“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.