The pandemic had a devastating impact on the handicrafts sector. Many artisans were locked out of their livelihoods. Despite the government’s call for ‘vocal for local’, not much has changed for the craftspeople in India. What, then, is the future of Indian artisans?
Fortunately, people like Namrata Zakaria have given it more than just a deep thought. In 2020, she launched the Baradari project, a fundraiser to support the artisans that were financially impacted during the pandemic.
In the 20 years of her career, the veteran fashion journalist has done a lot of research on the appalling economic gap between artisans and designers, a pressing conversation that few have had the courage to start. In 2020, when the situation got worse, the crisis made her realise that it was time to walk the talk, show the kind of difference that fashion can make, and thus the Baradari project was born. Titled ‘Dignity On Skilled Labour’, it ended up becoming India’s largest fashion fundraiser to date. Through the project, Namrata and her team managed to raise Rs 50 lakh, and it is now being used to support five different artisan clusters across the country.
As soon as she conceived the project, Namrata reached out to Tina Tahiliani Parikh, Executive Director of multi-designer digital showcase website, Ensemble, actor Kareena Kapoor Khan and Pareina Thapar, co-founder of the PR agency Longform India, to join her as partners and patrons for the project. The vision was to organise a digital fundraising event on EnsembleIndia.com. Soon enough, they had 108 designers on board who supported the cause by auctioning their signature designs.
It was an ambitious project and the goal was to narrow the gap between the designers and the artisans and to make Indian craftspeople business savvy. “What’s the difference between a designer and an artisan? It’s just that one is born into money and the other is not. I have always wanted to bridge this gap,” she shares.
The fact is that while some of us had the luxury of staying safe in our homes during the pandemic, the migrant crisis painted a starkly different picture. A lot was at stake. Recognising the need of the hour, a faction of trailblazing women rose to the occasion and took it upon themselves to make a difference. With the POPxo Power Women List 2020, we are celebrating these changemakers who went the extra mile, swiftly adapting to the new normal and also made strides that had a lasting impact.
Namrata, of course, was one of these unstoppable women who showed by example that there are no barriers when it comes to making a difference and achieving a goal. Her 2020 power move was to turn the crisis into an opportunity. The vision was to uplift the artisans, work on economic sustainability in the Indian fashion industry, and pen a success story like no other. In a recent conversation with POPxo, she talked about the Baradari project, the idea of sustainability in fashion, and her career so far. Excerpts below.
I think power really means the ability to change somebody’s life.
I have many personal heroes. Most of them are the ones who have found ways of making a difference through their work. It is the people whose idea of success is teamwork, to take the whole team or the community ahead. I don’t have conventional heroes like, say, a movie star or a big industrialist who are always being covered by the mainstream media. I actually think that heroes are those who give, who work hard, who thrive to make a change and who help others.
Oh God, I have had many exciting phases. As for the most exciting phase, I hope it is still coming. I have only spent 20 years writing. I’d like to think of another 20 or 40 years. I just think that the best is yet to come.
The biggest challenge has been to manage my home and career. I feel that it’s a challenge that every woman faces, especially in this country. I think that the biggest role is just burning the candles at both the end and going to work. The biggest challenge for any woman is to go to work. You fight your parents to go to work and to train and educate you well enough. You fight your husband and in-laws to allow you to work. You know every day for a woman is a struggle. The whole institution is against women going to work so I salute every woman who does it regardless.
So in Urdu, ‘Baradari’ simply means Brotherhood. In Persian, it is an architectural term. It refers to a pavilion that has four sides and every side has three doors. It is like an open-air town hall where everybody is invited and there is a free exchange of ideas. It is a very inclusive and inviting place.
Thus, the idea has been to invoke brotherhood which is especially important to highlight the relationship between a designer and an artisan. It is generally perceived as one between a giver and a taker, an employer and employee. But really, they are equal partners in the final outfit. One person has designed it and one person has literally made it a reality, right? So the idea is that the artisan is no less than a designer, that the artisan is an equal partner and an equal participant and a creator of an outfit.
