A Blog from the Executive Director of In Exchange, Katie Schmidt
Anyone who knows a little about India, may ask why Bhopal. Bhopal is the capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh, it is known as the City of Lakes and it is about 40% Muslim, but is not a tourist destination. In fact, while I was there I could count on a few fingers the number of foreigners I saw. I was invited there by a an Indian friend, Shveta, who runs a workshop called Shree Lalita which employs the village women to do hand embroidery work.
My first four days in India were spent in Delhi getting acclimated to the climate, food and overpopulation. On my fourth day in Delhi, I arrived at the train station at 6:30 am to catch the express train to Bhopal. I was shocked by the awful smell and by the sight of so many people, young and old, sleeping on the floor. It made my heart feel terrible. I thanked God for my life, but my sorrows went out to the innocent children, born into this world forced to sleep on a dirty, hard floor with little or no blanket, and no realizations of the comforts we have in the modern world.
In Bhopal, the manager of the workshop, Sudhir and his niece, Sanga, were eagerly awaiting my arrival. As the passengers got off, there was a mad rush of people pushing through and trying to get out of the train station. I didn’t understand, if half the people would wait a little bit, the whole transition out of the train station would have been a lot smoother, but that is the way things go in India. There is no order and lots of chaos. They only order I saw was in the metro in Delhi, where people actually wait patiently in a single line during rush hour.
Sudhir and Sanga took every caution to get me out of the train station safely, including telling me where to walk. They were very worried about protecting me and treating me like a princess. In Hindu religion, it is said that you should treat guest like Gods and that is exactly how I was treated. Sanga, a young sweet girl, who likes to dress in modern clothing, speaks the best English, so even though she does not work in the workshop, she acted as my personal translator during my visit. When we arrived at the workshop, everyone, including the cooks, was eagerly awaiting my arrival. Most of them had never met a foreigner, so this was their big chance. I can only imagine them telling the story to all their friends as “the time a foreigner came to visit the workshop to buy products that would be sent back to America!”
On the first day, they began the visit by showing me all the fabrics, the different stiches they use and the different items they have made. They mostly specialize in home décor. I then spent some time showing them my designs and explaining how to make the first dress. Before leaving India I had prepared my ideas and designs. This preparation involved lots of research (looking at fashion magazines and catalogs), some brainstorming and finally taking pencil to paper as I sketched out my designs. I always do a rough sketch first, then a final sketch that shows every stitch, gather and detail.
On the evening of my second day, I was invited to an Indian wedding. I was dressed up like a doll. I felt like royalty as the sari, a traditional Indian outfit, was draped on me, my nails were painted, and sparkly bangles were pushed onto my hand. I was given matching fake diamond anklets and of course, a small piece of jewelry worn by Indian women called a bindi was placed on my forehead. Everyone was full of excitement from the wedding ceremony and because a foreigner was joining, it made them even more anxious. They all took pictures with me and passed me around in their dancing celebrations. It was a night to never be forgotten, but I was most amazed by the bride and groom's dress. I could have just stared at all the details in their outfits forever.
On the second and third days I visited and interviewed the women who do the hand embroidery work. Please read more about this experience in the blog “Happiness for One Small Village”.
Of the five days I was there, I was busy everyday checking the work of my designs. Each dress that was made had to be tried on by me at least twice and then the tailor made the necessary adjustments. Normally, when making dresses the tailor has a dress-form, but this tailor did not, so I was the model for the size small. Once the size small was perfected then I gave the measurements for each additional size. This process was very time consuming as I had to inspect everything before starting to make the duplicates.
Making these dresses in India was a challenging learning experience, because of the language barriers and the cultural differences in garment making. The tailor knew how to make an Indian dress, but the western dress with its intricate details took lots of explaining and translating from Hindi to English. Also, the frequent power outages that happen in India, especially during monsoon season, really slowed down the work process. The fun part was picking the fabric from stacks of colorful hand blocked fabrics. It may seem easy to have a few dresses made in India, but in order to get the right design and size; it takes time, careful management and an experienced eye in both dress construction and design.