On October 1st, 2008, Upasana turned eleven. What started as a garment design studio evolved into a company that promotes socially and environmentally conscious business.
Uma with the Tsunamika family
By all accounts Uma, the 39-year old executive is passionate: about her being in Auroville, about her dedication to the Divine, and about her work, done in the spirit of karma yoga. Her drive in 1997 started the fashion studio Upasana which provided Aurovilians and others with tailor-made garments using traditional textiles. Years later her fire launched Tsunamika; created a gift economy; started an all-India project against plastic pollution; brought Varanasi weavers back to their handlooms; and helped cotton farmers in Tamil Nadu go organic.
Uma is not shy, but takes time to reflect on my questions. “Going within has become a habit,” she explains, and adds, a bit mischievously, that many people in Auroville work-out – but that she would rather prefer it if more would ‘work-in'. The changes in Upasana, it appears, have all happened after such ‘work-ins' – inner explorations done after extensive group consultations. “At Upasana we never try to take decisions impulsively,” she says.
The fashion years
Like all Auroville's units, Upasana started with plenty of good ideas and little money to support them. Back in 1997, the purpose was to set up a unit to present India to Auroville through its textiles. This fitted with Uma's background as a graduate of the National Institute of Fashion Technology. This objective was quickly achieved. Aurovilians and outsiders came to appreciate the personal design touch offered by Upasana and the budding company flourished. After over ten years of existence, employing around 40 people and having an annual turnover of slightly more than a crore rupees, Upasana could afford to pull down the rustic keet-roofed offices that had it had used for so long and move into beautiful new buildings.
But by the beginning of 2004, Uma had lost interest. “I had a strong feeling that I was done with fashion,” she recalls. “But when I told my friends, they freaked out. They protested that I would no longer be making their clothes; they could not accept that I was changing. All-in-all, the responses were rather nasty. I lost a couple of friends because of this.”
The other option wasn't exactly waiting around the corner. The change came gradually, brought about by many events. “It was a strenuous year,” says Uma. “Somebody had burnt down our keet house and my partner Manoj and I lost most of our possessions. I was a member of the Working Committee, which is a very challenging job, particularly if you don't have a roof over your head. Going through all that massive amount of extra work almost broke me.”
The turning-point came shortly after December 26, 2004, when the tsunami hit. Like many Aurovilians, Uma and other members of Upasana visited the tsunami victims. “We wanted to do something for those who had lost so much. We wanted to help them regain their self-confidence,” she says. The Upasana team came up with the idea of letting the fisherwomen make small dolls out of waste fabric from Upasana's garment production – a doll that had been created in 2002 by one of Upasana interns, Prema Viswanathan. This heralded the birth of Tsunamika – a symbol of hope and rejuvenation.
The fisherwomen, about 200 initially, took to the idea enthusiastically. Then they asked ‘amma, can we make some money out if this?' “We couldn't immediately answer,” recalls Uma. “We asked them how much money they were thinking of. ‘Rs 1,000 a month' was the humble answer. We thought that if 200 ladies can nurture a modest dream of Rs 1,000 a month, we should find the means to manifest that! For Tsunamika had been created as a symbol of hope.
“But we had no idea where the money would come from. We wrote a project for Auroville's Tsunami Relief organisation. We also decided to help the fisherwomen from our own resources if we would not find an external donor. At worst, we would have lost Rs 24 lakhs that year.” Was it reckless? “Yes, from a conservative angle, it certainly was. But we were inspired,” says Uma.
The donor was found. Concern Worldwide responded positively and funded the project. However, within a year, Tsunamika had become self-sustaining.
The gift economy
“Money,” says Uma, “had been an issue in Upasana for a long time. During the first four years of Upasana's existence, we often agonised over where the sambalam (salaries) would come from. One day, I complained to The Mother that it was not worthwhile to run a business for the sole purpose of making money to survive or to help Auroville grow. Not that we weren't happy making donations to Auroville – we always gave what we could based on an internal feeling and we always gave more than the regulation 33% of the profits' – but we felt it couldn't be the prime motivation of Upasana. We were looking for something else.”
