A Hundred Hands

index_02A Hundred Hands is a non-profit organization based in Bangalore whose mission is to “help those directly involved in the creation of handmade art, crafts and homemade foods, to earn a fair and sustainable livelihood from their work”.

During my time here, various Srishti faculty and students have suggested a number of shops and towns in and around Bangalore that focus on producing and selling handmade goods. A few weeks ago, I was telling a colleague here that I was interested in purchasing some handmade gifts for friends and coworkers in the states. She suggested that I check out the Handmade Collective fair taking place in the city from December 3 -7 on Cubbon Road.

new_01The Handmade Collective fair is one of many events A Hundred Hands organizes each year to provide a visible market for local artisans and craftspeople.  Yesterday I stopped into the fair, taking place in the parking lot of St. Andrew’s Church, just a short walk from my place.  Each year, the fair has a broad theme – this year it was poetry, meaning many of of products on sale were inspired by prose. The entrance fee was a mere 30 rupees – or just under 50 US cents.  The fair space was small but the vendors were packed in.  Each stand was manned by the makers and their staff or helpers.  I spoke with every craftsperson and artisan whose goods I purchased that day.  The spread was incredible – leather and hand sewn bags, products made from repurposed materials, hand paintings, homemade soaps, hand carved wooden toys, and of course hand made weavings and clothes.  The variety was expansive and the vendors were friendly and enthusiastic to talk with each customer – and I should mention it was quite busy.

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There are many market-like spaces in the city and you can’t really turn a corner without seeing someone selling their wares on the sidewalk but this fair was different in some keys ways. A Hundred Hands organized the funding, space, marketing, and venue for the event.  Funders included for-profit businesses that sold some of these goods in their retail spaces, foundations, and a IMG_0646real estate       group.

Most significantly, the prices for items were largely fixed – meaning there was no bargaining for goods.  Price bargaining is almost an art in India – tourists from the west are often startled and uncomfortable with this practice – and local vendors often take advantage of this discomfort by inflating their normal prices by 2, 3 or even 10 times the usual cost.  At the fair, this element of valuing goods was removed – offering a pleasant experience for consumers and a fair IMG_0644market price for vendors on every sale.

In addition to the fair, A Hundred Hands offers a range of other vital services to its members including connections with retailers, workshops and seminars, online and onsite venues for sales, and networking opportunities for makers to share resources and skills with each other. Since they say it best,  I’ll end this IMG_0645post with the values that drive this organization and hope that you’ll consider supporting their work from where ever you are reading this.

 

A Hundred Hands is driven by what they call the four “l”s:

  • Innovate: Evolve and reinvent products, designs, mediums and experiences
  • Interact: Participate! Encourage young people to develop a love of working with their hands and older ones to develop or reignite a hobby.
  • Inform: Build sensitivity and appreciation not only for the end result of handmade work but also the process and effort involved.
  • Include: Transcend social and economic barriers to build community of artists and like-minded individuals

 

 

 

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The land of silk (and a little cotton)

IMG_0525On Thursday, we took our class to a small town outside of Bangalore, Vijaypura, to visit the Sri Nandi Khadi Gramodyoga workshop – a government certified khadi producer (they make the fabric for the production of the official Indian flag). In contemporary culture, khadi is considered any handspun cloth including cotton, silk and wool.  The area around Bangalore is specifically known for its fine silks and this small factory of makers produced some of the finest material I had ever seen.

The entire operation was run by one workshop manager, who had been weaving silk into fabric and saris for over 20 years. He gave our class an amazing walk through of the space. This workshop harvested the silk from the cocoons of silk worms, spun the silk into thread, and transformed these materials into beautiful hand woven saris.  The only two parts of the process the workshop did not do “in house” was cultivating the silk worms (that took place across the road and in neighboring town) and dying the threads (which also took place in the surrounding towns).

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Hand loom machine

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Weaver making a black and pink silk sari

A few quick facts about production:

  • This workshop has been operating for about 20 years.
  • Skilled weavers are trained in range of places and come from around southern India to work here.
  • There were approximately 10-14 looms operating at any one time.
  • Each weaver (about 20 on staff there) can produce 2-3 silk saris each week on one loom. Each loom can take anywhere from 6-12 days to prepare to make one type/design of sari.
  • Designs for each sari are prepared by the workshop manager based on what the market demands – from simple one-color pieces to elaborate designs.
  • The workshop also makes silk fabric for custom tailors and shops.
  • The women who harvest the silk (about 30 work at this location) from cocoons work in pairs. Each pair produces, on average, 1 kilogram of silk each day, which requires 2 kilograms of cocoons to make.
Silk cocoon

Silk cocoon

 

Like many of the experiences I am having here, it is difficult to describe the visceral nature of this visit. The workshop building was small, with 5 distinct areas – two for loom work, one for harvesting the silk, one for spinning the silk into thread, and a space for collecting the spun and dyed silk onto spools for the looms.

