all the life lessons I had learned, it came as no surprise  that I was overwhelmed by the time I returned home to Mumbai. I had traveled from the north to the south, and then to the west of the country and while my search for new crafts had yielded a rich harvest, more stirring were my encounters with these three women. Be it Mukti traveling to Tibet for the best quality wool or Saraswati’s open door policy with women cooperatives or Rajmata reminiscing about royalty playing Ganjifa cardgames, each woman has worked her environment to provide the utmost support for local artisans. In the process she has given of herself so that her own personality is woven into the craft to which she is committed.  And in a country with a population of 1.1 billion and counting, these three exceptional women surely are a minority worth emulating.

For more stories on my trips across India click here.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Theatrics in the Theatre

“O-per-a-ted.” She enunciated each syllable slowly. 

“I am going to get operated.” Even slower this time. But she wasn’t feeling the punch. There had to be a rumble. From deep within her. Remember vocal lessons? It had to come from the stomach.

I-am-going-to-get-operated-now!” So much better. 

So it was no big deal. “Simple procedure.” The doctor had shrugged it off as a simple procedure. Except she’d never been on the operating table before. Ever.

She put her hand to her chest. “Breathe,” she told herself. “Simple procedure. One hour. You might as well be watching an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.”

“Oh good,” she lifted her head off the pillow as the nurse walked in. “Finally time for the surgery.”

“How are we feeling today?”

“Antiseptic,” she felt like saying. Instead she smiled back.

“Can I walk to the OT?” She was testing the waters. “Really. My legs work. See?” There, the wiggling of the toes.

“Oh no! Oh no, no, no! Nobody walks to the theatre!” The smile faltered. “You have to lie down, ok?” She almost seemed put off, in a way.

She could hear the squeal of rubber tires as her bed was wheeled out. There’s the elevator she had ridden up to her floor. STANDING. Like one big happy family, she (in her bed) and seven others with ‘visitor’ tags snugly fit in. 

“Oh, you poor thing.” She could almost hear them. Like the sad clown at every circus, she was one to be sympathized, not empathized with. Four floors later, she heaved a sigh of relief. She was finally wheeled away from those prying eyes searching for an abnormality.  

There ahead were the big, blue doors of the Operation Theatre. She announced her entrance with squeaks and squeals. The stage was set. Soft yellow light, spring cleaned walls and strangers in PJs.

She was shifted to the operating table. Someone put an oxygen mask over her mouth, someone whispered “anesthetist”, someone checked the instruments. Everyone played a role. Theatrics.

 “We’re just going to strap your arms here,” said someone. The table had sprouted extensions.  “So they don’t hang limp,” continued that someone as he velcroed her arms mechanically (limp arms were a regular occurrence).

Finally, she was all strapped up, arms open wide, eyes open wide, waiting for the Act to begin. As was the rest of the cast. Except, the lead actor was still on her way.

One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi…

“Were doctors often late for their own surgeries?” she wondered as she stared at the ceiling, stifled a yawn and accommodated a fantasy. 

“Just try to relax. You’re going to feel a little drowsy now.”

The lights swim before her eyes. Yellow burns brighter. McDreamy leans over and says, “Don’t worry. You’re in good hands.” His rugged face breaks into a smile, she sighs and shuts her eyes. The audience breaks into a thunderous applause. He was going to save her life!!!

“Muqabla, Muqabla, Laila Oh Ho Laila…” Prabhudeva????!

Her eyes snapped open. She jerked her head around. A cellphone?! A goddamn cellphone in the Operation Theatre?! She didn’t know what exasperated her more- the phone, the ringtone or the fact that she’d fallen asleep while anesthesia was around. 

She stared at the clock on the wall. Had it really only been 5 minutes? It’s no wonder time seemed to drag. Entertainment wasn’t top priority here. In fact, contrary to the good chaps at Grey’s, the only handsome hunk in this sick room seemed to be, allegedly, a nurse’s suitor, now plastered onto her phone’s wallpaper. 

“Isn’t he ekdum mast?! They came home yesterday for the rishta,” she giggled to her companion in Marathi.

Aga, be careful of these Nagpur boys. You don’t know…..” Their voices trailed off or perhaps she had shut them out. It might as well have been the waiting room of a beauty parlor. Except she was strapped to a bed. And they were missing a doctor.

And just when she was going to have another exasperation-inducing sleeping session, the stainless steel doors parted and the doctor waltzed in, playing her part with panache. Handbag expertly thrown into waiting hands, she glided into an open gown, tied her sash, adjusted her mask, disinfected her hands and materialized beside the expectant patient.

“Sorry I’m late. Bombay traffic!” A theatrical sigh.

“Oh, no trouble at all!” She said. She wanted to say, “A minute longer and you wouldn’t have needed anesthesia to keep me asleep.” But she didn’t. It would have spoiled the show.

“Should we get started?” The lead actor nodded to the anesthetist. “Just try to relax. You’re going to feel a little drowsy now.”

The lights swam before her eyes. Yellow burned brighter. McDreamy leaned over.

The show had begun.