The answer came when the Upasana team started to contemplate what to do with all the Tsunamikas. Did they have a commercial value? Should they have a commercial value? “The decision to distribute Tsunamika free came in an inspired moment,” says Uma. “I had given the doll to a customer, telling her that her name was Tsunamika, and that it was made by the survivors of the tsunami. The lady held it to her heart, and I saw that she was crying, saying that it was so beautiful. I shared it with Manoj, my partner. Next day we had a strategy meeting. We had been calculating like crazy what we could sell the doll for – and in the middle of all that mental arithmetic, Manoj suggested that it should be given for free, but that we would suggest to the recipients that they could make a donation if they felt like. It was a very intense moment – the project coordinator said that she refused to be further involved with the project if we would take such potentially self-destructive action. But it was such a powerful moment that it overtook all objective reasoning. The gift economy was born.”
Today, four years after the tsunami, Tsunamika continues to thrive with a production of about 30,000 dolls a month. The gift economy has proven to be successful, and the income of the fisherwomen has increased. Was there ever a tendency to commercialise? Uma grins. “At the request of a client in Delhi , we thought about commercialising Tsunamika. But my team and especially Manoj reacted in horror at the idea of actually selling any of them! And that was the end of it.”
The Small Steps project
The Small Steps foldable cloth bag
If Tsunamika was a socially-responsible venture into the unknown, the ‘Small Steps Project' was environmentally-motivated. “We became increasingly concerned about the pollution from plastic bags,” says Uma. “Every shop offers you a plastic carrier bag which is thrown away after one use and then litters the roadsides. It is a problem all over India . On Earth Day 2006 we launched the foldable cloth bag, a ‘small step' to address the problem. At the same time we began a campaign to handle plastic consciously.” The project also creates 200 jobs for the women from the villages, and the number is growing every month.
The ‘gift economy' concept also served as the basis of the Small Steps project. Says Uma, “Money is not the issue. The issue is about creating awareness about the environment and it is about seeing our connection with the greater whole”. Upasana gives the bags for free to school children and to those who ask for it.
Not everybody in Upasana was happy with these changes. Their chartered accountant, for example, asked one day if Upasana was doing business or was becoming an NGO. For the approach had shifted completely. “That year,” says Uma, “we went through a massive crisis, not knowing if we would break even or break down. But the socially- and environmentally-responsibility chapters that had opened before us were so engrossing that we simply couldn't stop.”
Small Steps is now gradually reaching out – the Environment Minister of the Government of New Delhi recently invited Upasana to discuss the modalities of producing the bags in New Delhi .
The coming of Bestseller
Tsunamika got an unexpected boost when it became part of the 2006 New Year's gift for the 13,000 employees of the Danish company Bestseller. This multinational fashion retailer has a chain of 2,000 outlets in about 40 countries around the world. They had decided that their New Year gift should consist of items or materials which, in the course of their fabrication, would provide employment opportunities for impoverished people in the tsunami-hit areas. Could Upasana take up the responsibility? “We did,” says Uma. “We identified some other products made by affected people, which included products made by a leper's community near Pondicherry , and made a DVD on the background of the various products.” Packed in banana-fibre boxes, 54,000 tsunamikas and other products were shipped to Bestseller. The response was enthusiastic.
The New Year's gift was followed by an invitation to visit Bestseller in Denmark . “By the time we reached Denmark , the crisis situation of the weavers in Varanasi ( Benares ) had hit the media,” says Uma. “ Varanasi is known for its exquisite silk sarees. But changing taste, work-culture and the very high costs had made the traditional Varanasi saree an elite possession. Cheap imitations from China had hit the markets and thousands of weavers were out of jobs.”