 

 

 

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The silk harvesting room. Women laborers pulling silk from cocoons.

Women harvesting silk were standing and squatting over pots of boiling water sandwiched between the heat of the basins and the heat on the spools that were drying the raw pulled silk.  When I say heat, I mean live wood fire burning pits – uncovered and open in front of and behind these women. December is one of the coolest times of the year so you can imagine what the spring and summer months might feel like.  I was taken by the lack of safety measures  – women wearing flowing nylon saris, no gloves or protective gear, no barriers to open flames, and women actually dipping their bare hands into boiled water to pick and pull the silk from the cocoons.  Given the hospitality the workshop manager was showing us, it wasn’t appropriate for me to ask about wages but it was clear, these women made the least and their labor conditions were the most physically challenging by far.

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Spun silk ready for the looms. The gold silk is dyed in Surat, Gujarat – the only place these kinds of dyes are done.

That said, its also important to remember that this factory provided much needed employment to the village community – women (and men) who might not otherwise be able to get work. Coming from the states, you can’t help but compare the conditions between here and at home. Its literally different worlds and unlike the poor in the United States, these rural communities have very little access to any kind of programs and support. In fact, this silk workshop was a government-sanctioned and certified production unit so in some ways, this is the best the community could hope for without access to education and other basic resources.  (Fortunately, I did not see any children working in the unit- though I have run across this regularly during my time here in stores and on the street).

unspun cotton

unspun cotton

 

In addition to silk, the workshop also produced some cotton threads and fabrics, sourcing unspun cotton from local farmers. Fortunately the workshop manager was able to sell us a few kilos to spin in class.

 

As an American, it was both heartbreaking and inspiring to see this work. Witnessing the amount of labor and skills that go into silk production and fabric making was incredible but realizing that there are hundreds of thousands of artisans and laborers like this around India making materials we buy at premium prices everyday was shocking – we know the money doesn’t go to them.  My next post is going to look at a non-profit organization here in Bangalore that is trying to help laborers and craftspeople like this to make a sustainable living from their work.

 

 

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The Bangalore Feel

Pick up cricket game at sundown in Richmond Town

Pick up cricket game at sundown in Richmond Town

Bangalore is a big city with a million small charms. Over the weekend, I started to get a better sense of the geography of the city allowing me to wander around more comfortably. Unlike other large cities in India, Bangalore is actually recognized as one of the more structured and “calm” urban areas – the traffic is more organized, there are walkable sidewalks (mostly), and although its crowded everywhere, it still feels like there is space to move.

A well lit intersection

A well lit intersection

Bangalore embodies the metaphor of a city as a living, breathing organism. Street vendors crowd the sidewalks, rickshaws weave through traffic, and you can’t escape the seemingly neverending swirls of dust that embrace every street and corner of this place.  All those challenges come with some amazing benefits – the smell of spices linger in the air as you walk down the street, handmade items readily available everywhere, and at any given time, you can stumble across something sensational (see intersection pictured here). Alongside traditional vendors, you’ll find a fast food restaurants, cell phones shops, and even coffee shops on almost every street, creating a symphony of identities that weave the fabric of the city together – old and new everywhere you go.

IMG_0460I spent time in three distinct areas of the city this weekend,  Indira Nagar, Ashok Nagar, and Richmond Town.  I live in Ashok Nagar and had the pleasure of lunching at a popular local diner called Koshys.  Like any good diner, the menu was vast and presented on large laminated pages but the list of options was something this Indian American could only dream of in the states – with items ranging from masala chicken, roti, and biryani to ham sandwiches and eggs.  I ordered the chicken tikka masala and a naan – which came with a yogurt mix of onions and cucumbers and pickled chutney. I don’t have tell you it was delicious and extremely wallet friendly. The atmosphere was much like you’d expect – groups of families and friends ranging in age – mostly Indian.  It was both familiar and fascinating.

IMG_0484Down the street from the diner was a place called Blossom Books.  One of the few items I had my heart set on finding was a series of comic books that illustrated stories of various Hindu deities. These were the same comics my parents read to me when I was young. I remember learning about Lord Krishna’s love of cows, how Lord Ganesh acquired the head of an elephant, and how Sita was born out of the earth through these brightly illustrated narratives.   These are the stories that taught me about my own religion and culture and I wanted to acquire a small set to keep for myself.  At Blossom Books, I hit the jackpot and eagerly scooped up a few sets for me and some lucky young ones back in the states.

