A story to be told…

Listening to stories has always been a delightful experience. It takes me back to the glorious childhood days of listening to grandmother tales. At the core of her every fascinating story would lay the epic world of Mahabharta, Ramayana or any other Puranas. Story telling is a popular tradition and one of the oldest art forms of India. Each community and region has its own style and manner of narrating the stories illustrating the richness of their culture. Today the traditional art of storytelling is vanishing from India and losing its place in our fast paced modern lives.

During our visit to the Dastakari Haat Samiti’s bazaar at Dilli Haat we reconnected with some forgotten tales, the fading art form and a few of these captivating artisans who keep this tradition alive.

Kawad – the portable temples.

Kawads are an ingenious piece of craft unfolding the stories of great Indian epics. This wooden portable shrine have multiple panels’ hinged together opening outwards illustrating a classic tale. The storyteller opens them in sequence of the events of his 20130110_143243narration. The recitation includes narration of stories tracing lines of descents, almost simulating an experience of travel to a pilgrimage. A traditional kawad would typically be painted in red with 10 doors reciting Krishna’s and Rama’s stories. Today the artists make smaller kawads with 8 or 6 doors as decoration pieces covering subjects like mythology, religion, festivals and also contemporary and social issues.

20130110_143433This Chittorgarh based kawad artist Dwarka Prasad Jhangid was excited to narrate Lord Ganesha’s story demonstrated on a beautiful white Kawad. On being asked about the history of this craft form, he proudly shared that the art form traces its roots from Bassi (near Chittorgarh, Rajasthan), and that it’s a 500-year-old tradition practiced by a group called “Jangid” Brahmins.

Patachitra – Pata chitra katha

A unique form of storytelling from Bengal and Orissa where a chitrakar pours his artistic imagination into scrolls made of dried palm leaf canvas and handloom cloth and narrates versions of episodes culled from Hindu mythology or their local heros. In earlier days, the patuas (chitrakars) would travel village to village, sit before a large audience and sing out their stories. The picture stories manifest rich bright colors, creative motifs and themes inspired by tales of Hindu legends and Indian mythological characters.IMG_9649

Apart from entertainment, these art forms are becoming a medium of education and information. The paintings depict strong social messages and address issues like evils of dowry, female feticide, fight against terrorism and women safety and demonstration of the recent brutal rape case in Delhi.

An accompanying song is a very important element of story telling. The chitra drawn by him is in rendition of his song. This was perfectly illustrated by Shahajan Chitrakar, who sang a melodious song in Bengali whilst reciting his story pointing at the deities in his painting frame by frame. 20130110_111910 copy

It was heartening to learn that these artists use only vegetable dyes and stone colors to create their pieces of work. Radha Chitrakar, another Patachitra artist from the Medinipur, West Bengal talks about the exciting process of extracting and preparing these colors at home, white color from processing conch shell, yellow from turmeric, green from beans and betel leaves, red from hingula and black by soot leaves and from burning lamp dust.

It is incredible to realize that these artisans use no special equipment but only their Imagination to weave such wonderful and colorful stories. As the storytellers disappear, so does the country’s history, mythology and an important form of artistic expression!

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The unseen city: Woodwork city of Nagina

Nagina, a small town in the Bijnor district of Uttar Pradesh may seem nondescript at first glance, but look deeper and anyone would be able to see the rich cultural impact it has had on the art and craft traditions of India.

The wood work traditions in Nagina, Bijnor find a mention as far back as 1881 when The Imperial Gazetteer of India, a historical reference work was first published in 1881 under the aegis of the British Empire. “Nagina is celebrated for the excellent workmanship of its carved ebony wares, such as walking-sticks trays, boxes, which are frequently inlaid with ivory. Large quantities of small glass phials are blown here and exported to Haridwar for the pilgrims who carry Ganges water in them.”