When I saw the migrant workers walking to their respective hometowns and the severe hunger crisis that was reported during the lockdown, that became a huge trigger.
I think in India, successive governments have hidden from us how poor we really are. Poverty indices in India keep changing and we keep setting these confusing benchmarks to measure poverty. Like the government will tell you how many new billionaires are adding up but the truth is that ⅔ rd of Indians, which is more than 800 million people, are chronically poor. They have been poor for generations now. As a journalist, I wanted to walk the talk through this project. I felt like writing about it wasn’t enough and I needed to do something about it.
The whole idea of Baradari was to talk about economic sustainability. So sustainability in the West is an environmental concern. They are learning how to consume less, how to reduce waste. But in India, I wanted to talk about the idea of sustainability in monetary terms. Fair wages were the first and most important issue that I wanted to address.
We collected 50 lakhs from Baradari and then decided to divide it between four groups of weavers and one Kashmiri embroiderer. We just gave them a chunk of money as state capital. The whole idea was to encourage the artisans to turn into entrepreneurs. The artisans have no money so when you give them this chunk of money, they can pay off their loans, they can buy a smartphone with a better camera, they can buy a motorcycle and they can buy mannequins. This then opens other avenues. Facebook becomes a big marketplace. They can make their work into a micro-business through social media and there is enough to educate their children for a couple of years as well.
I think for now it is going to be a regular fundraiser. We’ve had encouraging feedback not only from the media but also from our designer partners. All of them were so excited to do it and many of them invited themselves to be a part of the project. Few designers I am in touch with say that we should do this regularly and they have offered to support. Yes, it is a lot of work but I think we should keep this conversation going. That’s the only way to raise awareness among consumers.
The thing is that suddenly in the last few years sustainability has become a bit of a catchphrase. Everyone talks about climate change, everyone talks about managing waste, everyone talks about saving the environment but nobody has really done anything about it except give gyaan at a couple of panels. Then there has been a lot of brainwashing also among the designers. So I think it needs a deeper dive into understanding sustainability and I think we need to probe and understand a little better otherwise we’d stay lost.
I think there are some wonderful designers who are doing some great work. Like I am crazy about what 11:11’s Himanshu Shani does. Rina Singh of Eka does some great work as well. Aneet Arora of Pero is equally good. Rahul Mishra is fantastic with his whole idea of reverse migration. I don’t think anybody else has done it. He has taken some 80 embroiderers from Dharavi in Mumbai and has moved them back to Bengal and relocated them to their native villages. He pays them a Mumbai salary and always says that the idea is that if a village develops then the whole community develops. This reverse migration, I think, is a great story of heroism.
My advice to anybody trying to make it in journalism is don’t come because the media is having a really, really tough time in India right now. But if you really want to be a journalist and think it is your calling then you need to know that in order to be able to write well, you need to read a lot. Writing well is a result of the fuel that goes into your mind. So unless your eyes are wide open, your ears are as close to the ground as possible and you read as much of everything as you can, you are not going to be a good writer.
You need to love and respect what you do. If you think it’s going to be just parties and hanging around with designers and glamorous after-parties, you are going to go down very quickly. Secondly, You have to be sincere to your reader. Remember, your honesty and loyalty lie with your reader first.
Third, you don’t have to dress in designer clothes from top to toe. You don’t even have to wear any designers if you can’t afford them and you don’t have to feel insecure. Remember, grooming is more important than a designer tag.
I’d love to know the answer to that myself. As I said, 20 years is just the beginning. I have only written one book. I am waiting for it to be published at the end of the year. It’s a book for Wendell Rodricks museum. In the future, I just see myself writing more, experimenting with digital media more and I see myself helping people whose careers need help as much as I can.
The POPxo Power Women List is an annual list that celebrates incredible Indian women from diverse domains who make power moves that have a real impact. With The POPxo Power Women List 2020, we celebrate 15 phenomenal women. To see the entire list, click here.