I've been looking forward to developing an understanding of the work of some groups on crafts and textiles. In between some work engagements, travel and of course stealing time from being simply lulled by the tranquility that Saiha offers I contacted Upasana and discussed spending some time there.
I had visited Upasana in my last visit to Auroville in Dec 09 and was charmed by the initial impressions of the place. I finally made it in June again and I was to spend 15 days with them in understanding the functioning of some of their projects , supporting some documentation needs and brainstorming with the team some possible avenues for further engagement with communities that they partner with.
Was pleasantly surprised by an offer from Divya to pick me up at the Pondicherry bus station, almost as surprised as meeting success in communicating with shopkeepers in my eng-mal- tamil mix. After about a 10 km ride landed in Upasana to the soft and surprisingly soothing and languorous tinkle of gigantic wind chimes.
We were in time for Upasana’s Friday sharing with volunteers, a practice through which the team shares with each other what their week has been like. Apart from the Upasana team, student interns from the various design schools were present and they were to spend between one to three months with Upasana.
Upasana Design Studio
It was a good start to the visit and the next morning began with some Auroville bakery bread , the taste of which I’d not really forgotten from last time. This was topped up by a feathered greeting at Upasana’s entrance - a magnificent peacock, and this one was pretty cat like in the knowledge of his goodlooks. Was cheered at the sight and puzzled too at its almost domesticated behavior, he didn’t seem unnecessarily agitated by our presence and was pecking at the grain Rama had laid out. We were humoured in almost all possible manners save a display of its feathers in a dance! Sigh….
Spent a couple of days reading and trying to make sense of counts, staple lengths and hand processes vis a vis mechanized and power driven processes. A lot of technical terminology was decoded for me by the eager student interns and they had of course their volley of questions ready on what exactly was I doing here, my work etc. Through interactions with the interns and other members in the team learnt more Upasanas works.
Upasana's skirts - for Fab India
Upasana has been working on linking various organic processes in producing organic cotton fabric through a project called Kapas. It partners with other organizations for the production of organic cotton and weaving. Currently they are trying to work on streamlining a process of producing the fabric with primacy given to organic and handloom techniques . Partnerships are underway with various organizations for hand spinning, weaving and organic dyeing. The team from Kapas and I headed to Madurai and spent time with the various organizations and communities in order to explore avenues for furthering Kapas’s engagement.
From Auroville we headed for a place called Natham just outside Madurai. I slept through the highways, (much to my companions amusement) but was wide awake once we lost our way. The car spent hours around various villages and bypasses and I was plastered to the window taking in the green and often rocky hills that cut short my horizon. The cables on the roadside were dotted with kingfishers in plenty and what I think are rollers. We were lost many times during our trip and my usual hyperactive self was calmed by the light drizzles and sparkling dewy greens .
We stayed at CESCI .The rooms and the campus were beautiful understated and very peaceful despite being on a roadside. The ideal place to be back to after a day on the road.
Our first visit was to the RTU weaving unit located in a town close to Bathlagundu. The weavers present were largely women and I was able to spend some time with Mohanraj the manager of the unit in understanding a bit about the background of the project and discussions on the current capacity of the weavers etc. By the end of the day my head was all wound up in knots trying to place what I was seeing with what I have been reading- counts, hanks , ply , winding ….the works.
In the following days we spent time with CCD. CCD has been working for over two decades with various communities by promoting enterprise based on the local resources and traditional skills. It supports the formation of federations and producer companies and provides them with business development services such as technical advice, market information, capacity building, quality control, marketing, branding, credit linkages etc.
CCD partners with Upasana in the production of organic cotton. Over two hundred households are currently engaged in organic cotton farming and CCD itself is experimenting with the cotton production from the cotton tree, to gauge its suitability for adoption by farmers. Tachinamurthy, from CCD who was with us through a major part of the visit shared experiences of his search for a particular variety of perennial cotton tree. I understand he finally found it in someone's backyard!
We met with some organic cotton farmers in Valayankulam and Arsapattai. There were discussions on the cropping patterns, the experience of organic growing, Kaps's work etc. It was interesting to note that most farmers shared that pesticides and fertilizers had not yet gained ground in the villages of the region and that mixed cropping was still prevalent. The transition to an out and out organic cultivation might not have been too difficult I understand.
The groups shared information with us animatedly but as the day wound up I was left with image of an elderly ayya sharing that 20 years earlier they were confident and proud of their work and produce. Currently the interest in working on farms is dwindling as there is not much surety of gaining monetarily and quality of the soil and seed is not what it used to be. Apparently many farmers have sold their fields and moved out of agriculture.
During most of our journey we could see various road repair activities underway and presumably a lot of it was under NREGS. Interestingly when some other options for engagement were discussed at Valayankulam and Arsapattai most people were clear that they would be able to spare time only if there was no major NREGS activities underway. NREGS gets priority over their farms and other sources of income.
In the spinning unit of CCD in Sevayur, the process of making yarn from cotton pods was underway. Ginning, carding , winding and some very noisy spinning! Fluffy balls to white yarn in hanks and cones. Tachina shared the roadblocks in processing the relatively short staple organic cotton that was being produced.
Before our return to Auroville , we met with some handloom weavers in a village close to Coimbatore. En route we touched the T Shirt Capital Tirpur and slowly moved onto T.M Pallayam and Puliyampatti. Almost every other household in the localities that we visited had a loom. Some were being worked on and others catching dust. The youngsters in some of these households found it easier to work in the textile mills and factories around the village as opposed to the uncertain returns of the tedious handweaving at home. Most members however did contribute to the weaving at different stages of the process.
The looms in these homes stretched across about 15-20 feet and creamy off white yarn was being woven into cloth. Our contact person was referring to the weavers as Khadi weavers. However, I get fuzzy in my understanding of what exactly Khadi weaving means and different people seem to have different answers to this.
In about 5 days we completed these visits and returned to Auroville where we had further discussions on the project . In Auroville I also met with The Colours of Nature, an organization focusing its efforts on natural dyeing and attempting to revive traditional organic processes of dyeing. Jesus , the founder of TCoN , has been working on natural dyeing processes for over 15 years now. He shared of his initial experiences and surprise in finding that the knowledge of non polluting processes traditionally practiced are not a part of the memory of the current generation engaged in dyeing. By examining some historical records and discussions with communities , Jesus shares that he has been able to develop natural and non polluting dyes which he hopes industries catering to a larger scale can use.
I had a lot to chew on from this trip. I could finally see (as opposed to reading) the process of developing a fabric from cotton. From growing it, to the ginning, carding, winding, spinning dyeing and finally weaving processes and the many variations within them. The impact of industries that has overtime has taken away the craft from communities, leaving households with a relatively alienated experience in the weaving of a fabric. Not to forget the more than significant economic and social impacts this must have had on the communities.
The space provided by Upasana for these brief explorations and the warmth extended by the team has added to my list of experiences that I'm grateful for.
Thanks - Dhanalaksmi , Prabhakaran , Vivek, Divya , Tachinamurthy ,Katherine and Inge! Its been a valuable fortnight!