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Paalaguttapalle bags is a women run business, known for its canvas bags. It also symbolises the untapped capabilities of those who are written off as ‘unfortunate’.
In Andhra Pradesh’s Chittoor district lies a village that Aparna Krishnan describes as ‘happy’. And in this happy village live a group of women who developed their skills in stitching and built a business that is known for its quality and a deep sense of humanity. Named after the village, the organisation Paalaguttapalle bags began with a line of bags at a time when the village was dealing with the grinding poverty brought by a devastating drought.
What one may also add on to the poverty is another dimension – caste. The women of Paalaguttapalle are Dalit landless labourers.
Conversations on caste, class and gender tend to focus on the oppression of those who happen to be on the ‘wrong end’ of the three hierarchies. And while the oppression is overwhelming and deep-rooted, the individual behind these social markers is often missed. The story of Paalaguttapalle bags brings forth some of these missing persons.
Aparna Krishnan, a software engineer from Chennai, spent years working at the grassroots of India and realised that that she has the responsibility, and privilege as she later on explains, to share the variety of realities of the people who are often cast off as just poor and low-caste.
Along with many other supporters, she works with the women of Palaaguttapalle to help realise an overlooked potential.
So I’ve watched a couple of interviews to understand Palaaguttapalle bags a little more. In one of them you’d mentioned that you wanted to work with the ‘Real India’. What does real India look like to you?
Ah did I say that? The people at large are poor people and that was the section I wanted to work with and understand. I wanted to understand their strengths and their problems.
Initially my thought was “Oh I’ll help them,” but that changed down the years. When you are of the privileged, what you see in the poor is the poverty and you want to do something. It’s been 20 years in the village and what I have seen is the richness of the community where children are happy and well-rounded.
They also have this instinctive ability to give. This community is of Dalit landless labourers. They don’t have food for beyond two days, till somebody comes to the door hungry – so they will give. Looking back, if you ask me what real India is- urban India is a bubble, real India is in these places with the majority which is in poverty. But what is not seen is the richness, the community, the faith of the people and their continuous sharing.
When I was in my 20s I wanted to help. That diluted- it’s a give and take, and I get a lot. I get the learning of the roots of the place and of traditions. My daughter grew up in the village and had the wisest community around her. The most wonderful people I could’ve hoped for.
I understand what you’re saying. You end up being reductionist when you’re in a bubble. When you look outside you need categories. So when you began working in the village, did you always know you wanted to work with women, or did that just happen on its own?
I wanted to work with poverty and I settled down in the community. We were working on other issues like rain water harvesting with both women and men. We were sitting one day and someone suggested maybe we can look at stitching.
There was no agenda that we will work only with women. It just worked out this way- women and men work collectively.
I was going through your social media, it wasn’t just a product, it was very people centric.
The larger picture is for urban India to learn this richness and what they can learn from rural India. Also, learn their responsibility towards rural India and understanding them.
Borrowing from corporate vocabulary, what’s the ‘work culture’ like amongst these women? How do they interact, what’s their attitude like?
So it started four years ago with an order of a hundred bags and I gave them a little money for some stock. Today it stands at a point where these women are known for their quality and they are shipping to all corners of India and across the globe, selling a wide variety of products. They are remarkable. When it began I had relocated so I was not always there. The other friends who are helping, Lavanya with the website designer and Arun Kombai who is always a good designer, but the credit totally goes to the women. We are only supporting them with social media or finding out where fabric is available.
There is no state support or NGO or anything like that. We have a home of three rooms and the one they work in is very small. The machines are all there. Their homes are also small but the cloth that comes can’t be stocked in the work space, so they keep some in the corner of their homes. Over WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram, I get orders which I send to them- that’s my job. They divide the work amongst themselves and maintain their entire account. They meet deadlines, do quality checks, and do the packaging and posting. They’d even work through the night to meet deadlines.
