Lack of economic support to pursue artistic passions can keep artists and makers from their craft, which in turn leaves the rest of us with fewer options. It’s a loss we don’t always feel, a void we don’t always perceive. For some artists, especially women in India and other parts of the world, having that support can also be a path to realizing economic power. Giving artists a voice and the ability to sell their work resonates deeply with Farinaz Wadia, founder of Indika, an online shop of authentic, hand-crafted goods from India.
A Dying Art
While attending college in India, Farinaz saw firsthand the challenges faced by many artisans when she volunteered to review legal documents for them. She realized the vulnerability that exists for these people to be taken advantage of by others. It was a glimpse into her future when she would be able to provide a platform for artists and makers from India to sell their goods. After graduating from college, she moved to the United States with her husband, Travis. On trips back to India, Farinaz would visit the markets in pursuit of new bandhni (scarves) with their intricate patterns and other cherished crafts of her childhood. Over time, she and Travis noticed that the craft work previously done by artisans was being replaced by work being done by machines. “The traditional arts were dying like lamps going out,” she says. For example, Farinaz noted how traditional mirror work known as “sheesha” was being replaced by machines that glue mirrors to fabric, bypassing the handwork of artists altogether. This ancient craft is a type of cross-stitch embroidery where mirrors are attached to the fabric in a stitched casing. According to an article by Yashna Chopra, sheesha was introduced to India by the Persians in the 16th century. The practice stems from traditional religious beliefs, one where mirrors trap or blind the evil eye, reflecting bad luck and evil spirits away from the wearer. To see this ancient art being lost was heartbreaking for Farinaz, but she was at a loss for what to do about it.
Eventually, seeing this progression after many trips back and forth to India, Farinaz and her husband decided they had to do something to support her homeland’s artists and traditional crafts. Before “Fair Trade” was an international movement, Farinaz began working with the artisans she knew in India to sell their handmade treasures at trunk shows and in farmer’s markets in the US. For her, it was an opportunity to create a bridge to new markets for these artists. She provided a platform where they could continue their craft and amplify their voices in an evolving global economy.
There are other businesses bringing work to artists in India. However, some companies even with good intentions have used their purchasing power to change the art to meet a current or popular Western trend. For example, in the village where Indika gets their Tree of Life cushion covers, another company had the women stitching skull and crossbones appliques instead of their traditional designs. “To me, that is like a stab wound. It is exploitation,” Farinaz says. “We only buy what artists make. Sometimes it works for the Western market, sometimes it doesn’t.” It is more important to Farinaz to honor the artists and not take advantage of their labor. That’s an essential distinction between Indika and some other importers: authenticity lies in the pursuit of a craft and the freedom for artists to design and evolve their work. Knowing this is key to ensuring the longevity of these ancient skills.
Indika now connects to 47 collectives and independent artists who create authentic crafts using traditional methods. It is work done slowly and often in the artisan’s spare time, while other pursuits, like bricklaying, are often necessary to earn a living. Farinaz has established many long-term and deep relationships with the artists, getting to know them and their families. For her, it is personal. Referring to the person who makes the bandhni scarves available in her shop, Farinaz says, “his forefathers supplied my forefathers with the same artform and fabrics. These are connections that are ancient.” In building these relationships, Farinaz and Travis are creating a global community and providing us with access ancient traditions.
The Prosperity Hens
One of the collectives Indika works with is in Northern India. According to Bloomberg, India is a place where 90% of women are shut out of the workforce. Since working with this collective, which is part of the Barefoot College, Farinaz has seen dozens of women gain employment outside the home. Sitting together in a courtyard drinking endless cups of tea and chatting among themselves, the women create the “Prosperity Hens” out of scraps of cloth, glass beads, and silver ornaments. The ornaments are so named because ownership of a flock of chickens could mean the difference between poverty and living a life of plenty. Aptly, the women making these ornaments are creating their own prosperity for their families and communities. Their income gives them the power to say if and where their daughters go to school. In turn, their daughters can now afford to pursue an education and have their own careers. Making Prosperity Hens is not just a skill for the women or a transaction for Farinaz. These women have a source of income and a platform to stand on. Through their relationship, Farinaz provides a means to amplify their voices. To have a voice, to have access to education, that is a prosperity that cannot be taken away.
Multiple strings of Prosperity Hens from Indika Imports
Farinaz knows a growing number of people want to support these traditions. It can be challenging to reach them in today’s online, fast-paced world. One that is dominated by the biggest producers and most powerful companies. She believes that if we can find each other, we can lend strength to those without power. With a little investigation, people buying products imported from India can learn how they are made, who is making them, and how the makers are treated. Look for authenticity of craft, traditional designs and methods. Not only will you find quality and beauty in the uniqueness of the items, but you will also be filling a void in the world with something completely unique and different.