On a quiet lane in JP Nagar Phase I, a whirlwind is at work. Project Director at Belaku Trust, Dr. Saraswathy Ganapathy answers phone calls, scrutinises a stuffed cotton turtle toy, marks a memo, talks to a French volunteer and asks me if I have had lunch. All at the same time. Her energy is contagious and her passion for Belaku, unlimited. It has been a long journey from a childhood `lived across India’ with a doctor mother, to medical school she `never wanted to go to’, working in New York` for 15 years’, moving to Mumbai` which she disliked’ to finally settling with her husband, eminent playwright and theatre-film personality, Girish Karnad in JP Nagar, which was` a wilderness in the late 80’s’ because of ` a beautiful rain tree whose branches covered the entire plot’. Much to her distress, it was cut down recently.
But JP Nagar is also where the seeds of the Belaku Trust, a non-profit organisation working in the area of rural healthcare and education were sown. “Just 15 kilometres from Bangalore, women were slapped in local hospitals for making sounds during labour, were terribly undernourished, working yet feeding babies and being deprived of a responsive system due to changes in the traditional family structure. It was so inequitable.” Being a trained paediatrician herself, birthing practises and women’s healthcare became a major concern for her. Armed with initial funding from the WHO, Belaku went on to deal with local superstitions, a deluge of social and healthcare issues, political apathy and interestingly, its own struggles. “We discovered that we didn’t have all the answers and that it was all about learning from each other.” But things are better now. Feeding, birthing and health practises in the Taluk have improved considerably and Belaku itself has grown.
Three income generation units-Ushe, Deepa and Kirana, owned and administered by the women now go beyond just handmade paper products (initiated with direction from wellknown light designer and film maker Jenny Pinto) to make delightful block printed T-shirts for children, stuffed fabric toys, hanging mobiles, trendy recycled paper jewellery, embroidered and block printed pouches and stoles. Perfect for gifts, return presents and indulging oneself, they transform the office into an Alladin’s cave piled high with colour.
Colourful scarves, both block printed and hand embroidered are available in Khadi, Mangalgiri cotton and silk from Rs. 500-750 (cotton) and Rs.700-1500 (silk). The stuffed toys start at Rs.120 and go up to Rs.350 for the mobiles. While craft based outlets in Bangalore are now the proverbial needles in a haystack, lifestyle stores across the city are flooded with homogeneous products from the Far East and China. The handmade picture therefore, isn’t all that rosy. Ironical, considering India’s wealth of craft traditions.
I sift through trays of recycled magazine paper jewellery – bracelets, hooped earrings, multi-strand necklaces in bright jewel tones (Rs. 150-500) and decide to also buy the quirky autorickshaw print gift wrap paper (Rs. 50). The handmade paper stationery, a Belaku success story, has delicate imprints of leaves or flowers, including my favourite wildflower, the lantana. The bags can also be made to order for weddings, birthdays and other occasions. Unlike mass produced goods, every product here has a story and the woman entrepreneur who made it has a name.
The sale proceeds have a direct impact on the women’s lives. Many of them are principle wage earners in the family, happy with the job security that agriculture cannot provide. They earn Rs.75-180 per day and work six days a week. “It’s their business. They take care of costs where possible and confront issues on their own. The next step now is for them to interact with a national market.”
The economic freedom has also brought change into the area. Women have trained as`Gelathis’, mentoring others in basic health and birth care practises. Watching their mothers transform into successful working women, daughters now negotiate for a college education instead of an early marriage. “At the end of the day, you realise how health is inextricably linked to everything else- caste, women’s status, education. But the system grinds along and doesn’t seem to acknowledge that it is there for the purpose of serving people” she says.
Women in Kanakapura Taluk therefore, have taken matters into their own hands. Literally. Each product they make at Belaku is infused with their efforts and aspirations. The little stuffed elephant I have bought symbolises a larger dream. It is another little link in the larger circle of life that connects us to each other. The Belaku Trust logo has two hands holding a light. ‘I love it” says Saras, “because it says everything.”
Find it at: Belaku Trust products are sold at popular craft exhibitions in Bangalore and at the office : #641, 29th Main, JP Nagar Phase I, Bangalore 560078. Phone : +91 80 2665 4145, 26656325, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. W: belakutrust.org
This post was originally published as an article in The Hindu newspaper on July 19th, 2013