Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Northern Exposure

Google maps said it would take us 1.5 hours to reach Almora from Pantnagar airport. It took us 5 hours. And so began our  relationship with Panchachuli Women Weavers where you always get more than you bargained for. 

Nestled in the mountains of Kumaon in one of the northernmost states in india, Almora is an unassuming  little town that is  home to the cooperative, Panchachuli Women Weavers. When Navroze first mentioned Panchachuli to me, my first thought  was, “where the hell is Almora?!” Needless to say, the location piqued my interest and I quickly drew a picture in my head of a small, sleepy organization in a small, sleepy North Indian hillstation town where a handful of women  work hard at their looms to earn a day’s honest pay. 

A month later Navroze, his daughter Sonali, and I find ourselves on the road, counting the minutes, then the hours, as we make our way from Pantnagar airport to where-the-hell-is-Almora. The car jostles down unpaved roads, climbs up steep slopes, flies merrily around sharp mountain curves and finally deposits us, ashen-faced, in front of our residence in Almora five hours later. It takes precisely two minutes  for the adrenaline rush from the ride to be replaced  by euphoria as we take in our surroundings. We are in heaven.

As far as the eye can see  majestic mountains fill the landscape. Thick clouds gorged with rain drape the peaks while down on the slopes, flora flourishes under the warmth of the sun’s rays. It is the monsoon season, and here in Almora, the temperature is surprisingly  cold. I can’t wait to visit Panchachuli. I am already envious of the women weavers for the incomparable beauty of their surroundings. 

Panchachuli Women Weavers was started by a dynamic woman, Mukti Dutta in 1990. With the help of a few master weavers in the region, Mukti motivated local women to learn the art of weaving pashmina and lambswool fashion accessories. Her goal, then and now, was to empower them through vocational skills and a source of steady income. Starting with an arduous journey to Tibet, from where she sourced high quality pashmina wool, to the painstaking task of introducing and sustaining a new livelihood for the people, Mukti can be credited with changing the lives of hundreds of women in Kumaon. Today, Panchachuli employs over 800 women from 32 villages in the region, all of whom are involved in various stages of processing and dyeing raw wool; then producing exquisite woven and knitted products. 

I had got the picture in my head all wrong. This wasn’t a small, sleepy organization run by a handful of women. This was a vibrant, active, enterprising community of hundreds of women working together, sharing meals, gossiping, laughing and smilingly evading my camera as I tried in vain to capture on film their overwhelming solidarity. 

Munni Didi is the organizing force behind these women. A master weaver herself, she has worked with Mukti over the decades to inspire and retain the women who now comprise Panchachuli Women Weavers. She is probably in her mid fifties,  a tad shy but with a ready smile, and she was eager to introduce me to every aspect of the organization. 

There is an energy at Panchachuli that I’m struggling to convey in words. Perhaps it’s the brilliance of the brightly colored clothes the women wear, or their quiet chatter or the constant hum of the handlooms or perhaps it’s the unison of all forces at play that is so overpowering and endearing that words fall short. My camera clicks away as I pass from one group of women to the next, taking in the work they were doing; some alone, some in groups, some weaving, others sewing, sorting, drawing…. bursts of giggles greet me as my lens follow different faces, different hands, different souls at work.  

It’s now early evening. A bell sounds to inform one and all that the day’s work is over. As its deep resonance fills the mountain air, women come pouring out in twos and threes, holding hands, laughing, talking, sharing stories of the day. Outside, there are buses waiting to take them home. 

Familiar faces pass me. I smile and wave good bye. I watch them fill the streets and think to myself, what a feeling it must be to know you’re part of a quiet revolution. I am envious. 

For more stories on my trips across India click here.

1 comment:

  1. The real beauty is, you Are a part of this revolution. Well done as always Taaps... already looking forward to the next.
    ps- Happy Valentines Day ;-)