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Indian Express Stories of Strength

Facebook and The Indian Express bring you a series on those at the forefront of the fight against the pandemic. From healthcare workers to government officials to innovators — a look at their day at work, their struggles and challenges.

Keeping Nizamuddin Basti safe with masks that spread light on our heritage

The masks stitched by women of the Insha-e-Noor collective are placed in the community toilets, schools, and the community centre for anybody to take… almost everyone stepping out in the neighbourhood seems to sport one

June 29, 2020 6:14:46 pm

NEW DELHI: “Have you seen the interiors of the dome at Humayun’s tomb?” an excited Mehnaz Bano asks over the phone, the 40-year-old’s excitement palpable as she describes the variegated colours and patterns she draws inspiration from while stitching masks for her neighbourhood of Nizamuddin Basti. “There is ferozi, light pink, the colour of sunflower, and rose. We want to keep the heritage of this area alive, and want more people to learn about it as well,” she adds.

Located in the heart of Delhi, the historic Nizamuddin Basti is the nerve centre of Sufi culture in India. Under the shadows of the majestic Humayun’s Tomb, a maze of packed lanes and bylanes have over the centuries become home to followers of Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and their descendants.

Mehnaz lives here with her husband in a humble single-room arrangement in what is called ‘Bakery wali gali’. For more than a decade, she has been part of ‘Insha-e-noor’, a women’s enterprise initiated by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) that has been redeveloping the basti as well as the adjoining Humayun’s Tomb and Sunder Nursery.

By June, the women had produced close to 15,000 masks. At present they are experimenting with other designs and motifs for the masks as well.

As part of the initiative, Bano has absorbed and learned to take pride in the rich cultural heritage of her neighbourhood. But when the lockdown was announced in March, she decided to take it a step further, as she along with the 20-25 women associated with Insha-e-noor dedicatedly stitched face masks to be distributed to all residents and essential service providers in the basti free of cost.

And there was a uniqueness to the initiative. The masks are all in the colours representing the Humayun’s tomb, telling the story of its 500-year-old existence.

“The atmosphere is such that masks are most important right now,” says Zaida Baji, s 48-year-old who too has been part of Insha-e-noor for the last decade. “But there are many who cannot afford them. We are trying to ensure that no one is denied access to masks because their pocket does not allow,” she explains.

The masks stitched by the women are placed in the community toilets, schools, and the community centre for anybody to take. By June, the women had produced close to 15,000 masks. At present they are experimenting with other designs and motifs for the masks as well.

“I have noticed that almost every person stepping outside in Nizamuddin basti wears our mask. It has the Insha-e-noor tag on it,” says Mehnaz, who works at the organisation

Insha-e-noor was established in 2008 as a skill training programme for the women of Nizamuddin. Over the years, more than 200 women from the basti have been trained in embroidery and stitching, and the products created by them are made using motifs inspired by the ensemble of Mughal monuments near Nizamuddin, especially Humayun’s Tomb. The idea was to demonstrate that heritage conservation can be a stepping stone for social and economic development of the local community.

“Living amongst 700 years of built heritage, less than 9 per cent of women of Nizamuddin had any economic opportunities. Insha-e-noor was created to provide over 100 women an opportunity to leverage heritage assets for a stable earning,” says Ratish Nanda, CEO, AKTC. “They have since made products with motifs from monuments they live amongst and earn working from the comfort and safety of their homes. This has also helped the community respect the monument that stands amidst them,” he adds.

The masks stitched by the women are placed in the community toilets, schools, and the community centre for anybody to take.

When the lockdown was announced to curb the spread of COVID-19, the enterprise decided to use their skills to help out the community. “In mid-March, when the Delhi government asked everyone to cut down on activities we decided to produce masks since there was a shortage of supply and our women had the skill,” says Jyotsna Lal, director of programmes at Insha-e-noor. Initially they were given out to the conservation labourers, gardeners and other workers in the area.

Soon after though, the incident involving the Tablighi Jamaat came to light. In April, a congregation held at the Jamaat headquarters located in Nizamuddin turned out to be one of the super spreaders of the virus, as hundreds of potential coronavirus patients were evacuated from there.

“The moment the Tablighi Jamaat incident happened and the basti was sealed, we decided to produce the masks at a much larger scale for the community to be able to access them,” says Lal. She adds that the incident prompted them since there was a lot of anxiety about the safety of the residents of the basti. There was also a stigma that the presence of the Jamaat headquarters in the area had caused for all the residents, even though they were not in any way associated with the congregation.

“We would hear so much about our neighbourhood while watching television and feel very bad about it,” says Zaida. “But it also made us aware that we had to take extra precautions and ensure that everyone in the area is safe,” she adds.

Insha-e-Noor members making cloth masks at home.

When the lockdown was in force, the women would stitch the masks at their homes, and give the finishing touches at the centre where they usually worked. Mehnaz has started working at the centre again and says everyone ends up making close to 80-100 masks a day.

“I have noticed that almost every person stepping outside in Nizamuddin basti wears our mask. It has the Insha-e-noor tag on it. It makes me feel so proud that I could do something for the people,” says Mehnaz.

She goes to explain the meaning of Insha-e-noor. “It means creating light. I am sure that our masks will bring light to the lives of everyone at Nizamuddin basti.”

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