Kumbaya: Stitching Up Stories
Updated: Apr 3, 2018
Gora walks on her hands, all the way on the dirt track from her house in the village to the bus stand. She’s lifted up by the conductor and then helped down the bus, when she reaches Neemkheda, where she works as a producer at Kumbaya. Gora, a tribal woman in a small hamlet in Madhya Pradesh, doesn’t have legs but that doesn’t stop her from going to work, where she stitches up a storm on a simple sewing machine.
For Saroj, it’s been a story of grit and determination to support her widowed mother and herself. She travels to work to the ‘Bhawan’ in her tricycle (a three-wheeled vehicle that many disabled people in India use as a means of transportation), where she stitches patchwork bedspreads and classic apparel. Still in her early twenties, this hardworking seamstress is proud to be the breadwinner despite her meager schooling (she has studied till the 5th standard).
The team at Kumbaya
These are real-time narratives form the colorful and vibrant patchwork of Kumbaya’s memories.
Nestled in the tribal drylands in Bagli Tehsil, Dewas district, Kumbaya is the brand name for machine-stitched, ready-to-wear garments, home linen and accessories. They are known for their classic designs that are stylish yet ultra comfortable, and for patchwork beauties in jewel tones with perfect finishing.
“The unique significance of Kumbaya is that these are made by women from one of the most remote, backward and poor regions of India,” explains Nivedita Banerji, who founded this social venture in 1995. Supported by the Samaj Pragati Sahayog, a grassroots organization that works on natural resource management, livelihoods, microfinance and empowerment, Kumbaya has been able to equip women and disabled people with a skill and paid work for 300 days a year through garment fabrication in the villages of Bagli, Neemkheda and Satwas. Kumbaya provides employment to over 100 people, 10 of whom have certain disabilities.
Nivedita Banerji training producers at Kumbaya
“Most of these tribal women had never stitched a garment before,” informs Banerji, adding that today over 1000 women in 70 villages have learned stitching.
Also, in a time and place where women earned just a fraction of the money for the same work, Kumbaya paid equal wages.
Kumbaya’s history: Kumbaya, which helps women learn a skill and make their way out of poverty, wasn’t something that Nivedita planned on starting. “We used to have sessions for women to educate them about day-to-day issues at our cow shed-turned-home in the 1990’s, when one of my own hand-stitched patchwork quilts got the women interested,” she reminisces. With just three sewing machines, a box full of scrap and a book on quilting techniques, they set up a business, aptly named Kumbaya.
The simple act of teaching the art of patchwork to a bunch of women aroused a variety of sentiments in the local village folk. From the men insisting that this craft should be taught only to them to family members underestimating the women who went on to learn how to stitch to their Community Bhawan being burnt down by those who didn’t like this change happening in their area, Kumbaya has been tested at even step.
“We didn’t start with a plan to create a social enterprise,” says Nivedita. When an American exporter visiting the village placed an order for their bedspreads and cushion covers, Kumbaya actually came into existence. A tiny grant from the Thelma Tata Trust helped them to further setup the enterprise.
Sewing Up A Storm: “The making of Kumbaya has been about charting a course on unknown terrain, imagining an economic enterprise that actually works for poor tribal women,” sums up Nivedita, who does everything from training, designing and even marketing of the beautiful products. With just a simple sewing machine, over 550 people transform local weaves and prints into contemporary apparel in classic cuts and colorful home ware goods.
The Kumbaya Team at an exhibition
From the first exhibition organized by the Australian Embassy that they took part in 1999, Kumbaya today is part of the Dastkari Haat Samiti Crafts Bazaar in New Delhi, the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in Mumbai, A Hundred Hands exhibition in Bangalore and Cochin, and Pause for a Cause and the Concern India Foundation in major cities like Kolkata, Pune, Chennai, Bangalore and Indore.
You can even find their products in stores like Red Earth Kabini, Maya La Boutique, Kriti Ecoboutique, Remade in India, and Sasha Fair Trade among others.
Zero Waste Philosophy: “Our design mantra is about creating maximum impact through minimal resources,” explains Nivedita, adding that this has simply been born out of unavailability of things. “We use every bit of scrap by turning them into utility items like cloth bags, doormats, price tags and gift bags.” Even the tiniest pieces of cloth, ‘chindis’ leftover from all the stitching are turned into handles for the sturdy, handmade newspaper bags that customers use to cart away their purchases. “Sometimes, we also rejoin scraps of the same print to create fabric of that particular print.”
The merchandise is packaged in re-purposed cartons instead of bespoke branded boxes.
“Looking back, these years have been about creating the business of manufacturing from scratch, in the middle of nowhere,” states Nivedita, who also provides free stitching training to whoever would like to learn the skill in these villages.
Over the years, Kumbaya has provided so much more than just a sewing education or livelihoods to the people in the heartland of Madhya Pradesh. It has offered the folk here a chance to dream, a shot at becoming financially independent, a bushel of joy and the confidence to chart out their lives.
If you’d like to know more about Kumbaya, then click here: https://www.kumbaya.co.in.
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