This collaboration, our latest trip and now - this journal post to you - have been a long time coming. If I'm honest, probably since before Dilli Grey was even a business. It's an emotive, heart-bearing project and one that I hope resonates with you as deeply as it has with me... first, a bit of background on how this special partnership has come about…
Before I set up Dilli Grey, I knew instinctively that I wanted the core ethics of any business I launched from India to benefit the incredible artisans creating my designs. After a 20-year stint as a buyer, building relationships across Northern India, I knew giving a token percentage of my profits, or creating a 'charity product' wasn't enough. If my new business was to benefit from the incredible workmanship of the region, I wanted to ensure the artisans were paid fairly, treated well and for their skills to be nurtured and protected for future generations.
So - this is the place that all my artisan partnerships come from. I visit each person in the supply chain, I ask the questions, I meet the men and women whose hands create my products. It is a very human relationship and something that for a while now I've wanted to develop further and deeper. What more can I do with my buying power? Who else can benefit? (you can read about our women's co-operative of hand embroiders here)
I'm a huge believer in karma, so knew deep down that when a project or a partnership came my way that was the right fit - I would know. Before Christmas, with the scantest details provided by a contact in Jaipur - I contacted Jaimala, the female founder of the Vatsalya Foundation outside the city to ask more about their female empowerment project, Anoothi.
In the following months we chatted over email and organised a visit to the charity village - home to the Anoothi project but also as I learnt, a residential home for 60 orphaned and abandoned children, a primary school educating rural, deprived families and an out-reach HIV-AIDS awareness programme amongst slum communities… their goal is broad - to provide ‘a caring environment where disadvantaged and vulnerable people can develop their capabilities with dignity’.
I went with a completely open mind as to how I could meaningfully help Jaimala in her work and soon the day of our trip was upon us.
Our Vatsalya Visit
Leaving the main highway and bumping off-road over pot-holed, desert scrubland we saw the village’s welcoming ‘sunshine’ gates on the plains below the Aravalli Hills and soon enough, Jaimala’s welcoming sunny smile. Run by Jaimala and her husband Hitesh, with incredible academic backgrounds (she with a Masters in Public Health and he with a PhD) their goal 18 years ago was to set up a sanctuary, originally to provide a home and education for Jaipur’s street kids. Vatsalya is a Sanskrit term, meaning ‘a mother’s love’ – something that Jaimala strongly believes every child should experience. That unconditional mother’s love that stems from trust, faith in their abilities and desire to see them succeed – something she and the Vatsalya team are fostering in the 100-strong school on site and we witnessed first-hand how they are flourishing.
Yet soon after launched, Jaimala also recognised a desperate need to help the commercial sex workers of Rajasthan, to give women a viable, alternative career to prostitution. Yet just providing them with another alternative wasn’t enough:
“It’s been incredible over the last 10 years to watch a whole community transition out of that life. But it isn’t easy. It’s not a linear process and some women simply find the shift too hard to make. They don’t see the value in themselves and the meaningful work they can do here. A lot of them fight back initially, they need patience and kindness and to see the goodness and trust in life. They are hardened, no doubt. To find their inner creativity and find beauty in life again takes time.”
Within the village the Anoothi project runs a training academy where women come to learn and then work as hand-block printers, seamstresses and quilters. The range of textiles they produce are then sold through local markets and retail outlets to fund more women’s places on the training programme. Often just one woman coming to the project will be enough to encourage her friends and co-workers to see another path and so the impact of this small rural project ripples across the region..
On our tour of the workshops we met Archana - Jaimala’s right-hand woman for 11 years and head of the programme – she talked frankly of the women’s struggles to see value in their skills and creativity, a lot give up and ‘push back’, testing hers and Jaimala’s faith in their abilities. Of all the women artisans we met, all showed a quiet pride in their work and a humble surprise that we loved and were interested in what they were doing. This default ‘what do I have to offer?’ is heart-breaking and some of the comments the women Jaimala has supported out of commercial sex work have lingered deeply with me - “Working as a prostitute is the most humiliating and exploitative profession in the world. I died every day when I had to sustain that way. Now, I feel a new respect for myself.” After years of searching for a meaningful way to use my business for good – that was it. I wanted to empower women to gain back their self-respect on their own terms and through their own abilities. Not as a charitable ‘hand out’ but as a business model that supports their creative growth.
After a full tour and better understanding of Anoothi’s output capabilities I sat in the shade with Jaimala for a while, digesting the possibilities and hearing more stories of success, and some of the challenges the project still faces – we discussed further what the programme needed and it was clear that to support this business was indeed to simply buy what they had to sell. Not out of pity, but as a viable wholesale supplier. An increase in their turnover means the ability to scale up - more staff to train up, more profit for the school and other charitable projects.
So, in the coming weeks I will be proudly introducing the collection that we have bought from Anoothi online and in our Barnes store – an edit of kantha quilts, hand-block printed table cloths and napkins. When they arrive I hope you see the women and stories behind the textiles and help me to support their growth and empowerment, together.