Bestseller asked if Upasana could take responsibility for their New Year's gift for 2007, which would consist of 13,000 silk shawls woven in the traditional Benares style, together with a DVD and a brochure about the project. “We accepted, not realizing what we were going into,” says Uma. “And we certainly had not anticipated the work once this order was over.”
The problems started when Upasana demanded that the shawls be supplied within 90 days. “They said ‘forget it, we need five years!' Me being a woman did not make it easy. I was the project leader but couldn't raise my voice; that would immediately have stopped all communication. I sent them a cheque of Rs 5 lakhs to show that we were serious. It worked.” With the help of a few production coordination teams, the project was successfully completed with a delay of two weeks.
a Varanasi weaver installing a jacquard punch card on his loom;
the women folk are involved in creating the fine and intricately-embroidered buttons and accessories out of silk brocade.
What Upasana had not been aware of was the way in which the Varanasi weavers operate. “They work in a very hierarchical system. We could deal only with the person at the top, who in turn dealt with a group of others, and each of them again dealt with others – in all, there were five layers of people involved. We never got access to the lowest level, the weavers themselves! And there was an incredible amount of exploitation going on at every level,” says Uma.
When Bestseller asked afterwards about their experience, Upasana explained that they we were disturbed about the processes which they had not been able to control. “We didn't know what exactly had happened with the money and how much had finally reached the weavers. We didn't even know how many weaver families had benefitted from the project. The full 700 or less?”
Upasana persuaded Bestseller to fund a project. “We proposed that students from a design institute in New Delhi would interview about 1,000 weavers in Varanasi .” Bestseller agreed. The analysis brought a lot of knowledge – not only about the situation in Varanasi itself, but more importantly, about the plight of the weavers who are living in the 300 villages around Varanasi . The weavers in Varanasi city don't have it easy, but they could survive. Those in the surrounding villages were starving.
Misery in the villages
“I received a call to come and visit a particular village,” says Uma, “Their weavers were unemployed and were hiring themselves out as day-labourers in Varanasi . Their children often went hungry. One woman asked me for a job where she could make Rs 10 a day. That completely hit me. After 60 years of independence, a woman has a dream of earning Rs 10 a day and that too is just a dream?! That was very hard. The person who had done the survey in that village broke down and asked never to be sent back to witness that misery.
“I asked Mother to tell me what to do, or I would not return home. I needed clarity. Why were we in Auroville asked to do something about a village more than 2,500 kilometres away? There must be people in India who are better qualified. There must be other villages in India that are in similar hopeless positions.
“I was pondering the question sitting at one of the ghats of Varanasi , when I remembered that some time earlier in Pondicherry an Ashramite had shown me a photo of the chair of the Mother, decorated in Benares silk. Was this an indication that She wanted me to do something about these weavers? Then I got a call from another Ashramite who said “Be like a warrior! If She wants you to be there, be there!”
She decided to act. With financial assistance from Bestseller, the weavers of that village and two others were given orders for a thousand metres of machine-washable, colour-fast Benares silk. A few designers from New Delhi were told to urgently provide some modern designs. And to the horror of some good-natured advisers, Upasana paid the weavers advances to get their looms up and running. “They warned us, saying that the weavers could not be trusted and would use the money for food instead of producing silk. We were stunned. Should they then go hungry? But our amazement at this response was nothing compared to the weavers' amazement at our interest in them. There was a lot of mistrust, which only disappeared after about 3 months of working together.”
Actually, Upasana did not have a clear idea what to do with all this fabric. Ultimately, it was used in its product-line. The design team meanwhile created more contemporary patterns and slowly a stream of orders followed. Upasana then made a video and prepared a catalogue of the weavers' work for presentation at the Ethical Fashion Show in Paris in October 2008. “It created a great interest and the samples we brought were highly praised.” After Paris , she brought some catalogues to the village. “The weavers were so excited. They proudly pointed their work out to their neighbours. It was a massive boost to their individual and collective self-confidence that their products had been shown abroad.”
