An Outsiders Perspective on the Inside Deal - Seva Mandir, Udaipur, Rajasthan and India

McComb, Jessie F., a Fulbright Scholar, was in New Delhi for a year studying the lost wax casting process of the Bastar region in Chhattisgarh and the surrounding areas. Back in America, she is going to contribute to our website in a new series Letter from America. Ms. McComb received a BA in both Art History and Physics in 2003 from Hamilton College, in Clinton, New York. In addition to her interests in Indian folk and tribal crafts, she has worked extensively with Contemporary Indian Art.

By Way of an Introduction: Who I am & What I’m Doing
I came to India to learn about how the country, culture and currency of my birth are changing the rest of the world. I came to India to discover how a country three thousand years in the making could be loosing its traditional heritage to modern market forces and factory-made goods. I came to India to immerse myself in the ever evolving world of Indian arts and crafts and examine their makers’ statuses. When I applied for my Fulbright grant, now almost two years ago, I had in mind a project full of hope, of homegrown resistance to westernization; full of promise for a better life for the rural artisan with the increase of technology through rural development programs. Instead I found a few brave organizations that are working relentlessly against the odds to provide both increased income and/or cultural preservation. Among the most well known of these organizations is Seva Mandir and its craft/income generation program, Sadhna. So after spending half a year doing research on various Indian folk crafts and craft development programs in the bustling city of New Delhi, I set out for the much smaller and less hectic city of Udaipur, located in Southern Rajasthan. I was to spend the next two weeks working as a volunteer for Sadhna and discovering what goes on behind the scenes at a typical development NGO.

Background Check: What Seva Mandir and Sadhna Really Do…
Dr. Mohan Singh Mehta began Seva Mandir in 1966 in an attempt to raise awareness about the “particular backwardness and political stagnation of Rajasthan.” The organization started with a campaign for literacy but soon found that a steady income and proper nutrition and health were needed before villagers could concentrate on learning how to read. In the 1970s Seva Mandir’s popularity often encouraged its village level employees to run for government offices. Unfortunately, once there, the new office holders found they had little power to change the corruption. This prompted Seva Mandir to form village groups in the 1980s. Later that decade, Village Committees were established to help distribute aid from alternative organizations for poverty alleviation. Seva Mandir began to realize that the government alone could not solve the problems facing rural Udaipur. Currently, Seva Mandir is working in 583 villages in six block districts educating villagers about natural resource management, education, health, women and child development and institution building.

Sadhna, a sector of Seva Mandir, was started as an income generation program originally called the “Patchwork Programme” in 1988 after two consecutive years of drought in the Udaipur area. Seva Mandir organized a small group of fifteen women and gave them training in the patchwork method of embroidery in order to increase their income and relieve the economic pressures of the drought conditions.

Over the years Sadhna has grown to include about 300 women, with the most recent 100 women joining in the last year. Sadhna’s involvement in the village lives of women had more effect than mere economics. The program brought about social change through the empowerment of the women and awareness programs about domestic violence, education and health.

Eventually Sadhna grew into an independent program and in 2003 stopped receiving funds from Seva Mandir’s Comprehensive Programme. They do still continue to accept support from such funding organizations as Oxfam, SIDBI and the Government of India, usually for long term investment plans. Sadhna also released a web page were Indian and international buyers can view and purchase Sadhna products on-line. India Mart also developed a section for buying Sadhna crafts on their website. In the year ahead Sadhna hopes to pursue its recent alignment with other craft based NGOs in a national marketing mechanism located in New Delhi and initiated by the NGO Udyogini.

The Silent Observer and Number Cruncher: My Role at Sadhna
I arrived at Sadhna with little preparation as to what my duties were to include. I knew that my computer skills and experience with Microsoft Excel were in much need, but that was the extent of the information passed to me through e-mail. I soon found that the Sadhna team was trying to eliminate certain unsuccessful designs from their production line and needed a production/sales analysis done for some three hundred products. So I set to work creating spreadsheets and files that contained various information including the date of production, the date of purchase, the cost and even how the product was bought: cash, credit, consignment (all forms of purchase were valid at Sadhna). Although I was excited about aiding the organization in its attempts to streamline and become more efficient, I had not planned on spending two weeks in front of a computer compiling simple information.

Of course my internship duties were not my sole reason for visiting Seva Mandir. What I really wanted to examine was how income generation and craft development NGOs function. I found that there are as many difficulties as there are gains and that personality conflicts exist in even the most philanthropic organizations. The problems ranged from typical organizational bureaucracy to the complications of working with/in rural areas. When assigning work and delegating responsibilities to the village women a number of factors had to be taken into account. Everything from the price of cotton and silk to the impending weather and the dates of local festivals had to be considered before setting important exhibition dates and schedules. Aside from the internal hurdles, there were the obstacles that Sadhna faced simply from having to work in Udaipur. The heat and dust from the desert climate often caused long power outages and network failures. Since my work required both a computer and network access, I suffered heavily from these incidents. There were also communication problems between the international volunteers, who often had only a limited knowledge of Hindi, and the Seva Mandir staff, who often only had a limited knowledge of English.

