Posted by Nivedita Banerji, Bagli Tehsil, Dewas district of Madhya Pradesh
The air trembled with the roar of sewing machines as seam after seam looped out. Eyes were fixed on needles moving at an invisible frequency. Yards of fabric, millions of colours, spools of thread, boxes brimming over with shirts and dresses to be sent, there were heaps of ironing, and the hiss of steam, people running between the rows to keep up the feverish pace of production. We were racing to finish orders and send them off – before the financial year ends, before the summer turns into a blaze, before the mahua flowers start falling, and the tendu leaves are ready to be plucked, before the marriage season begins and before it’s time to start preparing the land for sowing. We were in the middle of March 2020.
Then one day, just like that, everything stopped. No warning. The country abruptly froze in total lockdown.
As uncertain days blurred into weeks and months, we worried. Suddenly more than Rs. 62 lakhs worth of confirmed orders waiting to be despatched, were not picked by our major buyer at the last minute because of the lockdown. Then consignments that had already been despatched were returned by them. Fabric suppliers began clamouring for payments, so we took out all our reserves to pay them. Over the years they had become our valued partners, giving us long periods of credit out of consideration and respect for our work.
Without this money, how could we give work? How would the artisans of Kumbaya survive? How many days would the relief package and cash transfers stretch? We knew that most of the women were the only paid workers in their families. The rest were landless, entirely dependent on wage work, or else came from families with small landholdings.
For Kamala Bai from Bhikupura village, Kumbaya is not just a source of livelihood. As a young girl she learned stitching here as far back as 2001. She returned in 2013 after her marriage, when she moved to village Bhikupura nearby. In a gruesome and ill-fated incident, her husband passed away leaving her to take care of their children and his parents. Kumbaya provided unconditional support, and a place for friendships where she found strength and safety. Working at Kumbaya gave her the courage to stand up to her in-laws who were trying to throw her out of the house. Her earnings helped her buy them out finally. Sitting in the small mud house she owns, she despaired as the weeks went by and kept talking of going in search of work to Indore. She has two young children to feed.
Shivani has been working in Kumbaya since she was 18. For 7 years she firmly resisted family pressure, refusing to get married and managed to keep working in Kumbaya. This summer she had to stop saying no. As soon as the lockdown opened, she was hastily married off to a family in Indore.
Laxmi was trained in quality assurance, to check each piece carefully as it came off a sewing machine, accepting the perfect ones and returning the ones with mistakes for correction. Looking into Laxmi’s eyes, one sees her mother Geeta, one of the first women who came to Kumbaya back in 1997 because she had been abandoned by Laxmi’s father when she stepped on a live electric fence accidentally and the electrocution permanently twisted and burnt her foot. She had a limp and could not work in the fields. Kumbaya was started for women like Geeta. When she started earning regularly at Kumbaya, the husband begged her to return, and so Laxmi was born. Twenty years later Laxmi joined Kumbaya, and what a feeling of achievement it was for all of us; to have lasted out all these years, against all odds, and still be there to stand up for our daughters.
But in May, Laxmi did not return. She went back to working as agricultural labour. Just like Tulsa, who had shifted to Punjapura village close by so that she could work at Kumbaya and send her children to school, but then in this period of uncertainty, had to go back to her ancestral village to work in the fields. Manisha was sent off by her parents to work in a factory in Indore. She was a part of Kumbaya for the last 5 years. Many others could not come back, there were no buses on the road, there was the risk of catching COVID-19, and the marriage season broke out – where hordes of people from red zones like Indore and Dewas travelled to our area increasing the risk of infection. Even then, there were still many women who did not want to go to the marriages, desperate to come back to work. But their family members would not understand.
It was the first time in twenty five years, the Kumbaya Bhavans were closed for more than a week, and for the first time ever, we did not have the money to pay our artisans. Yet, risking everything through the lockdown in April, May and June, Pushpa went from house to house across villages twenty kilometres apart, to deliver work to those artisans who could not walk. Pushpa is the head of operations at all three centres of Kumbaya. Just like everyone else, she learned how to stitch here twenty years ago.
Then 41000 women came to our rescue, and gave us an order for a hundred thousand masks in July! Each one is a member of the 14 Women’s Federations promoted by Samaj Pragati Sahayog! These Federations are formed by thousands of women and their Self Help Groups. This generous order was given by women who are struggling, themselves. They are all from poor families and marginalised communities; but who’s combined savings, painstakingly collected month after month and year after year, have the strength to leverage enough loans from public sector banks to provide for everyone’s needs – consumption, emergencies, health, livelihoods, housing, education. This order came at a time when we needed it the most, when we were facing a dead end. The women could have easily bought masks in the market, but chose to express solidarity and support Kumbaya instead.
The Kumbaya Bhavans came alive. We bought 800 kilos of dead stock from fabric dealers in Indore. We did not want to put our producers at risk by making them travel in public buses, so Pushpa made sure that cut fabric reached as many producers as possible so that they could stitch masks from home. Some producers even bought sewing machines so that they could continue working. Through the monsoon rain, women walked and cycled to reach the Bhavans. Some even coaxed family members to drive them on motorcycles to work and back.
Banno has been with Kumbaya for the last twelve years, during which she was married, widowed, and left with the responsibility of looking after her own parents as well as her husband’s. She said, “When work started again at the Bhawan, I could not reach because there were no buses. So I took a loan and bought a second-hand scooter so that I can work again”.
A hundred thousand masks provided employment to many of our producers for over a month. This order stands like a beacon, where federations of poor women create employment opportunities for other marginalized women of the area, an example of the power of women’s solidarity and resilience in extremely tough times. We have done many orders over the years, for city stores and designers from India and overseas. But making a hundred thousand masks for the women of our area was sacred. It was the most precious, the most distinguished order of all, that Kumbaya was honoured and privileged by. What will remain as an abiding flame in the heart of Kumbaya is that 41000 women gave us a hand to help us up. How can we not believe in women?
Kumbaya empowers poor women and people of disability with the art of stitching. It is the brand name for apparel, patchwork home linen and accessories, designed to market specifications and international trends. Located deep in the tribal drylands of Bagli Tehsil, Dewas district of Madhya Pradesh for the last twenty six years, Kumbaya has been standing up for the right to women’s economic empowerment, seeking to transform and strengthen women’s lives through the power of design. Kumbaya is also deeply committed to people of disability, women and men who are unable to contribute manual labour in an agricultural area thus leading to their marginalization and abandonment. Kumbaya is supported by Samaj Pragati Sahayog, an organisation working on natural resource management, livelihoods, microfinance and the empowerment of women. The unique significance of Kumbaya is that it based in one of the poorest, most backward, predominantly agrarian rural regions of India, where there were no traditional marketable crafts or any history of manufacturing. Today over a 100 women from marginalized communities work in Kumbaya Producer Company Limited, where employment was guaranteed for 300 days a year.
Cover Image : PBS
Story image : Author
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