The humbling faces

The Face of Beauty.

humbling faces

The Humbling Faces.

The Face of Beauty.
Her blood curdled as Ria stood outside the Women’s Ward of Burns Department.The tortured, heart piercing screams and the stench of burning human skin overpowered her senses. All the beds of the ward were full as was the floor. The moans of torturous pain showed no respite. Many of the girls were unconscious for their brain could not process that intensity of acute ache. The burnt out eyes that did not see the minute by minute degeneration of their once delicate face. Ria’s guide was another victim, blind, badly burnt, dexterous, kind and able. She gently held Ria’s shivering hands. Together they entered the ward and her heart sank when the ward door was locked ominously behind her. There was no going back. She was all of 21.

Reshma’s tiny house in the poor parts of a monstrous metro was the ground of her sister’s tormenting by her husband. One such night, the husband bought potent acid for Rs.30 from the next door shop and hurled it at the sister content in the knowledge that life in every form – smile, friends, love, bravery, pride – would burn away from her life along with butcherly burning her delicate face. Only that was not to be. A fiercely protective Reshma stepped in between. When acid comes in contact with the skin, the skin fumes and melts – ever so excruciatingly that death seems like a relief – minute by minute, hour by hour scarring the face to that point where nothing remains – no face, no identity, no joy, time stands still at an aching point. Forever. Reshma was all of 17.

In that burns ward Ria, who belongs to an affluent family and was meandering through life with irrelevant insecurities and petty self obsessions – which have become a hallmark of our collective ethos really – found her calling. In a paradigm altering moment for India, Ria decided to extend her loving hand towards these wronged souls. Today she runs an organization ‘Make love not scars’ to intervene at every level of these barbaric acts.

The challenges are many. Acid is sold unchecked and openly at pittance in spite of the alarming fact that India has an official statistic of one acid attack per day. The real picture is even more somber than that. The girls who are the casualty of these barbaric attacks often lack money to sustain their surgeries and treatments. The wounds penetrate the very core, shake the very foundation of their being and relegate them to dungeon inmate like desolate existence, fearing revulsion in looks and actions of their community. They have to be gently and empathetically brought out to face the reality. They have to encouraged to rise like a Phoenix from the ashes.

In a blessed synergy, Ria is finding constant respite from her own anxiety and inconsequential coming of age issues in the company of these 45 girls and the girls are finding in her a sister, a friend, an advocate, a nurse and a face in the society who gives them courage. That courage is so needed to face pity in onlooker’s eyes in place of envy, to sense quick averting eyes of cute boys who in the past sighed at their beauty, to always be invisible in celebrations or family reunions lest someone gets offended, to face the camera instead of hiding in someone’s shadow, unshackle the face from tightly worn mask-like scarf and feel the breeze, to find fleeting beauty in their cruelly altered universe.

On this auspicious occasion of Dussehra, we share with you these faces of beauty that shine with courage and compassion, with empathy and love, generosity and forgiveness. We share with you our very own Laxmis – Ria and Reshma, who give face to many of their creed, who confer encouragement on us to be a teeny bit more aware and a tiny bit more humane.
My most heartfelt thanks go to Ria and Reshma for finding time and to Vinit for introductions and photography, to lovely and kind Piyu for the makeup and sweet Jyothi for the hair.
Many thanks to Rina Singh for these beautiful Eka saris in which the girls were preening like fairies.
On the day of the shoot, within 2 minutes of introductions, we were all reduced to giggling girls, eating pizza, gossiping, drinking chai and taking selfies. In the end, nothing like the enduring joys and firm strength of sisterhood. And yes, gender is no bar to be a part of it.

The face of Sustainable Fashion

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The Humbling Faces.

The face of Sustainable Fashion.

It was an event that would happily alter the lives of over hundred physically challenged young adults. It was also an event that would offer tender nurturing to mother earth for many years to come.