Intricate Jaali work on a wooden box

Intricate Jaali work on a wooden box

The small town even finds a mention in Ain-i-Akbari, a 16th century detailed constitution of the Akbar Empire. Given such rich history and a past, it is unfortunate that so many of us are not even aware of the arts and crafts traditions of Nagina which found patronage even from the Mughal emperors. The evolution of the art and craft traditions has been an organic one and has also been inspired by the flora of the region. The geographical proximity to the Shivalik range meant that the raw material, wood was always naturally available in abundance to act as a canvas for these handicraft traditions.

A beautifully carved wooden chair.

A beautifully carved wooden chair.

There is an interesting story about the origins of woodcarving in Nagina. Originally the craftsmen used to carve on the steel section of guns. After the 1857 uprising against the British manufacture of arms was prohibited. The metal workers transferred their skills to carving on a hard wood and they chose ebony. Their style of carving retained the precision originally needed for carving on metal.
Another form of craft which is widely practiced in this region is Tarkashi or the metal inlay work. In this technique, fine wire like strips of brass, copper or silver is inlaid into wood. Typically, dark colored and seasoned sheesham wood is used as its high oil content allows the inlaid metal to be held securely. The patterns are usually geometric forms or floras of Mughal inspiration.
A small pocket of craftsmen in Nagina and Bijnor specialize in carving ornamental combs and trinket boxes from ebony. The combs are made in pairs, male and female. The male combs, raja ki kangi, have teeth on one side and the female combs, rani ki kangi, have teeth on both the sides.

On our field visit, we met many artisans who have been practicing this craft for generations. Two such artisans we met were Tasleem Ahmad and Mohd. Yusuf. Tasleem Ahmad, 28 years of age started doing Jaali work at age 14. His father Late Mohd. Asgar was a national awardee. He has six brothers, all of whom are involved in this craft of making Jaali work items. We saw beautiful jaali work separators on display while interacting with him. The last six generations in his family have been practicing this craft. When I heard that, a rough back of the envelope calculation got triggered in my mind and I realized that some of his family members may very well have been the artisans during the Mughal period.

Tasneem Ahmad

Tasneem Ahmad

Mohd. Yusuf, 60, is amongst the oldest people doing the carving in Nagina. He is quite famous for his carved wooden jewellery boxes with ivory work. His skill sets were taught to him by his father who was taught his father and so on for about five generations.

Mohd. Yusuf

Mohd. Yusuf

We met many such artisans like them. One common point which seemed particularly alarming to us was the fact that most of these artisans seemed to be amongst the last generation in their family who were inclined to be in this profession. All their sons and daughters were pursuing education and looking for a different set of employment opportunities.

Market realities have also ensured evolution in the kind of products which are now being produced. There has been a distinctive shift towards furniture for mass consumption and smaller, more unique items such as Ebony combs which required much more intricate work are slowly not finding many buyers.

The story of Nagina is not a unique one. This small town in Bijnor could well be a proxy for the scores and scores of small towns and villages which may be nameless and yet are rich treasure troves of our cultural roots and traditions. Equally important are the artisans who are still upholding the traditional reservoir of knowledge and skills which Nagina embodies. A pertinent question which Nagina threw up for us, and I would like to ask all you readers is, how can our urban sensibilities make space for these languishing art forms and give them space in our daily life? Can we move beyond endorsing mass machine made goods to actually appreciate and provide patronage to these glorious art forms? And if these art forms do end up becoming extinct, is our aesthetic sense to blame?

Sources:
1. Ranjan, Aditi, Handmade in India; Crafts of India

Of warps, wefts and weaves…

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Meeting Kaku Ben, from Bhuj, Gujarat was an experience in itself. An appliqué artisan for the last 25 years, her mother was a national award winner. Dressed proudly in traditional attire which she made with her own hands, she said that ever since she remembers, she has been working in this sector.

Kaku Ben, an appliqué artisan, from Bhuj, Gujarat. Here she proudly shows her mother’s picture who was a national award winner.

Kaku Ben, an appliqué artisan, from Bhuj, Gujarat. Here she proudly shows her mother’s picture who was a national award winner.

