By Ritika Jain
One mother wanted to expose her daughter to our magnificent culture through dance. Another mom’s husband inspired her to teach sewing to the local village women. Here’s how these women came to be successful mompreneurs.
She’s a dancer, teacher, mother, poet, artist, all rolled into one. Hers was an organic journey that started with studying Art History and Aesthetics and led her to Odissi at the age of 20. Studying about Indian temple sculptures sensitised her to the fact that Indian classical dance forms are actually sculpture in motion, and rich in feeling. She herself being a physically and emotionally expressive person, intuitively turned from painting to dance and found herself an exceptional guru, Surendra Nath Jena and subsequently his daughter, Pratibha Jena. She feels fortunate because their tradition, a deeply philosophical and devotional one, taught her to pray through dance.
Jaya counts her blessings and says, “In dance, my body, mind and soul come together. The path I’ve found isn’t about designations or big bank balances but it is more rewarding than anything I could have asked for in life. Then gradually came teaching, not planned but from having children myself. When they were young, I would take them for different workshops like all moms do and then I felt the lack of workshops that teach about the richness of our amazing culture. That’s when I devised my own workshop called ‘Mum, Me and Odissi’. I wanted to share my insights with more and more children and that led to Discover India workshops. I have selectively picked a few students who I’ve been regularly working with for the last eight years. My daughter is one of them.”
Odissi is a dance form that takes years of practice. Young kids are required to learn an encyclopedia of movements and develop a complex range of emotions to present a 15 minute piece. They’re constantly training, performing and improving. Jaya adds, “It’s hard work to be everything all at once, teacher, mother and performer because you can’t give singular focus to any one aspect. But it’s a rich life and I burn myself out. Wanting to give back also came early to me. I was 32 and wasn’t making so much monetarily but I still wanted to share. You have to pay for live musicians and I bore the losses when the class fee collectively couldn’t cover their payment. With the coming of internet, many artists seem to be in a hurry to become a celebrity. Their energies are so diverted towards it that there is no mind space left to share with the next generation.”
She adds, “It’s a long term commitment and I tell the parents who come to me not to treat it like a hobby class. I was lucky to have a constant figure — an art teacher in school — and know how lucky you are to grow up under the guidance and care of that one encouraging teacher. The Guru Shishya Parampara is like growing up with one more parent.”
She has written a book of dance stories for kids under the National Book Trust, currently in publication. She wants to reach kids who maybe don’t dance but can read because she strongly believes that we all need roots to be able to create anything. Perhaps being a mom makes her see every child as a sapling that needs to be nourished. Her diary entries have culminated into another book called The Poetic Saree. Jaya has performed at various places like the Nehru Centre in London and at packed auditoriums in Hague, Rotterdam, Paris and Bali. She feels originality can sometimes be over-rated and says that she’s trying to preserve tradition just like Madhubani painters or other craftsmen do.
When Deepa and her husband, Ashish moved to Satoli, a small village in Uttarakhand, 17 years ago, they started out with the idea of hosting people at a beautiful mountain retreat called Sonapani. Over the years, an artistic tribe has made it their fave venue for organising indie film and music festivals. While living there, they saw how hard the life of the villagers was and how they were cutting down their wealth of oak trees to earn a livelihood. They wanted to preserve this forested land as best they could, out of which came the idea of teaching the local women other skills which would occupy their time and provide a sustainable source of income.
Deepa says, “There are very few oak forests remaining now. There’s tremendous social demand as their leaves are good fodder and the wood is excellent firewood. The locals cut the trees mindlessly because they aren’t educated and can’t even afford LPG cylinders or kerosene lamps. My husband got five sewing machines and made me in charge of teaching them to sew. I knew nothing myself and had to learn from YouTube videos. Just about then, a friend of ours was just starting an initiative called Himjoli. He provided local self-help groups with a platform to sell their produce. The only thing he was buying from the market was shopping bags. He asked us if we could start stitching muslin carry bags for him. Initially, just seven local women used to come in shifts and now roughly 70 of them are involved.”
She recalls, “An Austrian friend who sells Indian handicrafts became our second client. She was sourcing handmade paper bags from Delhi which were very expensive whereas we could make cotton bags for half the cost. We didn’t have margins but since the orders were in bulk, it was a sustainable model. Gradually, the women became confident and their work improved. They started making quilted bags on their own. We improvised and did a bit of patchwork as well. Women from neighbouring villages started coming to us, asking for work. Since there weren’t machines to spare, I got them to do embroidery work — a simple Kantha stitch. I drew the designs on fabric and gave them thread and directed them with colours, etc.”
This venture saw them supplying packing bags to Jaypore and partner with iTokri. Mostly, they make things only on order and deliver them immediately since there are rats in the villages and they don’t have proper store rooms. They’ve taken orders for potlis for weddings and made bags for export houses. It carries forward through word of mouth. She doesn’t plan to scale it up immensely because her workforce also has children and animals to take care of. Instead, she’s supplied the women with machines of their own. They have learnt to make cushion covers and table runners, skirts and kurtas also. Deepa plans to participate in the Bharat Rang Mahotsav at NSD in February and put up a stall of whatever they’ve produced till then.
She adds, “My own kids have been schooled here in the hills till class 5. I’m Kumaoni myself and talk to them in their language, maybe that’s why these women opened up to me and shared their problems. There is a lot of alcoholism in these parts. Being from Dalit families, they’re marginalised and don’t own any land. This is a fruit-growing belt so the farmers earn seasonally. They don’t have an exposure to the outside world and still have five to six kids in order to get a son. As a result, one family member ends up feeding many mouths. I’m glad to help in any way I can, even if it means bringing just a small change to their lives. I never belonged to the city anyway. Moving here was homecoming for me.”