“I’ve been waiting 20 years for this to happen.”
You could hear the sincerity in Nive didi’s voice. The crickets were singing their evening songs, the frogs croaking loudly in the distance, as time inched closer and closer to ten o’clock in the cluttered little second-floor office at the Jatashankar campus.
Holding back tears, Nivedita stood amongst a circle of weary-eyed producers adorned with brightly colored measuring tapes hanging gently from their necks- all looking at her admirably and intently- clinging onto her every breath, patiently awaiting the next words to roll from from her mouth.
Crumpled sheets of scrap paper lined the tiled floor, and curly cues of pencil shavings were sprinkled on top the thin layer of dirt built up by the twenty (+) pairs of bare feet that walked in and out of the office doors for the last six days. It was the last day of a week-long pattern-making workshop taught by designers from the National Institute of Design and the National Institute of Fashion Technology, and the exhaustion on the Kumbaya producer’s faces read as clearly as the darkening creases under their eyes and the pencil marks that had rubbed onto their forearms.
Each day began the same way;
8-9 am: Get ready and grab breakfast at the mess at Neemkheda center.
Breakfast at the Baba Amte center is usually a toss-up between my personal favorite bright yellow poha with halwa, idli with sambar, chola puri, aloo parantha, (the always puzzling option of) chow mein with ketchup, and ever addicting sweet chai.
9-10ish am: Leave Neemkheda campus in a seemingly empty Traveller van with Pushpa didi, Seema, and Ira for Jatashankar campus, but on the way there, pick up:
- Dhanna bhaiya in Beekhupura
- Sapna didi and Biplub bhaiya in Punjapura
- (break for the winding roads of the ghat to reach the top of the hill)
- Gita didi, her sister Ranjana didi, and Chetna didi in Bagli
10ish am: Arrive at Jatashankar office with a packed van filled with the new recuits Seema and Ira, seven Kumbaya producers, and little ol’ me.
10:30am: Join the rest of the Kumbaya team including Vikas, Pappu bhaiya, and Shankar on campus and begin!
10:30am-2ish pm: Learn and practice a number of new patterns, ranging from lower bodice to sleeves to collars and more — with a quick break for chai and biscuits in between.
2ish–3ish pm: LUNCH. Clear the office floor, placing newspaper on the tiles for placemats and share an explosive meal of sabzi, daal, roti and chawal from Sharma Auntie’s place (guaranteed to set your mouth on fire with each handful of food).
3pm: Continue learning patterns and practice, practice, practice!
5ish pm: Break for chai and evening snack. (The best part of the entire training included the snacks!! To make our designer guests feel most welcome, we all reveled in the spoils of cachori, sabudana, pecora, or scrumptious samosas nightly.)
8-8:30 pm: Finish for the day, pack up, and make the journey to Neemkheda, unloading producers at each stop on the way back.
Rest, and repeat!
Over the course of this six-day long workshop, we learned about body measurements, three basic skirt patterns, front and back of a basic top bodice pattern, nine neckline patterns, five sleeve patterns, six collar patterns, grading sizes, fabric manufacturing, elements of fashion, upcoming trends, and new innovative techniques to propel the Kumbaya brand forward.
So I know what you must be wondering… how and why was I learning about pattern making, fashion design, and trends at an NGO in the middle of rural Madhya Pradesh?!
Well, I asked myself the same exact thing. Halfway through the workshop, as I stood hunched over a rickety table, steadily holding down a French curve with one hand while gripping a pencil in the other, I never thought I would be using a French curve for anything outside of the architecture studio in Addams Fine Arts Building on Penn’s campus, definitely not for anything regarding garment design, and especially not in a village middle of India.
But I absolutely loved all of it. For six days, I absorbed each and every lesson about body measurements, patterns, colors and fabrics- diligently observing, asking questions, taking notes and marking up diagrams in my little red notebook.
As someone who has always been interested in fashion design and always jumps at the opportunity for self-expression through all sorts of clothing (around campus you can often find me in a mix of wacky thrift store finds including, but not limited to, oversized denim jackets, colorfully printed button downs, and breezy long skirts), this had been an unexpected dream come true. For me, it was a fun opportunity to learn about something I would have otherwise never found the time and energy to do back home, but on that last night of the training, as Nivedita stood in the middle of the office, searching for the right words to say, I recognized the significance of that moment for Kumbaya.
When Kumbaya was bred from local village women’s interests and desires to learn stitching and patchwork, Nivedita would have never imagined that they would arrive at this moment 20 years later, completing a workshop taught by top-notch designers with the brand’s most skilled producers. In an area where there is no rich history of any marketable handicrafts, Kumbaya has grown to become a respected and well-known brand throughout India- not just for the model of empowerment, but mostly for the high-quality, immensely popular products (a couple of weeks after my arrival I came to know that Obama himself owns a patchwork bedcover made by Kumbaya, but that’s a story for another time!). The fact that Pallav, Deepti, and Kavita had come to the middle of Madhya Pradesh from their urban landscapes to strengthen the skills of the producers and push the level of design meant that Kumbaya had successfully established itself as a competitive brand ready to keep moving forward.
She watched with burning joy as some of her producers, women who cannot read or write, proudly mastered and understood the skill of pattern making within a day of the workshop. To observe that the hard work from the producers, supervisors, the sample master, cutting master and accounts team had reached such fruition completely overwhelmed Nive with immense pride.
It was a full moon on the final night of the workshop, “Guru Purnima”, a day to give blessings to your Guru:
“Pooja moolam guror padam;
Mantra moolam guror vakyam;
Moksha moolam guror kripa”
“The Guru’s form should be meditated upon; the feet of the Guru should be worshipped; his words are to be treated as a sacred Mantra; his Grace ensures final liberation”
As Nive didi finished with her final sentiments, the producers walked towards her and lined up in front of her. One by one they bent down towards the ground, touching her feet, blessing her for her guidance. She blushed with deep red embarrassment and humility, urging them to stop, but she looked to them and they looked back, understanding that the respect and pride was mutual among the team.