Appliqué is a traditional art form of India which typically involves the recycling of old pieces of cloth through patchwork. Squares called chitkis, triangular pieces and rectangular strips are sewn together to construct fabrics for use such as quilts, canopies, and hangings. The quilts constituted an important dowry item among the Meghwal, Mutwa, Sodha Rajput, Mahajan, Jat and Rabari communities; every bride was expected to have a minimum of three appliqué pieces as part of her trousseau as a display of her ability to be a good homemaker.

Kaku Ben gave a very interesting insight which can be a major premise for geographical evolution of indigenous art forms in India. She said that her village and surrounding areas never had much agricultural opportunities or potential which is so many people took up to handicrafts as a source of livelihood.

She recalled a time when their work used to get sold for paltry sums but nowadays due to growing awareness, she says her work draws much more attention and is of considerably greater financial value.
Another challenge which she used to face was getting timely access to markets. But ever since she became a part of Hansiba, A SEWA initiative of more than 15000 women artisans, she says she is much better off.

Her daughters have also joined her in this profession. This was a positive sign given that many handicraft traditions in our country are languishing because not enough people are there to continue it forward.
Our conversation with her ended as she got busy in dealing with customers but we walked away with an affirmation that we need to be grateful to many of these invisible artisans for our rich cultural heritage.

Mandating CSR

Paths have been cleared for reintroduction of the Companies Bill, 2011, in the monsoon session. If the bill is passed after endorsing all the propositions made by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance, corporate social responsibility (CSR) would become mandatory for the first time in the world in any country.

The statement advocates that those companies with net worth above Rs. 500 crores, or an annual turnover of over Rs. 1,000 crores, shall earmark 2 percent of average net profits of three years towards CSR.

However, all this debate about CSR and it being mandatory greatly magnifies the danger of not understanding the very notion of CSR accurately. At the heart of it, CSR should be about doing business in a socially responsible and ethical manner and not just about donating or spending money on causes. The mandate to spend a stipulated amount of profits makes CSR too focused on the latter, leaving very little room for focus on the former.

Consider the case of any company wanting to undertake CSR activities. Whereas earlier the company would have thought of the vast scope of activities which came under the umbrella of CSR, it will now just think in terms of spending an x amount of money on the one cause which can help the company get the most bang for its buck. It is the government mandate which plays a limiting and restricting role and perpetuates a definition of CSR, not exactly conducive to long term sustainability.

There is also a massive danger of the CSR spending to actually be a cloak for hiding illegal or unethical activities. Satyam, long before it became infamous due to the scam actually had a reputation for spending heavily in CSR and even getting some big awards for it. Enron, another global example, is one more case in point of how spending money on local causes and winning CSR awards is a far cry from being a socially responsible organization.

If the government’s intention is to transform corporates into model citizens who contribute effectively to problems of sustainability and development, then this particular approach followed by the government is a myopic vision.

A team offsite- exploring the country’s magnificent craftsman as they weave magic!

Pranpur is a small town in Madhya Pradesh, borrowing its identity from Chanderi, a place best known for its silks and saris. Being a weavers’ hub, the team felt it was most appropriate for an offsite destination, where along with connecting with the team, we would also get the opportunity to meet the beneficiaries of the work that we do from our city office.

Amraee guest house

We reached Lalitpur (the closest station) at some unearthly hour in the night, only to undergo a bumpy, to say the least, journey for the next 45 minutes, to reach our final destination. We were staying at the Amraee guesthouse, our home for the next three days. A home keeper, a little kitchen, a small conference room and even an exclusive parking lot, the place was wholesome in itself. With all the exhaustion from the journey, we slept peacefully through the night, excited about what the next few days had in store for us.

Meeting the weavers

The mornings in Pranpur were beautiful, peaceful and serene, away from the city noise and chaos. We took advantage of these mornings by starting our days with early morning meditation sessions, forcing us to introspect and think about things that are often taken for granted back home. These sessions became even more enjoyable, when accompanied with local Bundelkhandi breakfast. Truly fulfilling! We would then quickly complete our morning work sessions, which would typically go on till about 3 or 4 in the evening, only to pack our bags and get ready for weaver visits in the later half of the evenings.

