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Diabetes and the Janakpur Women's Development Centre

My colleagues, Claire Burkert, Jo Morrison and I are putting together a proposal to work with the Janakpur Women's Development Centre on the problem of diabetes. Below is a blog post by Claire, the first in a series, talking about her initial discussions with the women.

“We use mobile phones to connect to our families.” Pano, Madhumala and Ukha practice their performance for the WOW event. 

“We use mobile phones to connect to our families.” Pano, Madhumala and Ukha practice their performance for the WOW event. 

The JWDC artists confront diabetes

Claire Burkert, May 2017

In their Maithili language, diabetes is called chini roga, or sugar blood. When the artists from the Janakpur Women’s Development Center held a show of hands about who knew people in their villages with diabetes, most women raised their hands. When I asked about family members, about two-thirds raised their hands. The response was not surprising because the rate of diabetes across Nepal is rising, particularly amongst women.

The designer Susie Vickery and I have been thinking how to address current health and societal issues through the eyes of the JWDC artists. Over the years the artists have been involved in painting for projects concerning Vitamin A, Safe Birth, Safe Sex, Smokeless Stoves and Peace-building.

 A painting by Madhumala Mandal depicting a traditional birth

 A painting by Madhumala Mandal depicting a traditional birth

Recently, we’d helped the artists to create a drama for a British Council event in Kathmandu called WOW (Women of the World). The JWDC gained a lot of attention for their small but colorful street drama that depicted some of the positive changes in their lives once they’d started earning income at the JWDC.  So on a recent visit to the JWDC I wanted to know more about diabetes through these artists’ eyes, and to explore if and how they would wish to create a public diabetes awareness event utilizing their traditional art and new-found drama skills

“We used to veil our faces when we left our homes to tend the animals”: the opening scene at the WOW event.

“We used to veil our faces when we left our homes to tend the animals”: the opening scene at the WOW event.

  1. What do you know about diabetes?

Madhumala: “You have to pee a lot.”

General discussion and consensus: “You can’t eat rice and potatoes, and you can only eat roti." (flat bread made of wheat flour)

Manjula: “You can eat chana (chickpea) flour. That is why it is so expensive—all the demand from the diabetics.”

Also offered by Manjula whose husband has severe diabetes: “Do not eat red dhal (lentils), it is 80% sugar. You can eat a little beaten rice because it is good exercise for the jaw.”

Pano: “You need to eat bitter foods to counteract the sugar.”

Pano’s comment brought out a lot of beliefs about foods to eat if you have diabetes. They mentioned til gur (sesame) and kerala (bitter gourd) and neem leaf. According to Manjula, the leaf of a plant that has a white flower (kalapanath leaf) is also useful. 

This discussion of local remedies was followed by first hand knowledge about diabetes from the three diabetic JWDC members:

Bhagwati: "I have it but I don’t know anything about it. I eat some methi powder, just domestic medicines. It was hard for me to figure out the problem. My head felt heavy and I felt sleepy. I went to the doctor four years ago for a fever and that was when I was diagnosed. Now, if I don’t feel well I get a check-up. I eat roti more often, and curd and milk. I still eat fruit daily."

Prem: "I felt pain in my knees and when I had a check-up they told me I had diabetes. I felt annoyed. They gave me a tablet to take twice a day but I only take it once. I got angry at the doctors who said I couldn’t eat rice. 

Indu: "I don’t understand fully what it is. I felt weak in my hands. I thought to myself, I am eating everything so why do I feel weak? Then the doctor said I had high sugar. Now I take pills for blood pressure, gas, and diabetes. The doctors said, If you don’t control it you may get paralysis. So I was scared and unhappy. After one week it was controlled but I had to take medicine every day, and not eat rice or potatoes. And no carrots or beets. I could eat green vegetables and radishes. And I was supposed to take a morning walk. 