The entire work culture is completely theirs, I cannot take any credit. When you’re in a small community, you are transacting with the known person. That attitude has driven the business. In the village, everyone knows the effort that goes in and the pressures so the transaction becomes far more human. That culture carries on to this production so the customer is very important. Happiness is important, money is secondary.
Also they work with their hands and agriculture is also manual. So their ability to learn is tremendous. Customers send images of what they want and these women are able to figure out the three dimensional angle of the image and make it even better.
It’s a community so they are all neighbours and friends. One of them had an accident so the rest took on her work. No competitiveness. Things have to be done and we all have to do them. it’s a happy community despite the grinding poverty
In mainstream narratives, Dalit women barely figure and when they do, it’s this image of being the ‘exploited other’. After working with Dalit women, who is the Dalit woman in your mind?
If you ask me about gender and all, I don’t see it in the community. Both girls and boys are educated, but girls are more serious. They want to help their parents and feel more obliged. Parents are borrowing and educating the girl. Her getting married later is no concern. In village meetings women are vocal. Men work at home and there is no ego issue. Right now the women are the main breadwinners. The media has covered these women and the men are very proud.
The women are extremely strong and practical. When these huge bales of cloth land up I ask, ‘Why don’t you call your husbands to lift these?’. One of them said, ‘Who will wait for them to come? We will be sitting and waiting. Let’s do our chores ourselves’.
These are women who haven’t really gone far out of the village. Initially, when they were going to the railway station to figure out how to send the parcels, I would ask the husbands, ‘Why don’t you go?’, but then I figured out, it’s not needed. They are completely capable. It’s a woman run business start to finish. The men are ready to support but there’s nothing they can’t do. It’s not like they look to their husbands because they are ‘incapable’, but the men help.
Sometimes when the women are working through the day the husband will cook. As an urban person, I seemed to have more regressive gender notions than them. It’s not antagonism towards men. It’s like ‘we are doing our work’. The men step in when required and when they can.
For somebody like me who lives in a bubble of privilege, only through these stories does one ever get access to different individuals who have fears, dreams and happiness. This often gets missed in conversations about poverty.
They have a generosity which rich communities don’t have, and it’s spontaneous. There is a woman who has nothing and has everything against her. But she still gave a sack of rice to the temple. The swami there said that creation gave you rain, light everything so you give back what you can. Despite having lived there for 20 years I keep stumbling on new aspects. For five years I was simply trying to teach them but their knowledge is very vast. They are ‘illiterate’ but they have a tremendous memory because that’s how the knowledge has been passed down. I would be running with pen and paper to note down things they used to find it funny.
There are many dimensions beyond monetary poverty. Because I have had the privilege of being there I feel it’s my responsibility to communicate it. It’s a big privilege, having been given that space and warmth by the village. As much as I tell stories they can only go so far, but at least they go that far.
Has it been a conscious choice to not develop an NGO like structure for Paalaguttapalle bags?
Yes, it was conscious. When we moved to the village we weren’t getting into this NGO thing of getting funds from outside because there are many issues involved. The minute you start getting funding you are not one of the village. You will be seen as some funded person who’s coming and staying. And we also believe that funding is not required. It comes with its own strings attached.
A community does have resources to pull itself up. When people want to they are able to raise money within the community. So we thought we’d work with government projects. Whatever government schemes there are, we will apply from the village. It started with a little money I gave which I got back out of the savings. Now the women, whatever they make they put aside some for their requirements and some back into their own running expenses. At the end of the year, whatever extra money there is they divide amongst themselves.
One should not expect to build this up in the air, it needs a certain amount of support to build the linkages and a certain amount of handholding. But the success of Paalaguttapalle bags shows that the village, once given a certain amount of production responsibility, is able to create world class products, without any real state support.
There’s a phrase that has often been used, ‘adopting a village’
I don’t like the word adopting. How can you adopt a civilisation? How can you adopt something that is far greater and far wiser than you? You can be adopted by a village if you are fortunate enough.