Weavers in every household

Chanderi has over 3500 active pit looms occupying a source of pride in every weaver’s home. Walk into any neighborhood in Chanderi or Pranpur and you will find looms and weavers in every corner, in their homes and on the streets, all weaving beautiful sarees with their delicate hands. We had the opportunity to visit a couple of weaver cooperatives as well, institutions that have been built over time to cater to the needs of the town people. One such cooperative was the Bunkar Vikas Samiti, an organization that started off by bringing weavers together to pool in money that would be used as capital for establishing a weaver cooperative. The cooperative is one of the largest in Chanderi at the moment, of which the weavers have a shareholding, and are now also supplying to large retailers in the city.

There were some fascinating stories that came out of our visit to Chanderi. One of them gets a special mention on our blog and you’ll soon know why.

The ‘Kareena saree’!

While going through some of the signature pieces at one of the weaver cooperatives, we were shown this beautiful pink saree with a lovely motif on the palla. On inquiring about it, we were told that the piece was an exclusive one, famously known as the ‘kareena saree’ (No brownie points for guessing why J).  We soon realized that the particular saree was identified with this name all over Chanderi and weavers were churning these out in numbers and in different colors, because its demand had suddenly shot up. Now that’s true star power!

We were also fortunate to meet and interact with one of the National Award winners at Chanderi. The weaver was more than a 100 years old and lived content in a tiny shed with his wife. Their humility was heartening, as they welcomed us into their homes as though we were one of their own. We asked him to show us one of the pieces that had made in his time, to which his response was “khuch nahi rakha.. sab de diya” (I don’t have a single piece. I have given it all). It was truly humbling to see the extent of his contentment, where he didn’t feel the need to own even one of his prized pieces. It was his work that made him content.

We would have all liked to stay for much longer, but it was time to go back and put a lot of what was discussed on the white board, to action. It was time to reflect on the experiences we had with the weavers, and use them as endorsements for the cause that we all work so hard for, back at home.  It was time to ‘weave’ our own little journeys in the organization, as we try to find ourselves through these artisans.

The Human side of God

The festivities are back again. Diwali can be felt in the air, what with the weather, the smog and the firecrackers hinting at the fast approaching festival of lights and prosperity. Durga Pooja and Dusshera having just concluded, still linger on in our minds.

For so many years, I used look at the beautiful Pandals with a mixture of joy and happiness. Durga Pooja was a time when literally the Goddess morphed into a tangible form and came down to earth to bless us. But for me, Durga Pooja this year was special. This year was nothing short of a revelation.

I had gone with a friend to Chittaranjan Park, the delightful Bengali dominated yet cosmopolitan area in South Delhi. The visit was intended to be a short one with a quick dash to the Kali Mandir there. Little did I know that I would end up spending a significant chunk of my time there with a desire to go again. Right next to the main temple, inside the compound of the Kali Mandir, was a small semi-open area, closely resembling a tool shed. Packed inside it were rows and rows of almost finished idols getting painted and completed by artisans.

Rows and rows of semi-finished idols

Striking conversations with these hugely skilled and talented artisans proved to be quite a challenge though. For one, the language seemed to be a barrier as they had come to Delhi for a period of three months from Bengal and didn’t know Hindi. Secondly, they were so completely engrossed in painting the clay idols that they barely gave a second glance to the awestruck trespassers.

They painted. We watched. As they painted the face, the clay idols slowly started assuming life. As I saw a completely painted face of Ma Durga, it was as if divinity itself which was being tangibly infused into the molecules of clay and Plaster of Paris. As the eyes got painted, the idol started expressing a sense of destruction, a sense of anger and yet a sense of complete benevolence and serenity at the same time. Stuff of God, I tell you.

The idol assumes life

I finally managed to talk to the head artisan who knew Hindi and took out time to tell me that it takes about three to four months to make all the clay idols. It is a century old skill which he learned from his grand-father at an extremely young age. Hearing him explain the intricacies of the process, I couldn’t but marvel at the patience required for the back breaking work. The working conditions need mention too. It was a small, cramped room with almost eighty to hundred towering figurines of Hindu Gods and Goddesses in it. The artisans would reach up to these idols by way of temporary made plywood ladders, which were precariously perched against the idols. A second makeshift wooden structure had a bulb hanging at one end which acts as the source of light for the intricate painting required on the idols.