I went to Darbhanga in India, to consult another doctor. When I was told I was diabetic I had new symptoms. I just felt more sick from knowing I had it. So I went to Patan Hospital to get another check-up. The doctor said if you don’t eat rice, gradually you don’t need to take medicine. But I want to have a little rice now and then."

“When we earned income we bought things that improved the lives of our families.”

“When we earned income we bought things that improved the lives of our families.”

  1. Do you exercise?

Jagatarin: “People in Janakpur have more diabetes than we do in the village because they get less exercise.”

Prem: “The problem is our culture: we have to go to so many bhoj (feasts) and its hard to counteract all the rice and sweets.”

Indu: “And now even in the village people don’t get enough exercise. In my village there are exercise classes, but there are fewer women than men exercising. Some people do not allow women in the household to do it. Women have to get up early if they want to walk, like men do, but women also have to cook. The times I went to exercise there were only 3 women and we felt shy. We were in sari. In the village we feel strange if we are in front of our father-in-laws wearing kurta surwal. And when women go to exercise, others in the village may say bad things.“

“We rode the bus to Kathmandu to sell our paintings.”

“We rode the bus to Kathmandu to sell our paintings.”

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Quilting a Map of Domestic Violence - Finished

I am sorry this post is so long after the event, but as soon as the quilt was finished the Dharavi Biennale opened. Also lots of family and friends visited to see the show. Then as soon as all the family left I was off to Myanmar for a workshop developing products to increase work for the Chin minority in the west of the country.

So back to the finishing of the quilt: We finally finished the quilt to get it hung in time for the exhibition. My sisters arrived from Australia a couple of days before we finished and were immediately put to work helping out. They were amazing helping to organise things with me and to keep the women busy. Some of the women always forget their glasses, or really need new ones. And then there is Geeta, a survivor of domestic violence, severely burnt who now only has one eye, so we always seem to be running around threading people's needles. 

In the final few days as the quilt was stitched together it became difficult for everyone to work on it, so just a certain number of the women were able to put in the final touches, sewing the roads over the joins, sewing on the zips for the railway lines, adding the final markers of places of violence against women and putting in the place names. We used the waistbands of jeans for the main roads and the seams of the jeans for the smaller roads. Putting the roads on really pulled the quilt together and made it much easier to read as a map.

All the women embroidered their names on to the back pockets of the jeans that we used. My initial idea had been to get visitors to the exhibition to write comments about the quilt or about their own experiences of gender based violence, and to put them in the pockets for the women to read. But everything became too hectic and I never managed to organise that. I hope if the quilt is exhibited in other places we can organise for this to happen.

 And the final final thing was to make the key for the map, get it hung and then enjoy the opening.

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Quilting a Map of Domestic Violence Part 3

We only have a week to go to finish our quilt before the Dharavi Biennale exhibition opens. It is now a mad scramble to get it finished. And a scramble for a space to work in, space is always at a premium in Dharavi. We were booted out of the main venue as another group took over to make recycled furniture. We were relocated to the community centre, a tiny room up a ladder above a shop, but is a lovely clean and light space to work. Unfortunately there are still community activism activities ongoing and we need to fit around them. So yesterday we had to share the tiny space with a rather large noisy meeting. So we had about 50 people crammed into the small space. I spent the time carefully picking my way through the women as I checked on their work and answered their questions, trying really hard not to step on anyone or anything. Several times I nearly sat on boxes of thread and scissors and people's feet. And its warming up, so I was very red faced and thirsty by the end of the session.

Imagine another 25 people with little desks fitting into this space. 

We are doing an intensive 3 days, hoping to finish by Sunday. Today we have the space to ourselves, then tomorrow we have to move everything to another room around the corner. But the map is coming along wonderfully and we have now started to join together the finished pieces. 

