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Published: The Voice of Fashion, October 11, 2018

The Sunderbans in West Bengal is a UNESCO World heritage site, with many endangered species and the world’s largest coastal mangrove forest. Located in the southern part of the mangrove region, amid the wild tales of flora and fauna, is a contained community that uses the natural resources to be self-sufficient. Four local women, Bulu Raha, Anima Mondal, Sushuma Mistry and Shephali Roy—who technically live outside Kolkata and also make Canning town their base—were mentored by a social worker, Prakriti Roy, who was working with spinners and weavers at that time. In 1975, at the age of 18, Shephali went to Roy for a job. Instead, he guided her in creating a self-sufficient fair-trade women’s organisation, the Sunderban Khadi Village Industrial Society (SKVIS), of which she is now vice president. In 1981, SKVIS began exports post their first sample order from Holland. While the women—who are well-schooled and have good communication skills—have the combined skill sets of weaving, spinning, dyeing, design and tailoring, their local orders largely remain printing jobs.

Natural Dye Master SuramaNatural-dye master, Surama, in the Sunderbans

Finding a Local Voice

Ondi McMaster-Chullil, a believer in indigenous design and sustainability, has explored the talent of the women of SKVIS in her local handcrafted eco-ethical label, Atelier OM. She sources products like muslin khadi and stoles from them, has worked on batik designs and researched natural dyeing of fabric with them. An American raised in California, she spent two years in India in the mid 1990s studying regional crafts and returned in 2010 on an Art Karavan, as a part of a performance installation art movement, starting in Shantiniketan and travelling across nine cities in nine weeks. After working for Issey Miyake and as a costume designer in film and television in New York, her return to India was an entrepreneurial turning point. In 2011, she began her own sustainable label; she keeps a seasonal shop called OMkhadi in North Goa, while retailing out of stores in India and worldwide, including Paperboat Collective and Sacha’s Shop in Goa, Artisans in Mumbai and Good Earth (Delhi, Mumbai).

McMaster-Chullil discovered the local Sunderbans’ community out of a desire to see the areas from where the raw materials are produced. She believes, “If you are a designer in India, you should live beside them and see what it means to make those products. From bumpy roads and tiger-eating stories to destitution…but what you do have is something that’s truly authentic—people are willing to survive and make really beautiful products out there.”

Ondi at OMKHADI shop event

Building a Support Network

Having travelled to the location several times over the last few years, McMaster-Chullil now considers the four women of the Sunderbans to be her close friends. With no infrastructure or hotels in the remote area, she lives in their homes. “(Prakriti) Roy saw in them the attraction towards working for something more meaningful in their life than just being mothers. These four women have formed an amazing network and support system for many women there.” Today, SKVIS trains young girls; works towards social implementation and is an enabler with a micro-finance setup for 500 local women.

The concept of a community and its well-being is strong—the driving force is not the ego, profits or monopolisation. It is to work with and develop the natural resources towards a greater good. With fashion being the second largest pollutant after oil, and an industry that has now become infamous for low-wage mass production of goods, designers that take up the baton as activists attempt to bring order and stability in a skewed universe. McMaster-Chullil believes that a “designer-activist” has to have integrity, moral fibre, and a deep understanding of the situation. “I will make the decisions that are beneficial for the people that I am working with. After which, I make the decisions for the planet that I am living on. What I am interested in is the people—investing in relationships by working together and watching each other grow.”

Batik UnitBatik unit in the Sunderbans

At the risk of romanticising, McMaster-Chullil describes the community of SKVIS: “Women working in the way of village life: children sitting next to their mothers as they have a meeting, women spinning with children lying on their laps…no deadline or rush; it is one of the beautiful stories in India of female entrepreneurship.” And yet, it is a modern Indian story, because these women have the freedom to be entrepreneurial and are respected for what they do. “They have much less than others, and yet are happy, content and grateful. They are not excessive, they live within their means. It comes down to simplicity. The vision of the future isn’t an industrialised one.”