Through the Ethical Fashion Show, the weavers' work has gained a lot of goodwill, and commercial interest is on the increase. At present 140 families are profiting, a very small number but the upward trend has started. Upasana will continue to be the intermediary for the marketing until the time the weavers can act by themselves. “We are in the process of creating a weavers federation, which should ultimately take over. We estimate that it will take another two to three years before Upasana can quit and they are self-sustainable.” As for the lady with the Rs 10 dream, she and 90 others have found employment making Benares buttons and accessories.
Scarves made for Bestseller from organically-grown and naturally dyed cotton
The plight of the cotton farmers
For the 2009 New Year's gift, Bestseller and Upasana decided to work on the theme of cotton. This was because for the past two years, the Indian media have been reporting a spate of suicides by Indian cotton farmers, whose cotton can no longer compete in world markets. In the wake of these suicides, penniless widows and school drop-outs try to survive, while loan sharks exploit the vulnerable groups.
The New Year's gift consisted of a scarf, made of naturally-dyed organic cotton, together with a book that explains the history of this fibre and its importance in the world. The organically-grown cotton was hand-dyed with natural dyes at Auroville's The Colours of Nature [see Auroville Today issue # 235], and finished into scarves at cottage-looms in Erode.
The project coincides with a new development at Upasana, which is to take an active interest in Indian khadi products. Khadi is Indian hand-spun and hand-woven cloth. The raw materials may be cotton, silk, or wool, which are spun into threads on a spinning wheel called a charkha. Mahatma Gandhi elevated khadi to a symbol of strength and self-sufficiency in the Indian freedom struggle. To this day, many politicians in India are seen wearing khadi, and the flag of India is only allowed to be made from this material.
“We are interested in organic cotton khadi, not only because it is widely accepted in fashion circles but also because we want to improve the fate of the cotton farmers,” says Uma. “In the coming years we'll concentrate on helping a group of cotton farmers to go organic. But this project is still in an early phase.”
Evaluating the past
Looking back, Uma says that the biggest breakthrough has been the realisation that a small company like Upasana can launch all by itself socially- and environmentally-responsible projects without guaranteed funding. Sheer passion and conviction are sufficient. “We have to drop the fear of not having enough money,” says Uma. Is that the secret to her work? She smiles. “That and the Grace of the Divine and being in Auroville.”
People helped through Upasana's social and environmental business programmes: (from top to bottom)
- a silk weaver at his loom in a village near Varanasi ;
winding silk yarn on the traditional charkha;
a woman from a local village stiches a ‘Small Steps' bag;
girls from Varanasi making handmade buttons;
Bestseller believes in taking responsibility for the people who manufacture its products in more than 900 companies all over the world. With a strict Code of Conduct, Bestseller demands that its suppliers ensure that all their employees work in healthy and safe environments, and that they are treated with fairness and respect. Child labour is banned, and instead suppliers are encouraged to help the children of their employees get a decent education.
Bestseller is also environmentally
consciousness. It demands that all the products it sells are produced in accordance with stringent environmental and ethical standards. Its ‘List of Chemical Restrictions' specifies the substances that cannot be used in the manufacturing process of its products due to their harmful effect on humans or the environment.
Adherence to Bestseller's strict policies is ensured through random audits by its inspectors, and through regular chemical analysis of the products.
A journey into the world of cotton
Cotton – a journey into the world of cotton, the fabric of life, published by Upasana Design Studio, is exquisitely laid-out with captivating images. The book talks about the history of cotton, how it inspired human creativity all over the world, how it was used by Mahatma Gandhi in India's freedom struggle movement, and how today chemically-intensive cotton cultivation, grown with pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers, is harming the environment to an unimaginable extent and driving cotton farmers to suicide. The message of the book is clear – “go organic”.
All photos courtesy of Upasana