Here are some of the pieces in progress, the white plastic webbing is now representing the commercial buildings, shops and cafes, as we ran out of the clothing labels that we used at first, the stuff that I picked up from the floor of a workshop. The white and blue webbing is toilets and the green webbing is permanent structures. Buttons are temples and other places of worship and the detailed random squares of embroidery are the jhopadpatti, or informal settlements. One of the participants, a very amusing transgender, said that we would get into trouble with the municipal authorities for making illegal settlements


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The Story of the Susie Skirt

Last year I was asked by a friend, Hema of Amba Weave, to work with her on a block printing project. I finally met up with her again last week, wow, nearly 10 months since we worked together, and got to see the finished 'Susie Skirt' as dear Hema called our final project

Hema started this project to help out Padmini at Tharangini, a block printing workshop in Bangalore. Padmini and her team worked with students at the Asha school for kids with autism and taught them block printing as a form of therapy for their autism. The project began as a quest to find some way to keep the children busy, to cover the costs of the materials in their workshop and to help fund Asha. Fiona, a friend in Bangalore who writes the best guide books to India wanted to use some of the profits from her books to fund any new blocks that needed to be made.

Hema asked me to help her to design a garment that could be made from the finished printed fabric, using scraps as trimming. The product needed to be a design where imperfections in the printing wouldn't matter and where a lot of fabric was used to give all of the kids a chance to work on the fabric. We decided on a full, gathered skirt on a yoke (to reduce the bulk around the hips). We looked at all the printing blocks and settled on a multi directional spotty one. This meant that it wouldn't matter which way up the kids printed. We got them to randomly scatter the pattern, using darker and darker tones as they overlapped the print towards the hem of the skirt. The dot block chosen proved to be too heavy for the children's hands so Padmini designed a new more ergonomic block with a handle that was easier for them to use.

Here are my designs for the order of printing.

We used scraps from Hema's other products to make a band around the hem and waist and to make some little danglies on the ends of the drawstring. I learnt that the drawstring is called a dhori and the little danglies are called jumkhis.

The first fabric came through and lessons were learnt. It was interesting to find that some of the children didn't like the random printing and overlapping the pattern. It upset them to print onto fabric that had already been done. In later printing the children were divided into two groups, those who were happy printing wildly and another group that really needed to place the block in exact spaces. 

When the first bolts of printed fabric came through Hema and I worked with her tailor to make up the first sample of the skirt. when we were happy with it he went into production. 

Hema has since had several events where the skirt was for sale and it has been really popular and raised a huge amount of money for Asha school. She has since done a reprint using another multi directional block as the first lot of skirts sold out. 

The students are now waiting for the next order which Hema will give them soon in a different colour range. And then it will be onto the next outfit. 

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Quilting a Map of Domestic Violence part 2

We have just had our fourth meeting with the women. The second meeting was rather disorganised as everyone thought that they were coming for a 'meeting' at 4, rather than a sewing workshop at 2. So after some hurried phone calls quite a few of them turned up and we were able to get some work done. They all seemed to have completely forgotten that we had decided on 2pm at the first meeting. It was several weeks before so perhaps they can be forgiven. 

I have employed an assistant to work with me on these workshops. Mehzabeen (Bubbly) was one of the artists with the previous project, Dekha Undekha. She turned out to be one of the best participants, incredibly creative and a wonderful embroiderer. So I thought that this would be a good opportunity for her to be the mentor artist and to help run a workshop (plus her Hindi is obviously much better than mine) For Dekha Undekha she made some fantastic artworks. One of them was a cupboard full of stuffed, embroidered emoticons, a vision of her inner turmoil. She wanted to make two-dimensional computer images as three-dimensional balls, each representing an emotion, crammed together into a  small space. The cupboard was her body, but also her crowded home and the densely packed neighbourhood where whole families live in a space the size of an average western bathroom. Bubbly also made a fabulous embroidered and appliquéd portrait of a pregnant woman and some wonderfully creative cloth food, both healthy and unhealthy. 