Govindji, the head artisan has been in this profession for decades now. Yet, quite tellingly, he doesn’t want his son to get into this profession. It is not a story which should surprise many of us. Lots of centuries old skills in the handicrafts sector are languishing in our ancient country. However, it seems surprising to see this for a skill which exists at the intersection of religion and sees huge buy-ins from people who throng in thousands to the Pandals every year.

The head artisan, painting and talking to us at the same time!

I had never thought about these numerous invisible artisans when I used to look at Ma Durga in a Pandal every year. This year as I bowed my head in allegiance in front of Ma Durga, I also gave a silent bow to the power of the humble artisan who had played a part in creating the tangible divinity towering over the hundreds of people. A sense of beauty and aesthetics, it is said, is a God given gift. This couldn’t be more true for the thousands of artisans across the country, who create these idols. This Durga Pooja and for every subsequent Durga Pooja, I fervently hope that they at least get to know how much we appreciate their work in giving us our beloved Gods.

The Baggage of Khadi

Gandhiji’s textiles of peace

A chance visit to the Khadi and Malkha exhibition at the National Archives of India, New Delhi spurred a chain of thoughts. A huge white banner greeted me amidst the serene greens of the lawns of the venue. The banner, not in the least ostentatious, proclaimed, “Gandhiji’s textiles of peace”.

That the fabric of Khadi is symbolic and imbued with the very notion of “Indian-ness” is not something which any Indian is unaware of. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the ultimate patron of Khadi, used it literally and symbolically to fight the British way back in the 1930s and the 1940s to foster a notion of swaraj and self reliance for the multitude of village economies which collectively constitute what we know as India even today. Given the quality of patronage this humble fabric received then, it is not surprising that, years after the freedom struggle, the very threads of this fabric continue to be weaved with the spirit of Gandhian values and principles.

Organically dyed wool in a riot of colours at the exhibition

Yet, are we doing a great disservice to this beautiful fabric by associating it only with Gandhi and the intangible notions of peace and non-violence? Are we limiting the appeal of Khadi to only a selected set of Indian population who actually associates herself with the Gandhian values and principles? I am going to stick my neck out and opine that yes, we are really limiting the appeal of Khadi.

I am not denying the definite shift that has happened in this traditional sector to modernize itself and come out with contemporary styles to appeal to a larger consumer base. This was evidenced by block prints in quirky designs such as the chappals, dogs and cute lion prints. There were also innovations in design such as cowl necks, shawl necks and many contemporary cuts in order to build a younger customer base.

Stacks of unstitched Malkha fabric with contemporary prints

However, is all this enough? What about the communication itself? There were fantastic organizations such as Nature Alley, Malkha Marketing Trust, Asal and Avani which had displayed its products at the exhibition. All of them spoke about the sustainable and eco-friendly nature of their products and processes in its pamphlets and brochures. Yet, a disproportionately lesser amount of communication was focused on the aesthetic and functional aspects of the products. Maybe that’s treated as a given. But compare it to the communication with other fabrics and it would not take a Kotler’s mind to categorize Khadi’s marketing as mainly Cause Related Marketing. And while appealing to people’s emotions by making them think of peace, sustainability and the environment is no doubt effective, what will be more effective is to primarily make them think of comfort, beauty and the other subtle yet powerful features of the fabric. Making the product contemporary is great. Contemporarizing the marketing and the communication will be even better.

Khadi cotton saris – beautiful and elegant!

For years the fabric has been used to ignite the Gandhian in each one of us. Maybe it is time the fabric is used to ignite the individual “I” in each one of us.

Visit to Palakaad

On our way from Coimbatore to Palakkad

As we drove through lush paddy fields in Palakkad (Kerala), my mind was lulled into a state of calm that was soon to get a serious interrogation. We were on a field visit to understand the development work done by an industrialist and philanthropist in his native Panchayat.  As education was his key priority, we visited the post school initiatives taken up by the family trust in their village. It was a room full of bright and curious young boys and girls. The class had a buzz even at 5 in the evening and the students were in no tearing hurry to get back home.

