| Inspiration | The Tribe of OKHAI

"The hand of a craftsman engaged in his craft is always pure."

In this case its the inspiring work of the craftswomen and artisans engaged with Okhai, that results in the creation of handicraft products that have nothing but pure and good intentions behind it! Thanks to my girl @kometjuice, along with whom I spent the past one month working at a grass root level of one of the most ethical NGO’s I know of.

I have never before been to a place that felt so serene and holds such positivity that it radiates good vibes 24×7! A place where peacocks are as common as stray dogs and cows greet you at every corner. Where cycling is second nature and the milky-way seems just at an arms reach.
Mithapur has the look of an oasis in a desolate landscape with TATA Chemical Plants as its skyline.

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So….. what is this NGO I am speaking of and how has it swept me off my feet?

Part 1 | OKHAI | The Brand
The social enterprise with Magical hands & mystic colours.

 

 

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L-R Clockwise : The rabari artisans at Okhai posing for a group picture; Working on a bed cover design in the garden; Mithapur store and workshop centre at the hostel campus

The Okhai centre of empowerment is a means of generating a livelihood for hundreds of rural artisans and semi-urban women while promoting traditional handicraft techniques that are in danger of becoming obsolete and slowly dying out.
It is with this in mind that Tata Chemicals Society for Rural Development (TCSRD) set up Okhai. Further with the support of TCSRD, numerous self-help groups (SHGs) have been formed in the villages of Okhamandal and members of these groups are trained in the processes of modern handicraft production.

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L-R :The artisans in training; Lakhu ben demonstrating her applique cutting skills

 

Preserving the culture and art. Over the years, Okhai has expanded its reach to bring more rural communities into its fold. Beginning with Saurashtra handicrafts at Mithapur (Gujarat), the rich traditions of the Karjobi art form of Babrala (Uttar Pradesh), and jute culture from Haldia (West Bengal) are very special since they depict the culture of their respective regions. The local folk have inherited it from their forefathers. In the absence of any incentives to continue the art, these communities were not in a position to promote it among future generations. With time, the unique art would have been lost to the world. With Okhai stepping in, the fear of these art forms dying an unnatural death has been curbed. What Okhai does is try to save their identity from getting lost in the long run.

Okhai strives to bring the traditions of India to customers all around the world with its unique creations and products. 

“Tata Chemicals realises the need for women empowerment at the grass root level and has been continuously facilitating them with various initiatives for the development of self, family and society. And with ‘Okhai’, we have been successful in making a remarkable difference in the lives of rural women. It has not only helped the rural women earn better livelihood, but has also spread awareness about the traditional crafts of the region. Thus, helping us preserve a rich part of our national cultural heritage for generations to come”, Said Ms. Alka Talwar, Head Community Development, Tata Chemicals Limited. 

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L – R clockwise : Color theory charts .  Daily tea breaks with the women . Behind the scenes – portrait photography with Bharmi Ben.

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Shibori Dying Samples with Zarina Ben

Our mission there was 2 fold- first to further help train the artisans and the Self Help Groups (SHGs) in the basics of colour aesthetics, variations in techniques of making their skilled products and most importantly emphasising on  good quality production. Second, to design a new range of apparel and home decor designs by utilising the available excess and unused raw material.

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Wall Hanging in making with traditional motives

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Traditional Embroidery

Part 2 | The WOMEN! 

At the centre of everything are the Okhai super women(!) which includes the Artisans and the managing staff that are so full of life and warmth, it was an absolute joy to work along with them and for them.

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L-R Clockwise : Gathering of women outside the Dwarka Temple; Lakmi ben strikng a pose by the Gomti river at dawn; shibori dying in process; Nani with her granddaughter Radhika; Leather key tags being made

 

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L-R Clockwise : Leather key tags made in training; Laxmi ben and Ayesha wearing the rabari gold and bandhni; Rami ben holding her baby Ganesha’s made of coir

The most prominent tribe in Okhamandal, are the Rabaris, a semi-nomadic tribe, known for their survival and adaptation in arid regions of Gujarat and Rajasthan. The Rabaris, today lead a quaint, colourful and rugged lifestyle, which finds a manifestation in the embroidery and crafts made by them.

"Art is not a handicraft, it is the transmission of feeling the artist has experienced." - Leo Tolstoy

 

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Lakshmi Ben fixing the cut outs onto the base fabric. This process is called Taping

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Wall Art depicting traditional motifs made out of mud and embellished with mirrors. Better known as Lippan work, it’s a form of surface design found in regions of Gujarat and Rajasthan

The motifs of their old world customs are replicated in the intricate embroidery patterns and these motifs highlight important events, rites & rituals and values in their lives. Rabari girls traditionally embroider blouses, skirts, veils, wall hangings, pillows, purses, etc. It is only recently that this form of art has found its way to the commercial market.  The various forms of artwork of Gujarat are Appliqué, Heer Bharat, Kathi and Bead Work. Of these, the Appliqué work symbolizes the integral part of the decorative needlework done in Okhamandal – in which pieces of colored and patterned fabric are finely cut in different sizes and shapes and sewn together on a plain background to form a composite piece. Seeing the artisans do the cutting of the intricate patterns with such ease is a jaw dropping long ‘wooow’ kind of experience!

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Part 3 | The PLACE!
Mithapur (township) & Okhamandal , Gujarat

'Not a drop of water that falls on Okhamandal should find its way to the sea. If Mithapur gets water to drink, then so shall every human being and every cattle heard in Okhamandal.'-Darbari Shah Seth

When TATA took over the Okha Salt Works in 1939, Mithapur was an undeveloped and desolate place. Privately owned by Tata Chemicals,  Mithapur enjoys the advantages of urban infrastructure along with the beauty of its idyllic surroundings.

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L-R Clockwise : The hostel complex where we stayed; looking over the Gyansagar nadi at sunset ; The pedestrian bridge across the Gomti connecting pilgrims from Dwarkadesh temple to Panchnad

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Ayesha and i at the Shivrajpur beach close to Mithapur, where we explored the lighthouse and collected some stones

The struggles and hardship of a company trying to set up shop here,( in the early years of pre independent India) and the efforts of the people behind its success is very well documented in the book called SALT OF THE EARTH by Philip Chacko and Christabelle Naronha. It is a great read for those who would like to know more about TCL

We had the opportunity to visit the nearby beaches of Mithapur and Shivrajpur, take a quick tour of the city of Dwarka and got the chance to wash our feet in the Gomti river, early morning on a new moon day. Absolute Bliss.

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L-R Clockwise : Washing our feet in the Gomti river on poonam; road to shivrajpur beach; People bathing in the Gomti river at dawn of poonam raat (full moon night)

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L-R Clockwise : Sun kissed banks of the Gomti river; View from a TATA Plant ; Green landscape at the Shivrajpur beach

Having had this wonderful and blissful opportunity has left quite a mark on my soul.
I realise how heavy that sounds, but I’m not lying when I say we fell in love instantly with the people and the place so much so we did not miss the city one bit. (Except for maybe the day when craving for good black coffee and cheesecake got the better of us.)
There is a sense of purpose and tremendous joy that you don’t easily get to experience when set up at a 9 to 5 monotonous job. 
If you ask me i would sign up for the slow rural life over the city life every single time.

PS: brownie points to Diptesh & friends back at Mithapur, Dhara :* for always encouraging me to take up these quick instinctive decisions and Kirti for making all this possible!

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