DOSA designer Mona Shah with women artisans at the SEWA Trade Facilitation Centre in Ahmedebad, India. Photos: Jessica Helfand
Jessica Helfand's got her first full-on DesignObserver essay up since embarking on the Winterhouse World Tour, and it's thoughtful, hopeful, wonderful piece. You can highlight it from any point, but here's a good place:
And so it is at the SEWA Trade Facilitation Centre, where hundreds of women cut and sew, measure and mend, bind and stencil. There are neatly queued assembly lines of women, working intently at their sewing machines, braids pulled tightly back as they carry on in an atmosphere that combines quiet diligence with nimble dexterity. The room is silent, except for the rhythmic whirring of the overhead ceiling fans. There is almost no talking. No one wears shoes. Spend one day in the streets here in Ahmedabad with its maniacal motorists and daredevil rickshaws and you immediately recognize the oasis of quiet that the temple or mosque so brilliantly provides. Step into the TFC, and you realize you've entered a parallel kind of environment: it's a design temple.
It is difficult to describe the degree of poverty in India because it's not perceived as poverty so much as reality. There's not a palpable sense of frustration so much as a spirit of commitment to one's immediate orbit--family, livestock, rickshaw, whatever. People don't stand on street corners buying lottery tickets hoping for a miraculous reversal of fortune, nor do they aspire to the level of material acquisition somewhat comically characterized in the United States by shopping at big-box stores. The entire scale of operation here is different, partly due to the fact that religion and spirituality play a more prominent role in everyday life, but also because there's no time or space--or tolerance--for behaving any differently. In this context, the barometer for what constitutes wealth (money, possession) is, in a very basic sense, irrelevant. For women in particular, real currency is artisanal currency--so your knowledge of a particular kind of embroidery, for example, simultaneously links you to your family and to your village; it enables a transference of power, in that you pass along your skills to your children as your mother passed them down to you; and within the framework of SEWA's cooperative stewardship, it provides thousands of women with a trade that is at once personally rewarding and, longer term, financially remunerative. (SEWA's business model favors the artisans, with 65 percent of the purchase price reverting to the families of the rural women who make the actual work.)
Read the entire piece here.