A Shift in Perspective

A Shift in Perspective

by Libby Ames

As soon as you step foot into India, you are catapulted into sensory overdrive – cars honking, dogs running past, oppressive heat swallowing you up, eyes of all the passersby boring into you, and the swirling smells of the city all around.

As we drove around the city, rules of the road as we know them seemingly nonexistent, I felt an overwhelming sense of disorder. Auto rickshaws and motorcycles weaving between lanes of traffic, meandering cows causing traffic jams, families casually strolling through hordes of vehicles. I couldn’t understand how no one was getting into an accident or how anyone would ever get where they need to be. There was no order.

Stepping foot into the artisan workshops, there was a palpable shift in the environment. Rather than chaos, there was calm. It felt as though they were welcoming us home, accepting us into the family they have created in their workspace. Many of the workshops are run out of a single room, floor-to-ceiling shelves lining the walls, all filled with a kaleidoscope of bead-filled jars. The artisans sit around common tables, collaborating on different designs and sharing life advice and laughter with one another. 

Each artisan group we visited specialized in working with different materials, such as horn, resin, precious metals, recycled brass, deadstock fabric, and block printed fabric. There is a wide range in the skills required for working with the different materials, which provides working opportunities for a greater subset of the community. 

In one workshop, artisans walked us through the process of metal casting, which is used to create different charms, pendants, and other metal elements in our jewelry. First, a design is set into a mold, which is then filled with melted wax. Once the wax hardens, several wax pieces are connected to a central wax pole (imagine it like leaves on a tree). That wax “tree” is then placed in a plaster-filled cylinder. The plaster hardens, the wax is melted out, and melted-down recycled brass is poured into the space the wax created. Once hardened, each brass piece is removed from the “tree” and ready for its next step in the design process. 

Artisans were proud to show us some of the ways that fair trade work has impacted their lives and the lives of others in their communities – schooling from preschool age through college scholarships, self-defense classes, skills classes for sewing, community healthcare centers, financial independence, and the support and friendship of their fellow artisans. 

Community seems to be at the center of every aspect of life in India. Lunches consisted of a smorgasbord of foods, some from local restaurants, some homemade by different artisan partners, all passed around for everyone to enjoy. We ate food so spicy it made you cry (both tears of pain and overwhelming happiness). We drank chai served in the tiniest mugs. So. Much. Chai. We drank fresh watermelon juice, ate mangoes at the peak of their season, and had honeydew that actually tasted like something! 

Amidst working with different artisan groups to create new products for several upcoming seasons, we spent our time being tourists. We visited the Taj Mahal (duh), Akshardham Temple (a beautiful Hindu temple made from intricately hand-carved stone), City Palace in Jaipur (think pink buildings, archways everywhere, and hand-painted designs on the walls), and Chokhi Dhani Village (imagine a wonderful crossover between a county fair and a Renaissance festival, but Indian). There were cows everywhere, yet we somehow saw even more dogs than cows. We visited artisan workshops in both large cities and in overcrowded slums. We saw big, curious eyes of kids. Everywhere we went, we encountered infectious smiles and radiant joy.

Disorder is subjective. Where I had previously seen vehicles interrupting the flow of traffic to merge onto a busy road or switch lanes, I now saw people making room for one another and using space efficiently. Where I had heard people incessantly honking their horns at one another, I now recognized the value in this form of communication between vehicles on such crowded streets. After coming home, the order and structure dictating so many aspects of my daily life suddenly felt a little bit uncomfortable. All it took to switch from being uncomfortable by the lack of traffic laws to now being off-put by cars neatly lining up at a red light was a shift in perspective. One way isn’t necessarily better than the other, but just because it doesn’t fit your original notion of what is “right” doesn’t make it “wrong.”

India is a country filled with colorful textiles, tantalizing spices, bustling streets, and penetrating heat. A land of dense population, wealth disparity, contaminated waterways, and pollution so thick it blocks UV rays. A country that is home to thousands of skilled artisans who take pride in their work and use their skills to better the lives of the people around them, not just their own. A place where chaos and beauty not only coexist, but where their unity creates the magnetism of India.

platter with a messy pile of metal jewelry pieces

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