KOPEDEG has been extremely successful in providing hope for marginalised women and in finding a growing space for their products at home and abroad.
Photo: Soma Basu
Determined and successful: KOPEDEG members with their products.
THIS fall, "India will beat" in scores of Kindergarten classrooms across Italy, Israel and the Netherlands with tiny tots enjoyably learning classic and fairy tales with the aid of hand puppets that look like Red Riding Hood, the wicked wolf, Pinocchio and Snoopy.
During the last Christmas season too, "Made in India" puppets pulsated in the hands of many Americans. Puppets of Santa Claus, along with many decoration items including angels, bells, socks, stockings, stars, wreaths, balls, tree and candy cane formed part of a huge consignment that went to New York from our very own Princess of Hills, Kodaikanal.
Back home in mist-laden Kodai hills, 26 young women, covered up in sweaters, shawls and woollen scarves in the wintry months of December and January, were racing against time. Their bare hands and feet went mechanically over the sewing machine as their eyes and mind pored over the object of concentration soft toys getting ready for various overseas orders.
When I entered this newly acquired, freshly painted, neatly arranged room in the heart of Kodai town, all that was audible was the continuous whirring of at least a dozen sewing machines. Though a Sunday morning, most of the girls had skipped Church to meet deadlines.
About half a dozen of them cannot read or write, three are polio affected, two cannot speak or hear, six are widows and only two have studied up to class X. If poverty, abuse, handicap brought them together here at KOPEDEG (Kodaikanal People Development Group), what united them were fabric and scissors, ideas and colours and the willingness to learn and earn.
It is a delight to watch these women at work. As spindling fingers handle scissors with deftness, the rhythmic snipping across pieces of multiple-hued and textured fabric give the desired cut and shape which are then filled with polyester fibre and stitched up before getting other final details. Everything goes on mechanically at an impressive speed. Yet there is a rhythm in it their minds and mouths sing a happy song.
"When I started 25 years ago, there wasn't much business. But now it is a matter of great pride that our products are getting big-city and international clients," beams 54-year-old Fatima.
"We enjoy our time here. It is safe to come, learn and work here. The employment gives us a sense of pride," says Shanti, the quality assurance queen, who, along with her partner, Annan, spends hours to manually check every single piece for any defect. "If a piece is bad, we simply rip it off," she sounds stern.
KOPEDEG, a non-profit development programme, was founded in 1975 by a group of like-minded Kodai citizens keen to offer a means to improve the lives of poor women in the area. In the initial years, there were only two under-privileged women sitting on a veranda, knitting and spinning. Today, it inspires self-determination and empowerment among a larger group of poor women. Most importantly, the programme not only imparts free training in sewing and other handicrafts but also when the work is up to quality, KOPEDEG provides marketing services and helps them earn money too.
Going by their style and pace of work, they look professional. But they like to call themselves amateurs in the big domestic and global market, even though they sold products worth Rs. 22 lakhs last year!
Though hand and finger puppets are their mainstay, these women also produce an astonishing range of home-furnishings and bedspreads, accessories and clothing, soft toys and several other items of need, made only with 100 per cent cotton or silk fabric.
"My girls run the show independently. They are given a basic training here according to their talent and aptitude. Later, they teach and learn from each other. Their earnings are based on piece-rate determined by the women themselves. This gives them control over their working hours and an opportunity for self-appraisal," says Tiku Mahadevan, currently in the honorary chairperson's seat.
The fact that each product is handmade is part of the charm of what makes it real, alive and authentic in this age of mass production and simulation. Perhaps that is the reason for KOPEDEG's growing consignments to different countries.
"Though local people (big business comes from Kodai International School) are very supportive, our main clients are the numerous tourists and foreigners who walk into the shop and rarely return empty-handed," giggles Aruna.
There have been occasions when strangers have walked in and imparted voluntary training to the girls. For instance, a German tourist, impressed by the girls' talents, taught them techniques of bookbinding and left behind all his tools and other accessories. Neatly cloth-bound pocket and regular diaries, telephone and address books occupy space in the showroom's shelves now and move off fast during the New Year.
Similarly, another Israeli tourist was impressed by the "bunny basket" and "bunny home" which make cute gifts for children. After returning home he not only placed an order but even promoted the product among his friends. These items are now exported on popular demand.
There are many such stories that reveal how poor, illiterate and marginalised women with their innovative ideas, aesthetic sense, delightful patterns and bright colours have not only carved but are also able to keep their market niche upscale.
Domestically too, they do regular and big business with the Crocodile Bank and Dakshin Chitra in Chennai, Teddy Exports in Thirumangalam, Sutradhar and Things in Bangalore, Anokhi and HelpAge India in Delhi besides several other small and medium boutiques in Mumbai, Hyderabad and Delhi.
From curtains, cushions, duvets and quilts to yoga and sleeping bags, back-packs and travel kits for children, jewellery boxes, table mats and Tea-cosies, glass and mobile cases, hats, wrist bands, bags and purses, jackets and wrap-around skirts all are available at the retail outlet. It is the quilted pillows and soft toys for children in the shape of animals that are very popular.
With the programme being self-financing, sustained entirely through the sales of its products, KOPEDEG is a unique symbol of women's empowerment. "Besides the skills training programme, my girls are taught about consumer needs and how to market their products. Most of the designs and patterns are developed in-house and are best sellers for which they get a bonus. And if you ask them to copy any other design from any sample, they grasp it and do it to perfection," says Tiku with pride.
And she does not forget to add that this is an organisation which "does not accept donations". "So many customers walk into our shop and after seeing the work want to donate money. We politely request them to instead buy our items and also promote it further wherever they go," she adds.
Indeed, KOPEDEG's market is expanding without any advertising. "Totally self-sufficient, it is an upliftment programme for and by women. We believe in self-reliance, self-respect, self-motivation, self-pride and self-development. Time is the essence. We stick to our deadlines and customer specification. We maintain business standards and guarantee quality assurance," Tiku reveals the success mantra.
Surely, the fabric gets a special feel in the hands of these poor Kodai women. The colour and joy they spread brings a smile on the faces of their customers and ushers in some sunshine in their battered lives. And they are determinedly cashing in on their skill with an edge. This unknown group of women are, in fact, the "proud peacocks of Kodai".
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