However, these problems often did not outweigh the benefits of volunteering or working for a non-profit NGO. There was a true sense of community and pride among the staff members and volunteers despite the small complaints they each had. There was a shared goal of elevating the life of other, disadvantaged people which permeated the environment. The superiors also had a real desire to know how to better the organization and sought advice through volunteer reviews and project reports.

I also had the opportunity to forge some friendships with the other volunteers that I hope will last a long time. Seva Mandir has a well organized volunteer program that has a high participation rate from both Indian and international volunteers that work on projects ranging from the status of the girl-child in the villages to examining the effectiveness of the government run TB drug program. Seva Mandir offers free dormitory accommodation and a cooking area for all the volunteers, which also encourages interaction and information exchange among them. During my internship there were volunteers from England, Germany, America, Switzerland and New Delhi. The networking prospects are great for young people who want to make development work their career path.

The Predicament of being Pretty: Problems Facing Sadhna & its Women
Although Sadhna’s goals and ambitions are on track, they do suffer a few problems both in terms of organization and participation. In the past years there has been a rise in the drop-out rate from the program. When fieldworkers and researchers were sent to the villages to assess the situation, they found that some of the women were disappointed with the salary rate of Sadhna and felt that the work was tedious. The women could make more money in physical labor in a few weeks than they could make working for Sadhna for a whole month.

The women did not see the lack of physical strain and the option of working from home as benefits that outweighed the income cut. However, the most common reason for drop-out was the shifting of villages at the time of marriage. Many of the women who worked for Sadhna had to leave their paternal village at marriage, sometimes into a village that was either too far removed from Sadhna or did not have a Seva Mandir block office in the district.

Another problem arose when Sadhna began encouraging the women to attend exhibitions on their own. Formerly, a Sadhna staff member would accompany the women to exhibitions and manage the sales and stock records. Despite Sadhna’s care to match all illiterate women with literate ones, they still had a difficult time in managing the records and sorting the stock after the exhibition was over. The Sadhna staff, however, feels that with more training and exposure the women will be successful in the future.

A Personal Look: Interview with Jaya
I had the opportunity to catch up with the newest addition to the Sadhna team during one of the above mentioned power outages. Jaya, a recent graduate from NIFT in New Delhi, joined Sadhna as their design coordinator in January of this year. However, she spent her last semester of college working on her final project for graduation at Seva Mandir. So needless to say Jaya was well acquainted with the technicalities of working for a non-profit NGO. She explained that although she was trained as a designer, most of the design work done at Sadhna was generally spontaneous because there are no regular quotas for new designs as there are in other craft design firms. However, Sadhna does occasionally work with other designers and marketing agencies in order to make their products more viable in domestic city and international markets. Sadhna has affiliations with such NGOs as Aid to Artisan in the USA and Craftsbridge in Pune. What struck me most about Jaya during our short interview was her obvious passion for the work that she does. Not only the design and craft side of Sadhna, but more importantly the income generation and poverty alleviation aspect.

Jaya is in charge of production and distribution of work. She must calculate how many pieces are to be made each year and then break that down into the number of pieces to be made each month, each week and each day. She delegates the responsibility of creating these garments, bags and home-decor items to women from 10 different areas. However daunting this task might seem, what impressed me most about Jaya’s dedication to her work was summed up when she said, “We have three hundred women who need work. Giving them work is more important than profit.”

Organizing and running workshops is another of Jaya’s many tasks at Sadhna. I had the occasion of witnessing the end of one of these workshops on the first day of my internship. The workshops were organized so that the women would generate images to be used on future fabric pieces.

After the workshop the images would be passed onto designers who would modify the patterns to printing block friendly sizes. In that particular session, Jaya was trying to obtain about twenty different designs for printing blocks from each woman.

This was quite a task considering the self-consciousness that the women clearly exhibited when they were handed a pencil and crayons. Jaya noted, “They said we don’t know how to use pencils, we don’t know how to draw.” So Jaya showed them images of traditional designed from a well-known book on block printing and Indian motifs. This encouraged the women who then began sketchy drawings on paper. However, some of the women broke away and started creating images with chalk on the pavement. Both Jaya and I saw right away that these images were far better than the ones on paper. The women, trained from a young age in the traditional Rajasthani art of rangoli, just felt more comfortable with the hard, unlimited surface of the ground than the small, thin and contained space provided on paper.

The designs the women eventually came up with were clearly the symbolic images that are rooted in their minds from birth and passed down from one generation to another. They reflected the truest instances of Indian philosophy in their repetitive and circular motifs. They were infused with both the culture of Rajasthan and the imagination of these liberated women.

By Way of a Conclusion: Morning Ragas and Rajasthani Hills
On my last day in Udaipur I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to a sunrise raga played in the landscape of the surrounding hills. As we drove out to the small shrine that was to be host to the music and prayer, the land around me seemed more full than it ever had before.

Despite the slowly eroding soil, the dying forest cover and the scarcity of water, it was the culture that truly sustained the people of that land. It was the images and songs and traditions that helped them survive the years of struggle. And it is organizations like Sadhna that see that very point and work to create an environment were craft can provide economic sustenance along with cultural nourishment.

All pictures courtesy of www.sevamandir.org

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