Written By Anjuli Bhargava | Published with permission from Business Standard
If born a girl in Bihar’s Ramnagar, your life is already chalked out for you. You study a bit during childhood, learn all household chores as you grow, look after younger siblings, marry, have children, look after your in-laws and husband, cook and keep home and hearth together.
You don’t leave the village to travel to the United States alone at the age of 14 (making you the first girl to travel out of the village ever), you don’t stay in hostels and study in Delhi, you don’t learn English over a period of time, you don’t start a company, live alone in Delhi, refuse to marry and pierce all the social mores the village has observed for centuries.
34-year-old Archana Kumari has done just this. With her parents support, she’s defied the norm and broken away from tradition. Above all, she’s planted a new thought in the heads of all girls born in the village: if Archana can do it, so can I.
Heading to the United States At 14
With five siblings, Archana’s life was proceeding the usual way (she studied at the local government school) till she started doing her traditional embroidery pieces – Sujni – for the late Viji Srinivasan’s NGO Adithi that operated in the area.
During the course of her association with the NGO, Archana met an American girl working on a research project in the area. Archana – who was looking to break free from the conventional way of life – was selected to go to the US for an exhibition organized by Asia Society.
Around the same time, Dastkar’s founder Laila Tyabji and her team came to the work in Bhusara village (next to Ramnagar) and were helping the villagers with their designs for exhibitions in Delhi. Archana got to know Tyabji during this period and became very attached to her, drawn by her kindness and warmth. Tyabji visited her house many times, met her parents and played the role of mentor, philosopher and guide to the young girl. So influenced was the young girl by Tyabji that she decided “never” to marry (like Tyabji) and to chart out an independent course for herself for the rest of her life. “It always troubled me that girls couldn’t do what they wanted. There was no freedom. I couldn’t accept this”, says Kumari.
Tyabji urged the girl not to jump to such quick decisions. “I explained to her that for me to choose to remain single – urban, educated, with my own home & income, part of a family & social structure where single women are taken for granted – is much, much easier than for her. The community in which she will spend the rest of her life is very different. She should not take categorical decisions just yet but stick out for the freedom of choice.” She adds that after watching the young girl’s journey, it is she who today admires Kumari than the other way round.
A few months later, the 14 year old found herself on her first flight (she was travelling alone) on her second trip out of her village (she’d gone to Kolkata to obtain her passport with the help of Srinivasan).
Although she was very excited, when it came to it and Archana realized the enormity of what was before her, she had butterflies in her stomach. “I had never seen an aircraft in real life before this. I couldn’t speak a word of English and I was going very very far away from home all alone”, says Kumari, her eyes shining as she recalls the thrill of it all. The visit marked several firsts for her. But everything went smoothly and the few words of English she had learnt for the journey saw her through.
She spent a week in New York and says her happiest moment was when in front of a large audience, Tyabji announced that she had won the first prize in an art competition in Sri Lanka. All of 14, out of her village, in New York, alone – it all seemed like a dream.
The Roles Played By Others
After her trip to the US, Kumari came back and continued her studies in her village. She continued to work with various NGOs including Dastkar on her Sujni work. She also started taking regular English lessons mostly with the help of Srinivasan.
Around that time, a designer from Canada Skye Morrison happened to come to Archana’s village and came in contact with her. Archana and she became very close – although all communication was through their eyes – since Sky didn’t speak any Hindi and Archana barely spoke any English. Morrison took Archana with her for a week to National Institute of Design (NID).
Exposure to the outside world had put new thoughts in Kumari’s head. While she was enjoying doing her craft for exhibitions, she felt she needed a formal degree in fashion to help take her talent and her love for her native art form to its logical conclusion. So she applied for a degree to NIFT and asked her parents for permission to go and live in Delhi to pursue her studies.
Again, Archana’s demands were in some ways incomprehensible and even blasphemous. Forget travelling, she wanted to leave the parental home and move to Delhi bag and baggage to study. Moreover, her parents simply didn’t have the money.
