I t’s already been three months since I first met Reema Nanavaty in New Delhi. She was in Delhi as part of the India International Trade Fair 2008 and had set up a stall for war widows from Afghanistan, some of whom had been trained by Nanavati personally in different crafts, including embroidery, mirror work, packaging of pickles, dry fruits, tailoring and what have you.
Nanavaty’s schedule had been very hectic. It had to be. As chairperson of the SEWA Trade Facilitation Centre, she had just signed an agreement with Mexico’s Fonart to showcase and sell handicrafts made by Mexican artisans through SEWA’s flagship boutique, Hansiba, in India. The idea, Nanavaty told us as we chatted in the bustling media area, was to help artisans from Mexico showcase their crafts in India. Usually, Hansiba keeps handicrafts and products designed by 3,000 artisan women associated with SEWA from villages in Gujarat.
I haven’t met Nanavaty since but it is best to rewind to the time when we spoke about her vision for SEWA to go further as a brand and her reluctance to talk about anything personal.
I’m wearing a SEWA outfit, a cream-coloured kurta with thread work in pink, when we begin talking about the organisation that she’s been a part of for over two decades. “It’s a SEWA?” she asks me politely, refusing some orange juice and coconut cookies as I nod my head in agreement. She too is dressed in a beautiful, raw silk kurta from the same “brand”, as she calls it. And I do realise that it’s Nanavaty who is largely responsible for creating the brand that so many women prefer to wear today. She manages more than $6 million in economic activities, including a federation of 100 cooperatives and a direct marketing outlet for 12,000 artisans. She has been instrumental in launching SEWA’s Trade Facilitation Centre, a partnership between SEWA and the International Finance Corporation, and its Global Grassroots Entrepreneurs Trading Network, a global network of initiatives and individuals aimed at making women’s voices and contributions central to world trade decisions.
“It was crucial to think of SEWA as a brand and not just another NGO working for the development of artisans. This also meant that we not only trained women in the villages but also moved out to include work from artisans from other parts of the world.”
It’s the reason why Guljan Zmarai was attending the trade fair at Pragati Maidan. As the CEO of Afghan Women’s Business Federation, Zmarai was teaching economics at Kabul University till the Talbian regime “took control of our lives and forced me to sit at home and sell pistachios in little packets secretly”. Zmarai feels that Nanavaty’s initiative has given women like her a new lease of life. “The thread with which we embroider handicrafts connects us,” she smiles while Nanavaty joins us.
My attention turns to Nanavaty, mother of two boys (aged 14 and 7) and I ask her how she manages to create a balance between work and home? I sense that she shifts uncomfortably, almost wondering if she even knows herself as an individual separate from SEWA. “I was born into a family where my maternal grandfather was closely associated with the Textile Labour Association in Gujarat. I also got married into a family where my mother-in-law, Ela Bhatt, was the founder of SEWA. I was an IAS officer, but within a year I realised that I wanted to step out and work closely with women artisans,” she says. She smiles and adds that there are times when her children, during their vacations, pitch in and take rounds of villages and help out with a lot of work. “Our work is our life,” she shrugs her shoulders when I press her to at least tell me how she unwinds from her regular schedule.
She says that travelling on work for 20-25 days in different districts of Gujarat helps her unwind. “There’s nothing better than interacting with the women in villages and watching them transform colourful thread into unique creations,” she says, while we step into the stall that Nanavaty has helped set up for Afghan women. “There are still so many challenges that we face,” says Nanavaty, just a minute after she’s reluctantly confessed that she likes watching films once in a while too. “We need a dedicated trade policy for SAARC regions to foster the growth of handicrafts from one country to another,” she adds. “Handicrafts are an expression of the rural craftsmen. Even in the outfit that you wear, it’s the work of the craftsman that makes it so ethnic, so vibrant,” she tells me.
I look at Nanavaty before turning to leave. She, a mother of two, a daughter-in-law, a wife, finds meaning in her life when she interacts with craftsmen on a day-to-day basis. She’s holding a mirror-work bag done by an Afghani woman. She takes the bag and feels the threadwork. I smile back at her, understanding that Nanavati is in a state of bliss. The colourful thread has connected her to her roots one more time.