The first field note…

16.12.17 Rubini & the Samugam Foundation 

by Dorothea Mursch-Edlmayr

We’ve started our second day in India with our first yoga session on the roof of our Guesthouse Mitra at 7 in the morning, before we took the bus to Pondicherry. On this Saturday we had four NGO visits schedule. The ride to Pondicherry – such a loud, crowded, colorful and culturally different place and the overall heat – was overwhelming. We were confronted with the real Indian experience already. And then we stopped at our first NGO, the Samugam Foundation. I was so fascinated with the city trying to absorb everything I saw, that I didn’t mentally prepare myself for the Samugam Foundation. So I stepped out of the bus and was completely surprised by the children that were waiting for us. They grabbed our hands, talked to us, introduced themselves, hugged us and pointed at different things. It happened so quickly and suddenly every one of us got picked by a child, taken by the hand and accompanied to the house they live and get educated in.

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Rubini (r.) and one of her friends

My girl was Rubini. She is 6 years old and wore a beautiful blue dress, my favorite color. She was smiling the whole time and was full of energy and excitement. She showed me the kitchen, the bedroom, the music room, she introduced me to her friends and taught me a clapping-singing game that they all love to play. She seemed happy and like a normal child. Although we didn’t speak the same language we communicated through gestures, pointing at things and facial expressions and hand signs. We spent 20 minutes together before she showed me my seat in the room we were about to hear a presentation from the founder of the Samugam Foundation.

This nonprofit organization gives shelter to the gypsy, street and poor children, providing them with a home, food, education, sanitarian care and overall protection with the mission of giving them a chance to become a part of the society. These children grow up in poverty and misery facing illness and death because of non-existing hygiene standards concerning food and body care, being unaware of their destiny because of a lack of education. This NGO tries to give the children a chance for a better life. I was sitting in this room, watching the videos about gipsy children eating dirty food from the dump, living so close to this polluted area being excluded from society with no possibility for a change. It was hard to take and almost overshadowed the fun playful 20 minutes with Rubini. She was one of them and I felt very helpless. My eyes were wandering around in the presentation room and suddenly I saw a quote by Ghandi on the wall that gave me hope in this moment of brutal reality; “only through education we can change the world”. Inequality and unfairness exist and there is no sense in being upset with the world how it is, we just need to keep this words in mind and help the people through education to change their destiny towards a better one. I went back to the bus with gratitude for my life and hope for Rubini and all the other beautiful children that welcomed us so friendly at our first NGO visit in India.

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Read more about the Samugam Foundation on their website: http://www.samugam.org

A Visual Insight Into a Sustainable Fashion Business

By Mia Windisch-Graetz

Check out some pictures I took during my time working for Uma Prajapati, ethical fashion designer and founder of Upasana based in Auroville, India.

 

 

“I am Full of Hope for the Future”

Sustainable fashion designer Uma Prajapati talks about bloody cotton, high-speed trains and why she never wanted to become a business woman.

DSC00121Uma Prajapati in her apartment in India. Image Credit: Mia Windisch-Graetz

January 7, 2016. 3:22 P.M. Auroville, South India.

“Hold on tight or you won’t survive,” I keep telling myself while sitting on the back of Uma Prajapati’s motorcycle. The rebellious driving style of the fashion designer and founder of Upasana clearly reflects her obstinate approach to her career path. We are on the way to her apartment, where I interview her over a cup of tea. Besides her impressive book collection, design furnishings and a kitchen everyone in their twenties can only dream about, it is her story that fascinates me.

MIA WINDISCH-GRAETZ Tell us about your career progression, where you studied, where you worked, who influenced you.

UMA PRAJAPATI After I finished my studies in economics in my hometown Bodh Gaya, I went to New Delhi. There I did my major in fashion design at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) from which I graduated in 1994. Then, I worked two years for the European fashion market in Delhi. For a design project I came to Auroville in 1996. I remember I only had 2,000 rupees in my pocket, less than 30 euros. Actually, I was supposed to be there for two weeks but those weeks turned into years. And well, I ended up creating Upasana in 1997. Wow, it’s now been twenty years since I first got here.

MWG What does sustainable fashion mean to you?