IMG_0437I also had the pleasure attending GallerySKE’s  fall opening for artist Anup Mathew Thomas. GallerySKE is considered one of the premier places for representing and exhibiting leading contemporary Indian artists and it did not disappoint. The gallery is housed in 100-year old house and grounds that was renovated to include a garden and courtyard. The gallery space was pristine with industrial concrete floors – the space seem to bring together the familiar white walls of Chelsea and the gritty urbanism of Bangalore. Like gallery openings all over the world, crowds of art enthusiasts including artists, students, and curators  gathered in the front courtyard to mingle, chat, and

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the creative crowd in Bangalore in the courtyard of GallerySKE

drink.   The show itself was a series of photographs documenting stories of places and people all over India – from a priest who resigned from this Catholic Church in a small village to the culture of funeral homes and casket sales in India.

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Inside GallerySKE

In addition to the gallery, SKE also has a project residency space in Richmond Town called TAJ. The residency is an airy two-story flat off Richmond Road (a large artery in the city), with 4-5 rooms that function as studio/living spaces for invited residents.  These 6-week residents are free to work on what ever research or projects they choose – from artists to economists, the residents include a wide range of disciplines that keeps the dialog interesting and active at all times. The residency director, Tara, is an Indian-American, who lived in New York for many years before moving back to India to start this space. We enjoyed an afternoon of conversation sharing thoughts about living in New York and comparing the art community here and there. I had to admit, she made Bangalore (and India in general) seem rather appealing.

IMG_0452Throughout the weekend, I was introduced to food from around the world. Bangalore is known as the foodie city of the country and it certainly lived up to that reputation. On Saturday I enjoyed a tasty Vietnamese meal at Phobidden Fruit in Indira Nagar, a spicy lunch at an Afghani restaurant in Shivaj Nagar and finally enjoyed one of my favorite Indian dishes, pani poori, at a street vendor that used filtered water (key for foreigners eating street food here).  As if that wasn’t enough, I also wandered into an Indian fast food chain with a friend where we shared a thali (a traditional set up of an indian meal that includes some type of bread, vegetable, yogurt and other items) for less than $6. It included gulab jamun – a favorite Indian dessert.

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Commercial Street

I ended my weekend wandering around Commercial Street for about 3 hours. Commercial Street is like nothing I have ever seen before – as the name suggests, its a large area for shopping. What I can’t fully explain is the density of shops, people, and goods. Rows and rows of shops stacked on top of each other with everything you could possibly imagine – saris, shoes, bindis, jewelry, purses, rugs, trinkets, and even finer goods like precious stones and gold.  The shops themselves also range in scope and size – from women sitting on the street with a small table of handmade beaded jewelry to large brightly lit shops where one can enjoy a tea while being shown an array of luscious fabrics and prints. The area is truly a smorgasbord for all the senses and I felt completely taken by everything around me.  I should also note that I did lots of shopping and I am confident my finds will bring smiles to my family and friends back home later this month.

There is so much more to see and experience in this bustling metropolis and though my time is limited I am looking forward to discovering more of the city and its charms in 13 days I have left.

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Khadi Trails: Spinning and Searching

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Photo credit: Niomi Vakil

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Some of our first spins setting


This week we finally started spinning in class. On Tuesday, I walked the students through the basics of the process and off they went. Like fish to water, many of them effortless began making even and beautiful lines of yarn.  As I walked around to help each student troubleshoot,  it was incredible to see how making transformed them – their faces animated  their hands working nimbly, and their minds racing to resolve mistakes at their bodies stayed in motion.

For our first attempt, we used acrylic that I brought over from New York.  Interestingly, we are having a hard time finding unspun cotton to make with. I’ve been told that that Bangalore isn’t a “cotton town”.   As our search continues I’m sure we’ll find what we need but its certainly been an unanticipated hiccup in the process!

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Students spinning in the studio courtyard

 

 

 

 

 

Photo credit: Siddhant Beriwal

Photo credit: Siddhant Beriwal

As part of their research, we asked the group to walk around various neighborhoods in Bangalore to get a sense of where khadi is sold and how its advertised to the public.  Each student was asked to document three instances of khadi for sale and interview at least one vendor to better understand how its seen within the local market.  Our class is keeping a private blog to document their work and I’m sharing a few images from their research here to give you sense of what they found.

