“What you do says what is most important to you. Action expresses priorities” - Mahatma Gandhi
In 2017 Indian social entrepreneur Praveen Chauhan (CEO and founding director of MATR) and Australian textile maker/researcher Kathy Williams (founder of Because of Nature) joined forces from across the seas to establish The Happy Hands Project.
The initiative promotes and facilitates women’s empowerment in rural India through sustainable employment in the slow textiles realm and injects vigour back into ancient cultural traditions and practices.
We talk to Kathy about the project and how everything she does within the framework of Because of Nature is geared towards developing a fully transferable production practise to ultimately gift to the women involved in The Happy Hands Project.
Kathy, can you tell us how The Happy Hands Project came about?
Khadi changed my life on many levels. Almost overnight my extensive textile background was instantly refined to natural dye and Khadi - all of that imbued energy! Praveen and I connected very deeply over this cloth - so much so that he invited me to the 2017 Lakme Fashion Week at very short notice and we presented a collaboration of our work during Sustainable Fashion Week. We were absolutely overwhelmed with the huge response - it was very flattering. But ultimately we decided to take a step back and assess our priorities. Was it big fashion houses in Paris and London and large-scale production that we wanted to align ourselves with? Or was it the women and children and cultural life of rural India that we held our allegiance toward? The choice was crystal clear. I was so despondent from all the "green washing" in the fashion industry and felt so fortunate that I had finally found my path to action. And so I chose to journey at a grassroots level arm in arm with women whose lives are polar opposite to mine in villages of rural India, women who astound me with their resilience, women who inspire me to be a better person, women who fill my heart with love and joy. This moment in time was the beginning of an incredible journey that Praveen and I continue on today. The Happy Hands Project was born and Because of Nature became a portal to a future for the women of rural India. Our aim is to establish a Khadi weaving unit in rural India (primarily in the Bihar zones of Bodhgaya and Gaya) built around entirely sustainable practise with a policy to produce 100% zero waste products."
In May 2018 Kathy travelled to Bihar to run an intensive 10 day natural dye workshop with women from Bodhgaya and Gaya. This workshop was the very first step to Kathy and Praveen realising their dream of establishing sustainable employment and empowerment for the women in these precincts. The workshop was a resounding success and 30 women embraced the opportunity to learn a skill pertaining to their culture and textile history.
What is it that an Australian textile artist can offer women who have grown up in India surrounded by such deep cultural and textile traditions?
“India is known the world over for their traditional textile history and skills so it might sound ridiculous that an Australian woman is going to India to teach natural dye skills! Well, we can thank fast fashion for not only decimating India’s waterways and environment but also for breaking the chain of knowledge handed down from one generation to the next, especially in the rural sectors throughout Bihar. After the industrial revolution and the mechanisation of looms, low production costs became so affordable that handloom weavers could no longer compete with the power loom and eventually a huge percentage of weaver’s handlooms went dormant as artisans left their villages for the big textile mills and dye houses in the cities. Along with them went their knowledge and as a result these ancient, specialised textile practices are in danger of being lost. I have visited traditional weaving villages with fully established weaving clusters that have been silent for 25 years. In the recent past the younger generation left the villages for the big smoke but often discovered that the cities had little to offer them. They now realise there is value in the traditional crafts, especially at an international level, and are willing to learn as much as they can. The Happy Hands Project is aiming to support and uplift the village artisans by guiding and facilitating all aspects of textile development to preserve these precious skills as well as an understanding of quality control and the expectations of the international market. Throughout rural India each village has its own specialty of handicraft. We are determined to breathe new life into this valuable pool of history by learning from older artisans who are proud to share their knowledge and skills. We seek to restore dignity to people’s lives because for individuals who have seen and lived through hard times, respect is an emotion they deeply crave and deserve."
Where does the name HAPPY HANDS come from?
“During our first workshop series we had such a positive time and one day in particular stood out. It was the day we introduced colour to the workshop after many days of cloth preparation and mordanting lessons. We bundle-dyed Khadi with marigolds, rose petals, mango leaves, hibiscus, barks and other various flowers the ladies had found on their way to class. When we unwrapped the bundles there was an energy of hope and possibility and our hands were so busy with flowers and fabric. That was when Praveen decided to call our project “The Happy Hands Project”.
Another aspect of the project revolves around marigolds - such an integral feature of Indian life, culture and celebration. Can you tell us about that?
"Bodhgaya is famous for its Mahabodhi Temple, a world UNESCO site where Lord Buddha was said to have found enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. Buddhists around the world make a pilgrimage to sit quietly in meditation on this sacred site and bring offerings of Marigold to the temple. The temple is also heavily decorated with the sacred flower. The marigolds are changed several times a week and become a waste product. Praveen realised we could make good use of this waste and harness the sacred energy embodied within the marigolds, that have graced the temple as offerings and blessings, by processing them into natural dyes. The concept is simply to collect the waste flowers, pluck the petals, dry them in the sun and grind them into a powder for safe functional storage ready for dye vats. And so in September 2018 a Memorandum of Understanding was signed creating a unique and historical collaboration between The Mahabodhi Temple and The Happy Hands Project. A parcel of land located 5kms from the temple was donated to our project and we are developing an entire weaving unit. Within this unit there will be separate buildings for spinners, weavers and a natural dye house and a kitchen facility to provide healthy midday meals for all our artisans. Traditionally these women have been hesitant to step outside the home due to lack of support, infrastructure and opportunity. The Happy Hands Project wants to provide a safe environment for them to develop their skills and independence. We also want the unit to be a statement of sustainability, zero waste, high-quality artisanal work and circular textile practice as the products we intend to develop will be 100% compostable.
Stage two of the development of the unit site will be accommodation for designers/makers/philosophers/thinkers to observe and learn about true sustainable development and practice by traditional artisans. Visitors can spend time with the spinners, weavers and dyers and observe the level of skill involved in making Khadi and hand-loomed cloth. We hope it will be a platform to develop knowledge and understanding that can be incorporated into their knowledge bank and work practices plus open a dialogue for exchange in techniques and future collaborations."
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