It means to care. Once you start to care about people and the environment, the ways you make decisions will change. This twist in your mind comes naturally. The way you think changes. And your plans change. You really have to plan ahead to dodge around big conglomerates that only want to make profit.

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MWG What inspired you to create Upasana? 

UP A couple of things. A little more than ten years ago, thousands of cotton farmers in India committed suicide because of the rising costs of farming brought about by Monsanto. It has driven them to crippling debt. They felt they had no other choice. That really hit me. And change happens when it hits you. It doesn’t come easy but when you get hit and cry helplessly, that is when you find the change.

Since then it became very clear to me that fashion has to be sustainable. I worked in fashion and with cotton at this time. I had to live with that. I felt responsible for what happened. Many people in India pretend to not know what’s really going on. There is a seed mafia and farming communities are not well educated. I knew that everyone would just continue the way they work. Why is the world so unfair? Fashion is the second largest industry in the world. And it’s a really bloody business. When we started to work with cotton farmers in South India, it changed my life. What I could do to help these people? I had the choice to either write nasty articles and blame others, or I could just go ahead and change the way I work and consume. And that’s what I did. At first, it was hard but I realized that positive conversation has a far greater effect than negative conversation for a positive cause. I thought, Okay, I will give you fashion but I will make it my own way. I also wanted to create a space where young professionals from all over the world can come and explore Auroville through textiles and design.

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Upasana Spring/Summer 2015 Collection. Image Credit: Upasana

MWG You said ‘a couple of things.’ What else hit you?

UP There was an old lady. I encountered her in a village where I was running a project to empower local weavers in South India. When I was sitting there, next to our car, about to go home again, she suddenly came over to me. She nudged me and asked: ‘Would you support us too?’ I did not expect that and just asked her: ‘What do you want me to do?’ She just wanted to work and earn a few rupees a day. This woman was about sixty and still had a dream. The dream of only earning a few rupees a day.

MWG How is Upasana a sustainable fashion brand?

UP We only use cotton from local farmers. Going organic was the biggest change we have ever made. The clothes are made by our seamstresses and tailors at Upasana. And we only use high quality, naturally dyed fabrics that are made in India.

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Image Credit: Upasana

MWG Sounds very costly… Between ourselves, does it pay off?

UP To be honest, it really broke us financially. We did not realize how badly it would hit our business. I did it all wrong. I jumped in blindly. If I had known how difficult it would all be, I would have done things differently. Instead of taking a leap of faith I might have taken baby steps in the right direction. Despite everything, I am very proud of that move.

MWG Why did you choose fashion as your medium for social change?

UP Because I didn’t know anything else. If I had known music I would have used music. If I were a writer I would’ve used writing…

MWG Every project you have started so far has been very successful. You launched a concept store in Pondicherry and sell your clothes throughout India. You give TED talks, CNN reported about you, and local designers as well as people from all over the world come to work with you. Was starting your own business always a dream of yours?

UP No. I never wanted to start my own business. I wanted to be an artist. Even as a child I was obsessed with painting and writing poetry. It was clear to me that I wanted to become a painter or a writer. I knew myself well enough to know that I wouldn’t be able to make money. Making money didn’t interest me at all. But then I came to Auroville and well, look at me now. I don’t know why, but something in me accepted that I am a business lady now. It took me a long time to digest that.

MWG What keeps you doing all of this?

UP I love the community. Many people appreciate us for what we do, for being consistent and for actually doing what we truly believe in. Bringing a sense of value in the fashion industry is what I am very proud of. I have a good night’s sleep, you know. And I am really grateful for all the support we get.

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Image Credit: Upasana

MWG Did other girls you were growing up with have the same opportunities as you had?

UP Wow, that’s a very serious question. I can’t speak for other girls. I can just say that you have to jump at every opportunity life offers you. I just did it. When you keep on asking yourself questions like ‘Is it the right time? Can I? May I? Will I?’ and never risk anything, then you might risk that there might be no more chance. And the opportunity will be gone forever. Sometimes we just have to make decisions and act. I can think of so many girls in my class that had the exact same opportunities as I had but few put them into practice.

MWG Do you think people consciously ignore the work that goes into what they buy?