Ms. Ratna Krishnakumar had been invited to inaugurate a Vocational Training Centre, a Tata Tea initiative in Munnar, where the craft of making office files and letter pads was to be taught to this youth. The idea was to give a source of livelihood and an avenue to spend some time to this disadvantageous stratum of the local community. But Ratna ji was not overtly pleased about it. She knew this work to be repetitive and therefore monotonous and keenly felt the need to offer these young people a skill set that would be creatively nourishing. There was a reason for a loving embrace of colours, imagination, fabric and these kids that subsequently happened.

Like many of us, Ratna ji grew up in a household where hand-woven ‘pavadai’ and then saris were lovingly worn. Kanchipuram saris were highly sought after even though blouse pieces were not included and finding matching fabric could tax any genteel lady’s patience. In fact she remembers the time when synthetic saris made a foray into the day-to-day life. At a young age she got married and moved to Calcutta. Her expedition with hand-woven saris got deeper with her joining in with Paramparik Karigar and connecting with the skillful, talented weavers. It was here that she realised the importance of a small step in the strengthening of handlooms when she worked for the facility of payments to be made by credit cards. The sales figures for the saris soared thereby generating more work and greater confidence in the weavers.

There were bigger challenges awaiting her dedication for the empowerment of crafts and craftsmen when, after a few years she found herself in a fresh location and with time to spare as her only child was now in a boarding school. It is at this junction that these marginalised humans found Ratna ji at the said inauguration. Just on a whim, Ratna ji had attended a course on natural dying at Dhaka, Bangladesh and was convinced on the ecological and health benefits of natural colours in our lives.

Though chemical dyes were brought into production in 1856, we in India, stayed safe with our beautifully executed natural dyes up until after Independence when all things foreign became our de rigueur. Since these toxic dyes can only be processed in water, the factories are dumping millions of tons of dye effluent in rivers, which is severely affecting humans and animals alike. The workers in such factories are under constant health hazard and studies have shown the penetration of such dyes in the body of the wearer. Such is the severity of this poison that entire rivers have died and epidemic like spread of tumour, cancer, cerebrovascular and lung diseases has affected thousands of people in the proximity of the factories.

The youth, whom we conveniently label physically challenged, are surely challenged by our perceptions and apathetic attitude to lower them to the level of subsistence of an animal. They are side lined to that extent that we do not empathise with their basal want of a purpose in life, of something to do, something to excite their anticipation for a new day, of love, companionship or something to substantiate their existence on earth.

Aranya Naturals, initiated by Ratna ji, was introduced under the umbrella of the Vocational Training Centre and gave these youth a space where they have shattered the label of physically challenged to creating an appropriate one – Differently Abled. With the learning of natural dyes in Dhaka and with persistent experimentation in the kitchen with the abundant natural bounties of Munnar, Ratna ji started teaching basic dying process. The focussed dedication of these budding artists inspired her to challenge their skills with ‘Shibori’ technique.

Today, 18 years down this journey, one hundred and thirty two humans of Aranya are confidant, happy and empowered members of our country. Aranya has taken care of their health, provided homes and emboldened them to live their life to the fullest. Ratna ji adds,” The flair and creativity of our young people has found expression in our products and has earned the appreciation of discerning clientele around the world. Collecting the discards of nature and extracting the vibrant colours has in turn added colour, joy and prosperity in their lives.”

For many, romance bloomed in the beauteous locales of Munnar leading a happy matrimonial life and regular children. Many honed their craft and visited US, Japan and Europe to proudly showcase their creative genius. Many are fully supporting their parents and families. Many of these artists are being tutored by the best in the craft to further their proficiency. One similitude merrily exists among all– the eager enthusiasm for a sunrise replete with imaginativeness and endless possibilities for fulfillment of their dreamy aspirations.

P.S. To quell the cynical voice that may rise on the money generating capability of Aranya Naturals from this idyllic picture of an organisation running with highest ethical standards, I would like to share that it is a profit generating, sustainable label calmly growing with perhaps a negative carbon foot print.

P.P.S What bloomed due to the interaction with the weavers during Ratna ji’s days at Paramparik Karigar? I will be thrilled to share next.