That’s when a whole lot of people – many women in fact – came forward and joined hands to help her. Tyabji agreed to be her local guardian in Delhi. Morrison agreed to finance part of her studies as did Adithi and some other NGOs. Her parents also put together whatever money they could spare. And when it wasn’t all enough (the course was 4 years), Kumari herself sought projects from the Crafts council to bridge the gap to pay her fees. All through, Kumari continued rigorous English lessons – essential for her to earn her degree. She also started dressing to fit better – wearing jeans and T-shirts – unheard of in her village community.
After she had earned her degree (Tyabji and others were present at her graduation), Kumari worked for around two years with export houses in Delhi’s Okhla, earning a salary of around Rs 25,000-30,000 a month – a large salary for anyone from her village – boy or girl. Says Skye Morrison :”Supporting Archana through her studies and helping in whatever way I could was an important milestone for her and for me”.
But Kumari soon realized she could either do her job or spend time on her craft and artwork. Moreover, she wanted to involve other women and girls in her village so that their work could be reach a wider audience and earn an income. She sought Tyabji’s advise and help once again and in 2010, she participated in Dastkar’s nature bazaar with her own stall. This was the first but soon Archana started taking part in exhibitions regularly. This helped her build a base of clients – several of whom her gave her customized orders. She soon had clients who were American, Japanese and all kinds of nationalities. The Dastkar melas in particular exposed her to a whole new world.
Kumari had quit her job by now and she started a small company with the brand name Aunam. She started participating in as many exhibitions as possible and making trips every month to her village. Today, she has a group of around 200-odd girls working on pieces mostly designed by her although at any given point, there are usually 40-45 girls working with her. She doesn’t earn a huge amount every month and Delhi is an expensive city to get by in but she struggles on and is happy with her freedom and choices.
Redefining the Norms
Coming from the background and fairly conservative community she belonged to, Kumari herself broke many established norms and rules for girls. And her spirit and resilience allowed her to do this, a critical factor that allowed Archana to do what she did was her parent’s unflinching support.
A progressive couple, Kumari’s father was a local do-gooder, always helping and guiding the locals with their problems – be it education, jobs, health and other matters – and trying to bring about social change in his village and community. Archana’s elder sister was one of the first girls to go in for higher education in the village.
But within her village and wider family, there were enough people who were totally opposed to her stepping out of the village – let alone heading off to America at 14. “A lot of people almost threated me saying we will see how you will go”. Often, people told her that she was “creating problems for her parents and giving them a very hard time”, says Archana.
She – and her parents – constantly had to deal with a lot of barbs, snide comments and unsolicited advise. Her leaving the village and living in a big (and bad!) city like Delhi was frowned upon by most. Back then, most conventional thinking people in villages were of the view that girls will “get ruined” in the bigger cities and that such an independent streak in a girl is likely to lead to some kind of disrepute in the future.
But when the time came for her younger sisters to get married, the family faced a more serious hurdle on account of Kumari’s unmarried status. Archana was the second child and when she did not marry, most families in the village were unwilling to marry her sisters (in the village they are unwilling to consider a younger daughter for marriage unless the older siblings are married).
This posed a serious problem. While her parents could turn a deaf ear to people’s barbs and unhappiness at Archana’s unconventional ways, they couldn’t let her younger sisters suffer on account of her. Kumari too was quite worried at this stage but eventually – after some initial resistance – people came around and both her younger sisters were married off.
Change Is In The Air
Of course as with all things, attitudes and norms in the village have also changed over time. From the time when Kumari first stepped out of her village (close to two decades ago) to today, the village itself has seen many changes. Almost all girls study and finish school, more and more girls are beginning to leave the village for higher studies, people marry whenever they wish (it’s not dictated by what happens to your older siblings) and some girls marry boys out of choice and even out of their community. Kumari says even the preference for the male child is not as clear-cut as it used to be.
So much have things changed, that sometimes people talk of her with a certain pride and are quite proud to claim association – the girl who has her own company, lives in Delhi, is an entrepreneur in her own right and earns as much as many boys from her village. Kumari continues to work in Delhi and it’s not smooth sailing ever but she is free to choose and chart her own course and destiny. A rare privilege for almost any Indian girl.
– Reported By Anjuli Bhargava
Published with permission from Business Standard.