Bubbly and I got together after the first meeting and divided up the map and made enough sections for all the women to have a part to work on individually. We will then join them all together at the end. It is all a feat of organisation, keeping track of who is doing which section, especially as different women turn up each time. Yesterday at the fourth session we had 7 new participants, so lots of juggling with map pieces and trying to fit everyone in. 

In the second workshop we had the women trace the main features of their area. And then we did some practice embroidery stitches.

Yesterday we finally got around to transferring their markings onto the fabric. I had brought along white carbon paper and a couple of tracing wheels. Everyone was most intrigued with them, no one had ever used a tracing wheel before. My white carbon paper was too pale and weak to show up on the denim, especially as a lot of the jeans are industrially bleached (a terrible process of pre-aging jeans that is very harmful to the workers and the environment. Whatever happened to lying in the bath with your new jeans on trying to soften them. And walking around with jeans that stand up by themselves they are so stiff. It used to be the aim to have aged jeans, but only through constant wear. Ah how lazy we have become says the old girl.) 

Anyway, I digress. So we sent Sumit out to the shop (just opposite) to get us some blue carbon paper. That worked much better. The resulting patterns look interesting in themselves even without the embroidery and appliqué to come.

We then looked at the maps and chose a fabric to appliqué the larger buildings. We are trying to keep consistency across the map, so the larger permanent structures like schools are being appliquéd in a green cloth. The women chose different coloured threads and stitches to attach the pieces. We are doing the whole map in blues and greens so that the sites of domestic violence, which will be in reds and yellows, will show up against the cool background. 

We do have several women in the group who are themselves survivors of domestic violence. One of the women was badly burnt by her inlaws, with whom she still lives. That is quite common for the survivor to remain with the perpetrators. She is badly scarred and only has one eye. So I thread her needles for her. 

On a lighter note the women brought back their samplers that they had been working on at home. It was wonderful to see their embroideries, especially the women who had no skills last year and are now really competent and very creative. I will post some pictures next time.

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Quilting a Map of Domestic Violence

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Quilting a Map of Domestic Violence

I have just started working with a new textile workshop in Dharavi. For the past few years I have been a mentor artist for several art projects run by the NGO, SNEHA in Mumbai which works with the health of women and children in vulnerable communities (slums) Our first project was called Dekha/Undekha (Seen/Unseen) which culminated in a fabulous art exhibition in Dharavi in Mumbai in 2012.

For the last 18 months a follow on art project has been running, The Dharavi Biennale. As part of this art project I am working with a group of community activists to make a quilt of a map that they made of domestic violence in Dharavi. The map was made as part of a programme called Little Sister. The project works with the community activists to record domestic violence on their phones so that help can be offered. The women have been given smart phones loaded with an app called Iwatch. The information can then be used by the community and the police to quantify the actual amount of domestic violence in the area. Koushiki Banerjee, the project coordinator,  said " At the press of a button they can raise an alert and register a case with complete details of the perpetrator.” Koushiki got them to mark the spots of violence on a big map on the floor with bottle caps. 

Yesterday I had the first meeting with the women to arrange how we would go about making the quilt. I laid a copy of the map on the floor and had them all write their names on the area where they live. This is so that they can then make the section of the map where they live. It was such a crazy meeting, thirty women jammed into a small space, all talking at once. 

Last week Sitaram and I went shopping for fabric to use for the quilt and for the sewing group. (I work with an income generation sewing group in Dharavi who make products out of recycled products and fabrics) We buy old saris and clothes from Shobha who lives in a little house in Dharavi (little means a 10ft square corrugated iron room with no windows) Her walls are a wonderful colour, I am sure that fashionable cafes would love to have this surface. She had some lovely pastel saris that the sewing group is now making into suffolk puffs to be made into scarves and other things. We also bought lots of old jeans which will be the background for the map of Dharavi. The trouble nowadays is that everyone wears very skinny jeans, especially girls. All of the jeans that Shobha had in her stock were girl's jeans, so we will need a lot of them to make one map. I also had the idea that old zips could form the two railway lines, Sion and Mahim, that border Dharavi. The other problem with modern skinny jeans is that they are also low waisted so the zips are only about 6cms long. Bring back baggy, high waisted jeans I say. 