UP We are living in a high speed train. Everything is so fast. Now you are relaxing and listening to me, but as soon as the interview is over, you will go back into the train. The speed of life is accelerating and the demands to our flexibility are constantly rising. Sometimes we manage to communicate through three technical devices at the same time. Everyone is on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp. And we are expected to respond within seconds. There is such an overload of information. The question is, How do we process all of that? Our attention is limited. Being quiet enough to make a conscious choice is very hard nowadays.

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I personally need to mediate and do yoga for at least thirty minutes a day. It is challenging to make a conscious choice in times like these. When we hear that Africa suffers we say ‘Ah, that’s horrible!’ but a few seconds later, we forget about it because we get a Whatsapp message from a friend or see a funny post on Facebook. News touch our brain cells for just a few seconds and only a moment later, they do not exist any more. Because we have other problems. Because we do not feel responsible and don’t have time. I think that many people simply don’t know that the consumer has the power to make a conscious choice and change the world. So I would not blame anyone.

MWG Do you think that peopleʼs values regarding sustainability have changed in recent years?

UP Yes. Education is definitely changing people’s values more and more. Sustainability has never been such a big topic. It matters to us, our children and next generations. I am full of hope for the future! I am very, very hopeful.

Priya look 2015 (28)Image Credit: Upasana.

MWG Will they ever have the potential to compete with big fast fashion conglomerates such as H&M or Zara?

UP There will always be a market for both, as they address different target groups and meet different individual needs. I am sure that there will be more of a change but I can’t predict to what extent. There will certainly always be a place for people who want to promote an ethical lifestyle. Niche markets will always exist and find people who support them.

MWG In 2012 the second largest fast fashion retailer H&M launched its first conscious collection. Could sustainable fashion finally be going mainstream?

UP Not really. This idea sounds kind of utopian to me. We should see the world in many shades of grey. Nobody is perfect. And diversity is a beautiful thing. Let’s stay optimistic and say that although big companies will always exist, they may change their ways in order to become more successful in the coming years. People start to think differently, even if only at a slow pace.

MWG You are already working with many organizations and designers in India. Are there any other organizations or designers in your mind that you would like to work with? 

UP I am impressed how big the ethical fashion market in Europe is. I would like to work with the European sustainable design market.

MWG Which social development project are you most proud of? 

UP The little Tsunamika doll is still our most successful project. She is a darling. She is more than a living symbol. She is hope. She is love. It is impressive what a huge impact a small doll like her can have on people all over the world. In 2004, I wanted to help people who were affected by the devastation of the tsunami. So I employed women to make female dolls that are made of recycled waste that remained of the devastation. The doll cannot be bought or sold but only gifted. More than six million of them made it to eighty countries across the globe. And the Tsunamika story is told in schools ranging from Spain to Singapore.

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The Tsunamika dolls. Image Credit: Mia Windisch-Graetz

MWG  Where do you see Upasana in the next five years? 

UP Upasana has already inspired many students, organizations, designers, brands and people. We will just keep on designing for change. I want to do as many things as possible: Going international without going too crazy and breaking our neck, keep being financially sound and take baby steps to reach our goals. I see Upasana as a shining star.

 

Towards the end of the interview, the fashion designer suddenly jumped off the couch. Apparently, she was no longer in the mood to answer questions. “Let’s have more tea. We need a break.” After she persuaded me to try some vegan honey nut balls, (Prajapati’s lactose intolerance means one cannot find any diary products in the household), she offered me a ride back to my hostel for the night. Once I arrived, I posted a photo on Instagram and did some work for university while I kept my friends updated on Whatsapp. She was right. I was back. Back on that high-speed train.

By Mia Windisch-Graetz

 

A Short Reflection…

It has been a little over a month since we’ve returned from India and the trip now seems as if it were almost a dream. By now we’ve all settled into our familiar lives and transitioned back into our old routines and mindsets. Some of us are back at school, while others, like myself, have begun new careers. The things we encountered in India seem so very far away.

When I reflect back on my time in India to my friends and family I tend to approach it in a different way than I had just a few months ago. Back when I had first spoken of my plans to travel to India, my trip had been completely romanticized. Now, I speak about my time in India with a certain familiarity that I feel one can only have when they travel into the heart of India – away from all tourist destinations and luxury resorts. When I look back, what most comes to mind is the people I encountered and those who I was able to spend time with.

