A small mound of multicoloured cloth lay in the centre of the hall. Eight women gathered around the fabric heap and drew out their needles and threads. Hands darted into the centre and discerned a colour and texture to suit their purpose. Like judicious oracles gathered around a bonfire, the women utilised their tailoring skills to create cushions that resembled body parts which affected them the most. The happy task for the day was to translate into fabric a discussion of physical health and the need to attend to the body. The following creations are a result of that jovial exercise in recognising ill health and are a talented play of fabric, colour, stitch, appliqué and dimension. These are the stories of eight ladies with eight different kinds of pain.
The mother with the six scars
Three caesareans. One appendicitis. One miscarriage. And like the perfect metrical ending to a poem, one last family planning scar. An ironic little floral cushion with cuts gaping through pink alludes to her abdominal area. Her scars are tragic and her scars run deep. In her early thirties, she cannot hold her urine for long and needs to release very often. The other women tease her; they make sounds of water gushing from a tap every time she runs to relieve herself.
The daughter with the restricted hearing
She is a bright eyed girl with ears that are fashionably pierced. Forever on her cellphone, texting away or talking animatedly, she is the typical teenager, forever distracted by communication. But close her right ear, and only a feeble world enters her left. A cross against the pink checks shows the restricted access that she has to a reverberating environment of sound. With her dreams of becoming a fashion designer, she is optimistic that with medical care things will be better.
The woman with the tattered spine
There are two sides to this handiwork – before, a healthy golden spine and later, a broken uneven spine. Her spine suffered a lot during the delivery of her children and post – partum care has been minimal. Her smiling eyes, meticulous stitching and talkative nature are hardly indications of her constant back problems.
The girl with sweaty palms
The girl with sweaty palms recalls those schooldays when she couldn’t write on her notebook. Like a cursed woman, anything she touched became damp. Writing an exam was difficult. Holding hands with a friend was uneasy. Why, stitching this piece without getting it damp was a task! The cushion depicts a hand onto which things stick like a magnet.
The fiancée with the sparkling neck
When you see her at work, you know she is an artist with extraordinary talent. At the age of twenty one and all set to be married this October, she is the fiancée with finesse. She holds up her creation and jokes ‘mera gala chamak raha hai’ (my neck is sparkling). Liar. This is another way of euphemistically talking about her thyroid problem which has led to a very vulnerable throat. Inflammation and soreness of the throat are medical issues she has dealt with over the years and which are better now through medical attention. (Don’t miss the button-pill sewed onto the tongue!)
The girl with balloon tonsils
In the group is that young girl of seventeen who has not faced the health issues that the older women have. Her problem, unlike the severity of broken spines and scarred uteruses, is the tonsils. She depicted tonsillitis in her design through jagged lines to show the itching and burning sensations. There is a valuable lesson to be learnt: the best way to deal with most troubles is to stick your tongue out at them. And that is exactly what her work represents!
The woman with two pains
In her purse are always the photos of the two individuals whom she dotes on the most – her son and her daughter. She is a concerned mother. Must provide them good education. Must make them learn English. Must work herself. Must save up for their college education. Must get back in time to be with them. Her work is an expression in blue. Blue brocade. Blue plait. Multicoloured pains. She has been suffering regular headaches that pull one side of her head. The experience of this pain is significantly different from the way her neck pains. Two different aches have been communicated through two different patterns of stitches.
The woman with the wobbly legs
This slender woman disappears into the waves of her purdah everyday at the end of class. She is a master of deception. Calcium deficiency and cartilage issues cause her a menacing pain in her legs, especially when she is menstruating. The pain is depicted in heavy red stitches. But don’t let the weak-legged woman fool you. Notice the bright red nailcolour?
In a series of three sessions, Susie Vickerey (www.susievickery.com) had designed this exercise to enable a discussion among the participants to initiate an awareness of personal health. The women were first encouraged to discuss and draw on paper a body part that they felt the most comfortable with. Most loved their eyes, some loved their lips, none spoke about their breasts. The discussion was then directed towards those body parts that affected them the most and these were also represented on paper. This session needed the women to be separated into two groups – one with married women and the other with unmarried girls. The married women had significantly more problems than the unmarried ones.
The women were then given scrap cloth which they stuffed into cushions and represented their experiences of physical ailments onto them. It was an unabashed unleashing of creativity where the imagination got transformed into tailoring designs. The exercise was wound up with a discussion session in which the women introduced their work and even offered constructive criticism to each other. This follow-up critique session provided the necessary dialogue between the women who otherwise settle in various dichotomies – married/unmarried, Hindu/Muslim, educated/uneducated. The whole exercise was preceded by a series of classes on new stitches and appliqué work.
The exercise was a precise amalgamation of Dekha Undekha’s focal areas – training in design and health awareness. The introduction of new skills among the participants was complemented by their creative expression of ill health. The designs are the consequence of introspection and self-awareness, thus making sure that the artisan is empowered with knowledge of design as well as skill.
Dekha Undekha is an initiative by SNEHA. For more information, visit www.snehamumbai.org