You’d mentioned this is a give and take relationship so what have you received over the years?
I didn’t know the centrality of religion. I wasn’t atheistic but I realised a temple, or if it’s a Muslim hamlet a mosque, is the centre. Everything happens there one way or another. Because religion is not just about praying for oneself, it is a code and an ethic that is lived. It is not lived in upper class cities where I grew up. In the city I think this is why people reject religion. It seems to be a slightly selfish pursuit. But here you realise it’s a strong ethical code they live by.
I understood the richness of land. We think only rich people are running the land and the poor are oppressed and depressed. But there is a kind of richness in terms of generosity, knowledge, stories, skills etc. The urban world is talking about sustainability and all that but the villages are the ones that are the repositories of all this. I wouldn’t have gotten all this if I was sitting in an AC cabin.
I got my roots, my country, my gods.
How has COVID impacted your work? Do you think the pandemic will have a long term impact on Paalaguttapalle bags, or are you expecting to pick up where you left off?
So our larger orders like weddings dried up, which we were depending on. Last year when things hit a low, well-wisher sent a video on mask-making. These guys are very good and they figured it out. But we were on lockdown, there was no way to get cloth or to post. So early in the morning at 4 o’clock we take an auto and go to town and manage to get some cloth. We were not able to ship off anything. Then another friend suggested we distribute masks locally. They distributed some thousands of masks. By the time it opened up, masks are what sustained the business most of last year.
Things were kind of improving but then another lockdown. But we didn’t close shop. Through the pandemic there hasn’t been a day when they didn’t have work. How far, I have no idea we are playing by the ear.
What’s the future of Paalaguttapalle bags? Where do you hope to see yourself and the women you work with in the next few years?
In an interview the women said ideally they want sustained work here. I don’t have ambitions as such, I’m just assisting them. Hopefully it will grow and they are diversifying – they’re making blouses. A friend from the US came and spent two weeks with them and worked with them on quilts, for a separate line on patchwork quills.
They’re good at learning and they want their business to sustain. They’ve travelled quite far. There was a national conference and they wanted me to speak but i said no and I gave them the women’s number. Two of them went and spoke in front of a thousand people, with a confidence I would not have had. With a clarity that comes with walking that journey. Every step has been hard. They had to learn screen printing. They had to come to Chennai but they didn’t know the language. They figured it out but when they came back they didn’t know how to adapt that to the village.
A friend who connected with me on Facebook said he would help us with anything so I told him they’re coming. He went and he didn’t speak Telugu but he learnt with them and went back to the village with them. By then they were friends. Everything in a village is different but screen printing helped take off the business. More people came in. We used to wait for orders like coolies but then people helped out. Srinivas was a boy who suggested and started an Instagram page for Paalaguttapalle bags. Someone else made a catalogue. It’s a community. Customers have become friends and they carry the story forward. But these ten women are the centre.
The ten women have proved that the village can stand on its feet.
What would you, 2021 Aparna, say to the Aparna who was looking for a village to work in years ago?
When I talk to youngsters these days, my only thing is, go to the village with an open mind. Don’t assume that you are the wise one. What I tell anyone who is stepping into the village is that there are truths which they don’t know. To think that they are carrying knowledge and they have to teach literacy or engineering or something, I tell them to spend enough time to understand the truths they don’t know.
Maybe I was lucky. It was difficult when I left the job because we didn’t have social media to search out people. When the Narmada struggle was at its peak I went and then I met a whole lot of youngsters who left their jobs to do groundlevel work. I found a network. Then I found this village and things worked out with Paalaguttapalle bags. This is the happiest place though there is grinding poverty. They have enough to sustain but no savings. No one wants to live in the slums in the cities, the village is a good community.
Sustainable livelihoods have to be the aim in every government initiative. If this becomes non-negotiable then the whole country will evolve.
Images source: Paalaguttapalle bags
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