By Life Positive May 1996 Ethnic art and crafts have the unique power of healing the deepest of scars Ethnic art and crafts have the unique power of healing the deepest of scars When I heard about the devastating earthquake that took place in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra, western India, in September 1993, my first, almost instinctive, reaction was that I wanted to reach out and help the survivors. I thought about organizing a charity show, but nothing materialized. A few months later, and it was time for an incredible coincidence. Oxfam contacted me, asking me whether I could do something for the development of the crafts of the Lambadi women who were affected by the quake, with a view to rehabilitate them. I literally jumped at this opportunity. I visited the area in March 1994 to see their handicrafts and decided how I could be of help. But there was nothing for me to base my assessment on since the earthquake had destroyed practically everything. The only pieces that I saw were what the women were wearing. Little odhnis (scarves), embroidery done on the borders or on the cholis (blouses). I invited all the women into one tent. There was utter chaos and confusion, for they were still in a state of shock. They were hostile. I did not understand the language and the heat was unbearable. I was not prepared for such a situation, mentally or physically. I felt dirty, confused and unsure of what to do next. The next morning, however, I woke up with an open mind. Something told me from within that I must take up this challenge. I started to organize things. I realized that we needed a permanent place of work, maybe a center for arts, crafts and overall development. I thought we must organize an exhibition and a stage presentation to spread awareness. I slowly began to try to win over the women. I danced and dined with them. I bought them the basics—fabrics, threads, needles, and beads. Knowing that they were masters in their craft, excelling in bead and mirror work, I left it to them to create different designs. It came as no surprise that many beautiful designs awaited me on my second visit. My idea was to extract their art from them, not impose mine on them. I started picking up each motif, elaborating, guiding them on the application of different items and colors. We worked on garments of all kinds: casual, formal, Indian, western. We also made home furnishings. For me professionalism has always been very important, I lay a lot of emphasis on quality. I introduced simple rules such as telling them to wash their hands before entering the workplace and not bringing their children to their place of work. There was a marked change in the atmosphere in our small tin shed. People who were initially sad, whom you had to push to work, were now bursting with enthusiasm. I realized that getting your mind busy in something productive helps to heal all wounds. This experience by itself is something new for me. If I could, through my art, uplift their morale, bring back smiles, I am satisfied. I want to do more, the project has to go further. The women are working on a wall hanging for a five-star hotel in New Delhi, India. They are also preparing for an exhibition for which the training and design work is over. But we’re on the lookout for donors. I haven’t gained anything monetarily but I’m happy, for there’s a great sense of satisfaction involved in this kind of work. People who have money, donate money. But for an artist there is nothing more valuable than art. I donated that. Looking back on my two years of work with these tribal women from the Limbala and Nandurga settlements, I find I have no regrets. But there is one question I want to ask: why should we wait for disasters to happen before we undertake such projects?
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