Photo credit: Mariona Periera

Photo credit: Mariona Periera

Khadi soaps. Photo credit: Chabi Agrawal

Khadi soaps. Photo credit: Chabi Agrawal

Through interviews with vendors, some interesting facts emerged: One student discovered that khadi sales had increased  128% since Prime Minister Modi came into office (he wears a Nehru-style khadi jackets in public)  and another student learned that during the month of October (2nd), Gandhi’s birthday, Gandhians will purchase khadi to pay respect to their great leader. Some store owners knew every detail of how their khadi was made and others talked about how long they and their families have been selling khadi. Through their search, we found there is a small village near Bangalore where they spin and make silk and cotton – a field trip is already in the works.

In the coming days, we’ll be thinking more about what to do with the yarn we spin for the final exhibition. The group decided to ditch the DIY book project earlier this week – their research led them to realize that their contributions to the dialog would only be minimal considering how many resources for DIY already exist online.  For the final exhibition each student will be producing their own work (a few pairings as well) so starting this week, I’ll am having one-on-one meetings with each of them to discuss the development of their work.  I am already excited about the various directions our discussions and their own research has led them!

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a journal between us

I have kept a personal journal (or diary) for over a decade.  Around age 19, I began to use my journal as way to express my innermost thoughts, detail experiences and event, and well, release my youthful angst. As with most journals, the writing is for the writer. My entries had always been addressed to me, taking the shape of some kind of inner monologue or inquisition.  I suppose in some ways it has served as a way for me to converse with myself.

Weeks before my trip to India, I started reading over my journal from the last 2 two years (my journaling has slowed considerably so one book lasts many years now a days). I noticed that my entries had become much more about documentation, a way for me to remember a specific time or place in a certain way. My writing was to me and for me, ultimately documenting only one perspective of any given experience.  As I flipped through the pages it occurred to me that most of these documented experiences were in fact shared between me and other people.  I wondered, were my written memories of these experiences complete? Could my journal really function as any kind of authentic documentation with only one perspective?

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my journal for India

These questions led me to my current experiment – something I am calling ‘a journal between us’.  This project is an attempt to think more broadly about my time in India and find a shared way to remember it.  Interestingly, my time here is pretty individual but as with all my experiences, for me, what makes something come alive, become active, is the way I share it with others.

On the Sunday before my departure, I came up with a structure to journal in India that addressed the way I wanted to share my time here. The problem was that I was struggling with how to choose which people to include/invite to be part of the project – I could only invite 15-20 people to participate given the length of my trip and I wanted to include a wider range of people, more than just my closest friends.  Two nights before I left, a small group of my friends and colleagues gathered for a celebratory drink at one of my favorite local Brooklyn bars. As they arrived, my answer became clear – anyone that showed up that night would be invited to participate.

This may seem like an arbitrary way to choose participants for a project but the more I have thought about it, the more sharply focused it is to me.  Every person that came that evening is indeed a very present part of my New York life.  They are my friends, my colleagues, and in some cases, new interests- artists, educators, makers, and thinkers. Some of them I have known for four years and others for only a few months. All of them came that night to wish me well, to encourage me on this adventure. Whatever level of personal investment they may or may not have in me or this particular trip, each of them gave me a little bit of their time and energy to take with me.  Fittingly, 16 people showed up that evening – those are the 16 I invited.

For this experiment I laid out three main objectives:

1. Document my experience through a shared lense, in this case, my relationship with another person

2.  Invite others to document their time in New York, place being our most basic connection to each other, in response to me

3. Give each person some time back for the evening they gave me before I left – meaning that there should be an in person element to the project when I return

So what’s a journal between us look like?

1. Every other day I am in India I am writing one journal entry to a different invited participant. These entries will be directed towards them and take into consideration our relationship.  No entry is longer than two pages of my chosen journal for this trip (see image above). For each entry, I ask myself a simple question “If XX were sitting in front of me, what would I want to tell them about the last two days that would be of most interest to us?”

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the mailbox on my school campus where each journal entry will be sent from.

2. Entries will be hand written and mailed to participants, hopefully reaching them before I return.

3. Each participant is asked to write about two consecutive days of their life directed to me on the back of the entry they receive from me ( I purposely only wrote on the front side of each page).  Participants are welcome to write about any two consecutive days they want to and in whatever style or fashion they choose.

4. Upon my return, I will find a time to meet with each participant in person.  When we meet, I will retrieve the journal pages that will have my entry and theirs included. We’ll have a discussion about what I wrote to them and what they wrote back to me.

5. After all entries are retrieved, I will rebind the journal to create a chronological narrative that will serve as my personal journal for this trip.