Here is Sitaram with our haul, back at the Colour Box, the Dharavi Biennale's workspace cum gallery. We also bought some old sacks to do the edges of the quilts. Don't you love the heart filled tile floor, it always makes me smile.

I am now making a plan of the areas of Dharavi, with templates of the different areas for the women to work from. Also a few samples of stitches and appliqué to give some ideas to them. Here is a little sample that I have made using packaging for the big building, clothing labels for the small houses (picked up from the floor of a little garment factory cum sweatshop that we visited, I washed it) and wire for the road. Lets see what ideas the participants come up with. I will keep you posted, our next meeting is just after Christmas.

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Apple: The Ninth Auspicious Symbol?

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Apple: The Ninth Auspicious Symbol?

I have been meaning to write about this since coming back from Tibet in October. I first noticed the appearance of the Apple logo on Tibetan brocade when I went in 2013. I hadn't been for a few years so maybe it had appeared before then. I even saw the endless knot, one of the eight auspicious symbols of Tibetan Buddhism, inside the Apple logo. I think it is an interesting issue when a culture appropriates a logo or symbol of a business and incorporates it into their own cultural imagery, stripping it of its original connections. I don't think that any of the people wearing this logo connect it to the computer company, they merely see it as an attractive symbol. Its simplicity works well woven into brocade. 

The logo is on the brocade in a range of colours which are made up into the chuba, the traditional Tibetan robe worn by men and women, the wunju, the blouse worn by women under the sleeveless chuba and shorter Tibetan jackets.

It also seems to be very popular for chubas for children, the full sleeved fitted version. This style is a more recent development, it takes the modern tailored form of the Lhasa sleeveless chuba and adds long sleeves. Traditionally the sleeveless chuba was much more shapeless and opened and wrapped like the men's chuba. But the tailored version, with a fitted bodice and structured skirt is popular as it is more flattering, with less fabric to bulk up the figure. I spotted the little girl on her mother's back, below, and followed them trying to get a good picture of her chuba with the Apple logo. It was hard to keep up with them and get a good photo. The mother is wearing the costume from the Gongpo region of Tibet. It is quite different from the other Tibetan regional costumes. 

On another note, I have noticed a couple of people wearing Disney backpacks while prostrating. I love the fact that the mega corporation is being taken on a religious ritual, maybe cleansing it of its bad karma accumulated over the years (speaking as someone who once worked with Disney) 

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Making a Tibetan Monkey

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Making a Tibetan Monkey

We decided to make a monkey for our Tibetan workshop as it will be the year of the monkey in 2016. So teaching the making of him now will give enough time for marketing, ordering and production. After looking at lots of Tibetan images of monkeys from our own photographs of temple paintings and as many images as could be found on the internet I started doing some initial sketches. Here are some of them, trying to use the curves of Tibetan clouds as decoration. Then I played around with applique and embroidery for the face, how best to finish it off and to do the decoration. It needs to be not too time consuming otherwise it gets very expensive. I tried buttonhole, running and chain stitch. They were all rather time consuming and will make it difficult for the tailors to get the curves even and consistent. 

The body shape took a lot of experimentation too but I don't have the photographs of the different prototypes. I make a pattern shape then cut, stitch and stuff it, then make adjustments, alter the pattern, and then repeat the process, eight or more times. I also photograph stages (when they are to my satisfaction) and send them to Claire and the others to get their opinions. Sometimes it is hard for them to visualise it if it isn't in the right colour, or is missing bits. It is easier if you are a maker perhaps.