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Those who I came to spend time constantly reappear in my mind and with their faces I am reminded of the poverty I encountered and my mind once again boggles at the widespread problems they endure. It is still hard to wrap my head around the basic, fundamental issues that were lacking from most of the lives that I encountered. To go back to my thoughts from my previous post, I think what really needs to be done to help bring people out of poverty is a simple sounding solution – education. With education, individuals can grow up with skills, an understanding of their rights, and countless other advantages that will work to keep them, and the future generations they bring into this world, out of poverty.

From a Western perspective, providing education seems quite simple. However, when you go into a country with over 1,500 different dialects and languages, over one billion people, and a deep rooted caste system and set of cultural values, implementation of education is far from simple. How is it possible to provide a solid education when many don’t have the luxury of taking time out of their day to learn? Or how can we educate the poor when they don’t even have the means to get themselves to school? There are countless questions like these that I ask myself when trying to figure out a “universal” way to spread education.

– Claire Clark –

A Visual Throw Back

By Mia Windisch-Graetz

It’s been a week now since our arrival in Paris and apart from that little sun burn on the nose and a bunch of insider jokes, especially one thing remains: memories. Memories from a life-changing experience in India we will be telling our children about one day. No matter if they are in our mind or on the SD card of our reflex camera: we will keep them forever.

The slideshow below features some pictures I took during this amazing journey. Tip: You can also listen to some Bollywood classics to get even more into the Indian mood while watching.

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Same same but different but still same. Or would you rather call it different different but same but still different? Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the visual throw back to a world different but ‘same enough’ to call it our own.

Nandri et bisou

‘We just can’t’

Two toilet paper rolls, six dresses, twenty-seven cold showers, no laundry load (hand-wash only), and 1.5 Gigabytes of internet. – All in one month. If you had told me that I would be able to ‘survive‘ this way before I left Paris, I never would have believed you.

Right after our arrival at the Chennai airport we went to a restaurant where we did not only have our first ‘real Indian‘ dinner but were also confronted with a ‘real Indian toilet’ for the first time. As soon as you entered the bathroom, the hygiene standards were not the same as we are used to back in Europe because there was no toilet paper instead you could only find a dirty bucket. Some of us went, while others kept saying ‘I just can’t, and waited until they arrived at the hostel. On the bus, some of us were dying to go to the loo because our bladders were about to explode.

Toilet, bed, toilet, bed. – While everyone was out and about visiting NGOs, I was running back and forth from my room to the toilet. Suddenly, I realized that the toilet paper was all gone, which gave me no other choice but to use my hands and a bucket.  And guess what: it was not too bad.

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When we found out that the washing machine broke down at our hostel, I asked myself: am I going to wear the same dirty clothes all week? Consequently, we had no other option than to hand wash our towels, dresses and underwear.

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During our stay in Auroville, the most problematic issue was that internet was almost non existent. Thus, we had difficulties communicating with our families, friends abroad, students from our group and the NGOS we were working for.

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This month was not about sitting in a classroom and learning about sustainable development from the books. We were actually living, breathing and talking sustainably. The problems we were confronted with lead us to find more sustainable solutions.

A question we could all ask ourselves after this month: how much toilet paper, water and energy did we actually save here?

By asking several students and according to the data I gathered from doing some research I found out that our group saved 38 toilet paper rolls composed of 38,000 sheets of toilet paper, which is equivalent to about 2 miles. Moreover, a standard toilet uses about 3.5 gallons of water per flush, a low-flow toilet uses 1.6 gallons whereas for squatting toilets only 0.21 gallons are needed. With the average person flushing about 8 times a day, (not accounting for the people who had diarrhea) we saved approximately 13 502.16 litres of water in total or the equivalent of a swimming pool.

Considering that none of us used a blow dryer or a washing machine, and as we were mostly cycling around with our bikes, we saved a great amount of renewable energy as well.

What will happen when we get back to Paris? Will we ever able to continue the ‘Aurovillian lifestyle?’ – This month, we made it happen, so the answer isDSC_0186: Yes we can.

by Mia Windisch-Graetz