Kolkata, the City of Joy and home to The Cocobagh project, our social business venture in West Bengal. The project is finding ways to give local women training opportunities and employment with the chance to learn the art of sewing and stitching. Launched in 2015, it’s still going strong. Jo and Laura, both heavily involved in seeing your bag projects from design stage to delivery, this was their first time visiting India. They spent time at our production facilities and getting to know the trainee women in the Cocobagh project. Here are a few words from them both about their visit and the joy of taking part in India’s most vibrant Holi festival.
You wouldn’t visit Tokyo in spring without taking in the famous blossom trees, and the same can be said of India in full festival season. India has many festivals throughout the year. Durga Puja is perhaps one of the better ones known by us, since it’s a little like our Christmas, and can be a tricky time of year to produce bags. This month’s trip to Kolkata was perfectly timed to fully experience India’s Holi Festival.
Holi Festival of light
Holi Festival or the ‘Festival of colour’ is a Hindu celebration signifying the arrival of spring and the victory of good over evil. We were lucky enough to be there during the celebrations and invited by our host to join in with the playing of colours with him and is family.
The celebrations start the night before Holi with a Holkia Dahan. Friends, family and local communities gather together to build bonfires and perform religious rituals in front of it. They pray that their internal evil would be destroyed by the way Holika, the devil.
The following day is when people play with colour. You may have been to a Holi festival here in the UK. Each year there are many across the UK that you can attend. They smear each other with brightly coloured powder and water. Some people play on the streets with friends and anyone walking past is fair game. While driving around we saw that even the cows don’t get away from the festivities. All have several hand prints of colour over them.
Holi Colours stay with you for life
Our bags for life India partner’s wife warned us that he likes to ‘Play Dirty’, smearing other things such as dirt onto unsuspecting faces. So you need to keep your wits about you!
Playing in the garden with our host, all was fun and games until the water balloons came out. Mixing the coloured powder with water makes the dye stick. A week on and many showers later, some of us still have pink and orange hair!
Visiting the Cocobagh Project
Since its launch in 2015, the Cocobagh project has trained up more than a dozen women in the local art of stitching and sewing bags for life. This was our (Jo and Laura) first opportunity to visit the project and meet the women on a one to one basis.
It’s useful to remember that in India, sewing is predominantly a male dominated skill. That means that when it comes to all forms of textile production work and many other industries, there is very little opportunity for women to find employment or training.
Some Western companies are trying to address the balance. Uber has a commitment to employing a million female drivers by 2020, largely in India. Ikea is about to employ 15,000 workers and demanding that at least 50% are female. But in textiles, men still massively dominate. Cocobagh recognised there was a need for women in the local communities, to find full time employment. So we’re training them to be able to get it.
Breaking down barriers
As the first female visitors from England, we were told the response from the women was remarkably different. Whilst there is now familiarity from regular trips from WBC, we were accompanied by a female employee from the office, who acted as our translator. This really helped the women to feel more at ease. They were notably more relaxed with our presence as their cheeky personalities really came through. It was so good to see them smiling, and we felt we were really breaking through on personal level, that went beyond training.
We spoke to some of the women to find out more about them and their time with the project. What came across most, was their ambition to learn and be able to provide for their family. Most of the women are widowed and this is their first opportunity for employment. They’ve built a great sense of community within the group. You can tangibly see the support they offer each other and the lasting friendships they’ve forged.
Practice Makes Perfect!
During our visit, we took the opportunity to have a go on the sewing machine. They literally had to take the needle out; we just couldn’t be trusted! The outcome? Sewing in a straight line, at speed is no mean feat. I don’t think we will be called upon if they are ever in need of an extra machinist.