How green were the fields!

‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ is how we kicked off our session with students. There were no timid ambitions in the room.

  • The girls came up with their impressive wishlist – Pediatricians, gynecologists, IAS and IFS officers, nurses, teachers, software engineers (ofcourse)
  • The group of boys had many aspiring scientists with specific specializations (genetics, space); a mathematician, a fighter pilot, an automobile designer and software engineers (ofcourse!)

The village students who kept us on our toes and a little tongue-tied!

I doubt I had this clarity, eloquence or sense of purpose when I was a 15 year old.  Having got them all charged, I casually asked if they had any questions to ask. After a little hesitation, the first hand went up and then questions came in rapid fire style. Here they are word-for-word (with no edits or creative liberties)

 

  • What is your work? What do you do?
  • WHY do you do it?
  • How is your work important/helpful for others?
  • Who is your inspiration?
  • Does your work make you happy?
  • What is your message for us?

The girls led the charge of questions

I was being pummeled gently by 15 year olds with questions I hadn’t asked myself in a long time. The experience beat every interview that I’ve ever taken in my life and yes, for a change I was stumped for words! (Mercifully, they also handed out some easy ones including ‘what are your hobbies’ and ‘what’s the most beautiful place you have been to’). After losing precious composure initially, with some able prompting from Aparna, their piercing questions were answered and the buzz in the room was back with a bang.

Palms, paddy fields, banana plantations all along the way

Intense and unexpected as the experience was – it was also an encounter that held out immense hope. Young students in a village in India can be who they want to be, have dreams that can come true and have an infectious optimism that can numb the cynics who believe that very little can change in our lifetime.

Aside

A “beautiful” experience with Godrej Saloni!

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A slightly overwhelming class strength of 45 girls greeted us on Day 1 of our business skills course for aspiring beauticians in Ghansoli village, Navi Mumbai. All of these girls are part of the Godrej Saloni beautician training programme, a CSR initiative of Godrej Industries being implemented in Mumbai and several districts of Karnataka. We had been working very hard over the last fortnight to create the instructor modules and student workbooks. Both manuals went through several iterations – Draft 1, Draft 2 and so on until the Final Draft until they were deemed to be just right!

Engrossed in the theory lesson

We started our first session (Preparing for Work) even as the monsoon rains started drumming on the asbestos roof of our makeshift “training centre” in Ghansoli. Struggling to be heard over the din of the rain, Reshma kick-started the workshop with our first session on preparing to work and scheduling one’s day. While the girls were a little hesitant at first, they soon loosened up and began to be absorbed in the exercises we had set out for them. The role plays which formed a significant part of the sessions were highly entertaining (most of them had both participants and audience in loud fits of laughter). But they also boosted the girls’ confidence and made them think about potential real-life situations and how they would manage those (irate customers, unhappy customers, hostile co-workers and so on).

Group work

In the course of the other 3 days, the instructors and students learnt about making a resume, cracking interviews and getting a job, starting your own business, costing your services, making a rate card, marketing and publicity, calculating income and expenses, calculating profit and loss, and much much more. List-making, role plays, resume-writing, number-crunching – they did it all.

Some girls were shy and reserved and some were role models with their wit, confidence and passion. The feisty go-getters were natural leaders, volunteering to step up and come in front of the class to explain what their team had been working on. Many had troubles at home. Someone’s sister insisted she leave the workshop to attend college. Another’s husband objected to his mother having to babysit the kids while she was at the workshop. The instructors grappled with these “HR” issues while of us mentored the girls as best as we could.

What we realized unequivocally was that vocational training alone is not the

Happy faces on the last day of the workshop

solution to lifting girls out of poverty or giving them a better standard of life. True empowerment comes from believing in oneself and being willing to stand up for one believes in. Learning the skills of the trade is important. But sometimes, far more important is learning the tricks of the trade. Soft skills, confidence, presentation, some financial savvy and a go-getting attitude is what will differentiate some girls from the rest.

