From Gujarat untouchable to global businesswoman

From Gujarat untouchable to global businesswoman


Kakuben’s moment of liberation came roughly 20 years ago, when the not-for-profit Sewa Project formed a unit in her village to help preserve endangered handicrafts and, equally, to provide the people who make them a form of alternative employment.

By A Correspondent

New York:  Plenty of people exchanging free hugs in Times Square on July 18 traveled a long way to reach New York, but it’s safe to say that few covered anything like the distances Kakuben Lalabhai Parmar had. This is not just a matter of mileage, although certainly it’s a hike from Madhutra, a rural village in the western Indian state of Gujarat, to 42nd Street.

At a practical level,  Parmar’s trip required a series of unusual conveyances, among them a bullock cart, a ricksha, the flatbed of a Jeep and the open-topped shuttle bus she rode to reach an airport before boarding a form of transport she had seldom seen up close before, let alone ridden.

At a deeper cultural level, her journey is yet stranger and more wonderful, embodying as it does a half-century of global feminism and the evolutionary arc of modern India. In the cattle-herding community  Parmar belongs to, one among a cluster of groups categorized by the Indian Constitution as “scheduled castes,” women who were traditionally bound not just to their region or village but to the home.

“My group was treated as untouchables,” said  Parmar, 50. And if the community was untouchable, its female members were still more disadvantaged by being invisible. Married at 14, the mother of seven, Kakuben Lalabhai Parmar was well into adulthood before she came face-to-face with a man who was not a close relative.

Yet here she was in Midtown Manhattan last fortnight, wrapping her arms around the strangers, who gather there regularly to dispense affection, some of them understandably astonished at the apparition clad in a mirror-spangled skirt and a tie-dyed shawl, her throat and hands and arms lavishly adorned with the homemade tattoos that are a form of what  Parmar termed “affordable beautification” in the far reaches of Gujarat.

And here she was, too, a businesswoman setting up shop at the Asia Society, where a group of artisans gathered for three days to sell their wares; and at CVS buying bargain shampoo and $1 hair ornaments for her five daughters; and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a Sunday morning, pointing out to this reporter that the cooking vessels of the 12th Dynasty of Egypt (from about 1800 B.C.) look exactly like the pots she uses to cook dal at home.

Not a lot seemed to faze her. She took in her stride urban commotion, the assorted indignities of travel, the novelty of seat belts, in-flight movies and also elevators, escalators, yellow cabs, mattresses and the abundant forms so standard in life that could be unnerving to an illiterate whose signature is a print of her thumb.

“I already experienced the biggest change in my life,” she said, speaking a Gujarati dialect through an interpreter, “when I first got the chance to come out of my house and participate in society.”

Parmar’s moment of liberation came roughly 20 years ago, when the not-for-profit Sewa Project formed a unit in her village to help preserve endangered handicrafts and, equally, to provide the people who make them a form of alternative employment.
“We never even thought of getting income from selling this stuff before,” said  Parmar, who sews patchwork embroideries that incorporate vivid threads and reflective shards laboriously cut by hand from mirror scrap she buys by the pound.

The cloth, at least, may be familiar to readers, since it is the kind used in the making of a slouchy “It” bag being hauled around this summer by Cameron Diaz, Nicole Richie and other celebrity entities.

The price tag on a satchel made from mirrored patchwork and bearing the label Simone Camille is about $2,000, a sum equivalent to two years of  Parmar’s income. Yet even on the modest $60 a month, she earns sewing pillow covers that require almost a week’s work and that sell in her local market for $15 a pair, she has become the family’s chief breadwinner. She holds title to her own cattle, has a personal account with a microfinance credit union and is quick to point out that while this may seem insignificant to a New Yorker accustomed to such symbols of Western wealth as reliable electricity and plumbing, it is considered a vast change in circumstance for a woman from rural India, even now.

“When I was a girl, all the assets belonged to the father or the husband or the brother,”  Parmar said. Squatting on the floor of the Asia Society’s grand marble lobby, she demonstrated her technique for cutting mirror shards into diamond, oval and triangular shapes and a pointed form called a “crow,” using the sharpened edge of a terra cotta roof tile. She multitasked ceaselessly, stopping to spread out pillow covers for one buyer’s approval, and explain the eye-dazzling motifs she uses to another, all the while keeping a sharp eye on the sales totals, eyeglasses perched at the tip of her nose.

“In those days, the husband was in charge of everything,” she explained to a visitor. “What could you do, with no skills and no education?”
Now as a globetrotter, an informal ambassador for Sewa and the Crafts Council of India — one of a growing number of groups committed to preserving traditional folkways in India, a country where, by some estimates, 40 million to 60 million people gain at least part of their living making handicrafts — she finds herself in circumstances she could never have foreseen.

She flies around the world on her own. She takes taxis. She shops at Walgreens and somehow manages to domesticate the experience of visiting a world-class museum like the Met by finding creative kinship there between her own utilitarian patchworks (“We never wasted a scrap of fabric,” she said) and a Malian mud cloth or a Sudanese tent divider embroidered with Venetian trade beads and cowrie shells. She proselytizes in an easy and natural way for the importance of educating women, getting them out of the house and into jobs.

Thanks to the work she does now, she says, with a high-pitched hoot, her role in family life inverts that played by the generations of women who came before her.

“Now that I have my own business and make my own money, my husband shows me respect,”  Parmar said. There are even occasions, she said, when he helps her out with her accounts. “He’s my secretary,” she added with a laugh.

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