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materials for the experiment

When I invited participants, I admitted to them that I do not really know what this is – a project, a personal exploration, art?  I still can’t tell you but I feel sure that when these entries are recompiled back in New York, I will see my time here in a new light.  My memories of India will be filtered through the lense of my relationships with each individual participant and in return, I will have a small window into each participant’s daily experience in New York during a time when I am away from the place that connects us.

Who will see this journal in its finished state? Maybe only me – I can’t be sure but like any good experiment, the best parts are usually those that are unknown until the end.

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Pride Bangalore

IMG_0320In a stroke of superb luck,  I was here for the Bangalore Gay Pride Walk on Sunday November 23rd.  A fellow visiting faculty member (Cressida) and I found out about it last week.  Interestingly, it was rather difficult to find details about the location and start time for the event.

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Starting at Bangalore City Railway Station – the main train station located in the city center-  the march was approximately 4 kilometers long, ending in the Malleshwaram neighborhood.

I had been to Pride Parades in a few other major cities in the U.S. but this was like nothing I had ever experienced.  Instead of a formal parade with floats and bands, the event took the form of a march with a group of about 3000-4000 people. The organizing body, Praja Rajakiya Vedike Bangalore, had gathered a group of enthusiastic and joyful volunteers to coordinate the event with the city, police, and the public.

Sanjay, center with a blue shirt and Nicholas in the left-hand corner of the show. Students in the background raising the flag.

Sanjay, center with a blue shirt and Nicholas in the left-hand corner of the shot. Students in the background raising the flag.

As we arrived, we were greeted by a diverse and sprawling crowd of students and adults, foreign and Indian.  People had traveled from all over south India to participate. I met so many wonderful people including Nicholas, a Chinese-Indian man who was experiencing his first pride event and Sanjay, a Northwestern University student studying in India for the semester.

A rainbow of balloons floated in the air, a large pride flag was hoisted by a group of students, rickshaws set to guide the march were decorated with colorful flowers and streamers and a small band of doli players were exciting the crowd with rhythmic beats.

The sign given to me for the march

The sign given to me for the march

Volunteers were passing out various signs for participants to carry and others were leading chants amongst the group.  Police lined the crowd and an entire group of onlooker (almost equivalent to the number of participants) hovered on the sidewalk watching with great curiosity.

As we began to move, the doli players upped the anty, insiting participants to dance down the street.  Signs were flying and people were cheering. There was a great deal of media surrounding us at all times – cameras, reporters interviewing participants, and even curious citizens snapping photos. (see local news piece here)

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Marching down a main road alongside traffic.

Participants were donned in rainbow capes and t-shirts, brightly painted nails with men in saris and women in traditional men’s clothing… like nothing I had seen in India in daylight to be honest.   Every street we walked down, traffic almost stopped – people were leaning over balconies and overpasses to watch us march, stopping their vehicles and hopping off their bikes to have a look.

As we reached the end of the march, we arrived at a small dusty courtyard with stadium-like concrete seating.  The organizers of the event invited various people to make remarks to the entire group – from an activist calling for the repeal of Section 377 to the parent of an LGBTQ youth who talked about the importance of supporting her son.  (Section 377 is a British era law that criminalizes sexual activities “against the order of nature”, including homosexual acts. The Indian Supreme Court upheld this law just last December) At the end, organizers called on every supporting body that helped make this event come together to receive applause and a certificate for their efforts in the cause.

Courtyard for the end of the parade in Malleshwaram.

Courtyard for the end of the parade in Malleshwaram.

After the event, Cressida and I went to dinner with a few of our new friends. The experience of the event triggered deep and meaningful conversations between us, not just about LGBTQ issues but women’s rights, the immigrant experience, and the reality of living in Indian society as an outsider.

Its hard to describe in words the impact this experience has had on me. I am still thinking about it today and I suspect these memories will stay with me for many years to come.

India is a developing nation and equal rights for women is still a serious issue here. To see the LGBTQ community come out with such enthusiasm and joy over what I can only imagine will be at least a decade-long battle was inspiring.  I for one, was honored to be a small part of those voices yesterday.

*You can check out my instagram feed (on the right hand side here) for video of the doli players.

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Campus art

In the courtyard of Srishti’s N3 campus building (where my class is held), I pass a series of painted murals along the wall where students park their bikes daily.   Today I arrived to campus earlier than usual and the normally full parking area was mostly empty.  It gave me the chance to take a closer look at this brightly colored compositions.  To my delight, each mural was thought-provoking in its own way, a nice set of ideas to pass on the way to class each day. Below are a few of my favorites.


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