Here’s to the Saloni girls flying high in their chosen career!

The answer lies ‘in your hands’

Diarrhea is the second largest disease killer of children globally, causing an estimated 1.5 million deaths annually. Diarrhea kills more children under the age of fivezz than AIDS, TB and Malaria combined. 

The solution: Washing hands with soap! Yes, it’s as simple and straightforward as that. How many of us are actually practicing it?  You should be washing your hands at the critical points of hand washing; after using the bathroom and before eating. Shockingly enough, the rates of hand washing range from just 0 to 34% after these critical points.
It seems odd doesn’t it? That in this day and age, something so preventable and simple as this is still not being followed. To cite another example, we all know that it is important for us to exercise for at least 30 minutes in a day to remain healthy. Yet, the majority of us don’t practice it. Changing health behavior is difficult. While hand washing with soap is simple, working to increase this behavior requires thoughtful, tailored and creative interventions with sustained follow up.

Hand washing with soap is one of the most under funded, under implemented and least known solutions to some of the really big health issues

A school girl demonstrating how to use a ‘Tippy Tap’

While there are several initiatives that have been taken up by the public health community to counter the issue of health and sanitation at large, there is one that caught my attention purely because of its simplicity and subsequent effectiveness; the Tippy Tap. (http://www.tippytap.org/the-tippy-tap). While the concept of a Tippy Tap is not new and was invented in the eighties, Grampari, an NGO based out of Panchgani in partnership with the US Based non profit, the Watershed Management Group (WMG), has taken it to the next level to tackle the issue of hand washing. To understand the model better, I had a word with Sowmya Somnath, an engineer who left the US to work on effective models of water, sanitation and hygiene while transforming behaviors associated with it. A founding member of WMG, she has created a handwashing program at Grampari  with the intent to get the word out and developways to increase this behavior “There are so many facets to development; education, livelihoods, leadership, governance. In order to pursue these avenues work your way out of poverty, the first thing you need is….be healthy.” she says.  “The basic goal of the program is to keep people well so that they can pursue opportunities”.

TIPPY TAP- FACTS

While it all sounds pretty straight forward, Sowmya deals with some major challenges in this space. One of the bigger challenges that Sowmya faces is with the mere simplicity of the solution ie ‘it’s just hand washing’, thus making the promotion difficult. It’s something that everybody knows about, but still does not get practiced. “Handwashing with soap can cut diarrheal morbidity almost in half.  And yet, it would be easier to promote a vaccination that cuts diarrheal incidents by a smaller percentage than promoting a small thing that your mother already taught you when you were young, that you’re already practicing occasionally but not properly and at the correct time. It’s tougher to work with human nature” says Sawmya. The other challenge is that of awareness on the issue; on how big an impact hand washing could have. “Just telling people to wash their hands because it’s good for them, doesn’t work. People need diverse approaches to feel for the issue, and tailoring and catering to that is a bigger challenge”.
The solution she says, to some of these challenges lies in the sophistication in marketing, which is not always utilized enough in public health . “Being a little slicker with the marketing material might be the key here. Some combination of sexy gimmicks and messaging and unsexy hard work and persistence!.

Sowmya at one of the programs

On enquiring about the scalability of the program, Sowmya says “There are forms and levels of scale. The Tippy Tap costs you almost nothing to build, as it is put together with locally appropriate available materials. We are not interested in building Tippy Taps, but are interested in increasing handwashing behavior through Tippy Taps and other means”. Recollecting an incident that happened recently, she mentioned that they had conducted a hand washing  program in a school with children representing 27 households.  One way program impact is measured is to see if households build tippy taps and use them for a sustained period once the intervention is completed. With a little smile on her face, she said that they had just covered the 26th household where the grandmother came out and explained what the Tippy Tap was and how hands should be washed. “She was teaching her family members from the other village on how to wash hands. She had no idea that we were from the program” says Sowmya. “It’s probably these incremental steps and small successes that is going to get us to scale this issue.”.

Watch this video to understand more about how the tippy-tap works: