One cold January morning, Sonali and I found ourselves in the beautiful city of Udaipur, in Rajasthan. We were there to visit Sadhna, an organization that is responsible for providing a livelihood to over 625 women in and around the area, by teaching them traditional Rajasthani applique and tanka embroidery. Thus far, communication with them had been limited to a few emails and phone calls; we knew of some of the products they carried and were briefly aware of their work with the Rajasthani women. We were invited there by Leela Vijayvergia, now the Chief Executive at Sadhna, who was instrumental in setting up Sadhna as the income generation arm of an NGO called Seva Mandir in 1988.
Leelaji is a very happy person. Literally, very happy. She regaled us with tales of how she helped start Sadhna- from identifying women to train in the craft of embroidery, conducting workshops to introduce the craft, empowering groups of women with the right to manage their affairs and finally taking on the mantle of being the Chief Executive at the organization. Sadhna stood out for us because all the women involved with it played a role in the management of the organization’s affairs- and were great at it too! All artisan members are part of Sadhna’s General Body, which meets once a year to discuss issues and share their experiences. Elected representatives make up Sadhna’s Managing Committee and two of those representatives are part of the Board of Trustees! The more I heard Leelaji talk about the influence of the women artisans on the management of Sadhna, the more in awe I was of these silent heroes.
It wasn’t just Leelaji who was smiling by the time we got into the car and made our way to the artisan groups. It was hard for anyone to ignore the excitement in our voices and for once, I felt like a tourist in my own country. Udaipur is a beautiful city, one of the prettiest I have seen in India. Lakes dot the city landscape, palace reflections fill the waters, the air is nippy and the mood laid back. Leelaji suggested we visit Delwara, 27 kms away from the city where Sadhna’s oldest and most active group was. 13 of the 43 members of Sadhna’s Managing Committee came from this village, each of whom was responsible for the training and support of about 15 women artisans.
Sonali and I were welcomed with open arms into the group that had gathered to meet us. Despite language being a barrier, a lot was said and more was understood. The women were eager to share their stories; their new skills, their stronger roles in society, their contribution to their children’s education and their desire to rope in more women into Sadhna. Our objections fell on deaf ears as tea, biscuits and salty snacks were laid out for us. My voracious appetite made up for Sonali’s sensitive stomach and the women were pleased. During the course of the day, Sonali and I visited three women’s groups in total, each one as strong as a family unit. Kids played around their mothers while they worked, there was gossip floating in the air, problems were being discussed and solutions offered from amongst themselves.
By the time we made our way back to Sadhna’s head office in Udaipur, the sun was setting and lakes shimmered in gold as our car skirted the waters. The women we met were probably cooking dinner for their families, their half embroidered pieces kept aside for another day’s work. WORK. That’s the key word. Sadhna has provided these women work when there was seemingly none. These women can’t leave their homes or their village to find work outside. Without Sadhna, they would have been sitting at home, cooking, cleaning, taking care of their children….and killing time. Now, they are being trained- not just in embroidery styles that are generations old, but also in the areas of business enterprise and community management. These are all strong women, because the decision to change the course of one’s life cannot be an easy one, yet 625 women in Udaipur are making this choice everyday. And where Sadhna first put out its hand to help them stand on their feet, today 625 women are helping each other stand, walk, and even run.