With the monkey I decided to make the head and body as one piece. With our dolls and some of the other toys I have done the head and body separately. I have a hard time getting the tailors to attach the head onto the front of the neck, rather than perching it on top. They manage when they are in the workshop but I notice that the head gradually creeps up onto the top of the neck stem so that the dolls end up looking very upright. Perhaps its a lesson in posture. But especially with our baby Olo doll, he loses his cuteness and becomes too adult looking. After my success getting the monkey body shape right I may change the Olo pattern so that we have a more consistent 'cute' shape

So I was finally satisfied with the monkey body shape and the decoration. I decided to do the face and body decorative curls as appliqued pieces. Below are images of the finished prototype. Now to teach him.

When the tailors have made their first sample we have quality checking sessions with them leading the session to reinforce the quality checkpoints that we have been through.

The organisation now has an amazing laser cutting machine bought with a government grant for cutting all the pattern pieces. This is such a wonderful step forward for time, consistency and cost. We used to spend hours cutting pattern pieces (and there are a lot of little pieces) for the tailors to take away with them. They would then spend hours cutting all the pieces for the toys. And if their scissors were a bit blunt the pieces would end up a bit raggedy. With the new machine all the bits are cut in an instant, its wonderful to watch. Lhakpen's husband Tengyal is in charge of the machine. He has done a fantastic job of scanning all the pattern pieces in blocks of the correct colour, and then arranging the pieces to make the best use of the fabric. A really really complicated job. The tailors will then be given bags of the pattern pieces and then they just need to do the fun bit of sewing them. 

The photo of the monkey shows him sporting a wig of the offcuts from the machine. I think he is channelling Brian May.

And finally a lovely view of Everest on the way home

And finally a lovely view of Everest on the way home

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Toymaking in Tibet

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Toymaking in Tibet

I have just returned from a toy making trip to Tibet with Dropenling, a Tibetan handicraft group that I have been involved with since 2007. In only 10 days we managed to do a monkey toy, glove puppet and little purse, and a sheep toy, glove puppet and purse. Not bad going when you are bundled up in about 19 layers of thermals, the final one being a long wraparound skirt lined with fake fur. 

The tailors and I with our furry skirts. Lots of Tibetans have these on hand to wrap around them when they are sitting in chilly rooms. Then you take them off to go outside in the warm sun.

The tailors and I with our furry skirts. Lots of Tibetans have these on hand to wrap around them when they are sitting in chilly rooms. Then you take them off to go outside in the warm sun.

For the sheep toy I started with images from wall paintings in monasteries and photos of Tibetan sheep. Then I do some sketches and start making.

My initial sheep sketches

My initial sheep sketches

Then I make a series of prototypes of toys, trying out various shapes, decorations etc. Gradually, with everyone's input, the shapes and colours are refined. 

These sheep were developed a few years ago for the project in Shangri La in Yunnan province. There we worked with Tibetan women farmers on income generation for them in the winter months and between their farming work. A couple of years later we did the sheep in a variety of colours. We realised we were being just too realistic. And then this year I taught the coloured sheep to the Lhasa tailors. We are preparing for the year of the sheep, next year. 

Below are various incarnations of the sheep in Shangri La and Lhasa, first as a relatively normal sheep toy, then a family of sheep in Tibetan clothing, then glove puppets, purses and iPad cases. He is indeed a multi purpose sheep. But never a sheep in wolf's clothing.

Next week I will do the development of the monkey

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Norway

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Norway

A belated post about my trip to Norway. I went to the opening of the Needle's Eye exhibition in Bergen. It was just a rush trip, overnight as I currently have a packed schedule of travel and work. But I am so glad that I bothered to go, a great show, really nice people and a good party. A lot of rain and people wearing wellington boots around the city it is such a rainy, but very beautiful place. And I ate some reindeer soup. 

the opening invitation

the opening invitation

My Icons of the Ordinary and Everydeities. Each room had an antique embroidery related to the work. This room was about power and status, very fitting for my Icons. 

My Icons of the Ordinary and Everydeities. Each room had an antique embroidery related to the work. This room was about power and status, very fitting for my Icons. 

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