In 2015, the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise supported Sonali of Mela Artisans with a Kiva loan for artisans in Kashmir, India who craft beautiful pillows for the NY-based company. The loan was funded within days and the pillows have been a hit with customers. The Kiva loan has illustrated that small injections of capital can be catalytic at the grassroots level. So much so, that this year Sonali has taken another loan through the Alliance's Artisan Loan Program to fund an inventive group of artisans in South India.
To fully understand why it's imperative to support these artisan groups - and make them the face of manufacturing - we go to Kashmir, a region that has been struck by warn, internal conflict, and messy politics. All this strife has meant little economic development: tourism, Kashmir's largest source of revenue, has taken a major hit with visitors too frightened to visit the state's majestic vistas. So, how can locals connect with the global market and get out of this slump?
Mela Artisans found the answer at the base of the Himalayas in a group of women who are modernizing zalakdozi hook embroidery, which resembles crochet and dates back to the 1400s. Scarves, bedding, sheets, clothing - all forms of textiles - are enhanced with this hook stitch in patterns that sing of Kashmir: saffron, tulips, lotus, and lilies.
"I love the curves of this particular kind of chain stitch and the surface treatment it creates," says Dipali Patwa, Chief Creative Officer at Mela Artisans. "The beauty of this stitch is the artisan's ability to curve and follow the shape. The understanding of how big or small the stitch should be defines how intricate the patterns can get."
Brought over by Damascus craftsmen and popularized under Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin's rule, one of the most revered rulers of Kashmir who governed from 1420 to 1470, the embroidery is an art form passed down through the generations. Yet, such a deeply entrenched heritage is struggling in the modern era. Artisans lack constant supply of work. Payments dwindle in slowly. It's hard to make a living by stitching.
"If we are able to create a sustainable order stream for these women, the potential impact on the livelihoods of their families and kids would be tremendous and that inspires me," says Patwa.
Hunarmand, a Kashmir-based nonprofit working with Mela, is creating opportunities for these women by opening more markets for their beautifully stitched products. Jahangir Ahmed Bhat, Project Manager for Hunarmand in Sringagar, says, "there is satisfaction in the work." A post-graduate, specializing in craft management, he hails from rural Kashmir. Bhat is compelled by the women who practice this art.
"Whenever we receive an order, that really brings energy and hope in us. I immediately start visualizing the impact of the order and the changes work will bring in the lives of women."
Bhat's hometown, Kulgam, lies 68 km outsid eof Srinagar; known as the "rice bowl of Kashmir," it's a deeply agrarian community with most people growing rice, apples, or raising livestock. Nestled in front of the Peer Panchal range of mountains, the innermost range of the Himalayas, Kulgam has a surreal landscape. Yet, life can be strenuous for locals.
Tasleema Akhter, a master artisan who know works with Bhat, grew up in Kulgam as well. Her parents passed away when she was very young; she, and her three siblings, were raised by her grandmother who was "left to fend for us," Akhter recalls. To make a living, they reared cattle. Embroidery was a childhood pastime.
At 8 years of age, she was learning how to perfect hook stitches with her relatives. Embroidery stayed as a hobby for years - until 4 years ago when she signed up to work with INTACH, India's National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage, a project that started in 1984 to help artisans around the country. Now, she says, "work is worship."
The transition from hobby to a serious source of income started when she was 16: she began working as an individual artisan for local traders. "There was no financial security as the work used to be irregular," she says. "Most of my time, I was sitting idle."
Work was underpaid and payments trickled in long after they were due. Then, after five years, she decided to join an artisan group like Hunarmand, which means "skillful." "Actually, here it means skillful women," says Bhat.
Akhter became one of these skillful women. Today, she is regarded as a master artisan and supervises other women who are learning the craft. Operating in a group was the answer, she recognizes.
"The artisan group provides equal working opportunities to all of its members and is working as a unit."
Accessing capital through the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise + Kiva Artisan Loan Program allowed Sonali and the Mela Artisans team to create sustainable, reliable employment for their artisan partners in Kashmir. The loan helped Mela Artisans expand its line of artisan products to include these embroidered pillows, and market them on its global platform.
Learn more about the Artisan Loan Program on the Alliance website. Members, think about how you could use capital to grow your business, and apply for a small loan today!
This guest post was provided by Mela Artisans. Read more from The World of Mehta.