Focus on Design

Jeena

Jeena Weber Langstaff is currently a senior in high school. She was born in India, lived in Switzerland for 7 years, and is now living in the United States. She enjoys writing and art, and has been learning a South Indian dance form called Bharatanatyam. On a recent family trip to Tiruvannamalai, South India, she and her sister Rhessa were invited to join the women at Shanthimalai Handicrafts Development Society who produce the beautiful crafts sold by Aruna Designs.

Every morning we would take a rickshaw into town to work. The first week we learned how to make small angel dolls, the size of a hand. It was hard stuffing the limbs, heads and bodies. Then came sewing the hair, eyes, lips and then lastly the dress with the small wings attached. Rhessa says, "Making those dolls was a huge learning experience, and very challenging."

For the first week the women went through the process with us, step by step. They would demonstrate first and we would follow the motions, hand position and movement.

It took us hours to do something they did in a few minutes. They would do twenty legs in half an hour, while it took us an hour to do two legs. The Indian women gave us mats to sit on the stone floor. They played music from a small portable radio. Sometimes they would sing along with the song or talk with one another.

Later, we branched off. While Rhessa was weaving, I began working with the women making bead bracelets. In the corner room they had two trunks full of many kinds of beads of different colors. The variety was amazing. The ladies would start the bracelet for me, tying the knot and putting the thread through the needle, which took me forever to learn to do because the hole was so small. I got to choose from different models what type of bracelet I wanted to try to make, with what colors. The women would demonstrate how to make them. The patterns were complicated, more so than I thought they would be. In the beading section there were only three women, a small table, a fan and one hanging lamp. We all sat in plastic chairs doing our work. Once in a while the Indian women would talk with each other, but very quietly, and for the most part the only thing I could hear was the fan.

When the electricity went out, because of frequent power cuts, you could not see anything. I had to walk outside and sit on the stairs to continue working.

One of the amazing things was that we were able to communicate without a shared language. Most of the women did not speak English, but they could help us with anything we asked, with gestures and demonstrations. Many were widowed at a very young age, left to take care of their children and find jobs to support the family. Thanks to Shanthimalai Handicrafts they are able to receive training, employment, and health care. Otherwise, they would not easily find work, because many of the women are not educated and cannot read or write.

Lioba Flaig, who has been with the women at Shanthimalai Handicrafts for many years, explains, "Many women are traumatized through the sudden loss of a husband or because he left her or because he is drinking and beating her all the time. Here they find someone they can talk with. To work with women who have a similar experience is often the best therapy. They counsel each other and find comfort because they are not alone."

The women were incredibly sweet. Being engaged with them, with the work and the surroundings, Rhessa and I experienced many unexpected things, including learning that we are more similar than different. We would go back in a heartbeat!

Life stories of some of these courageous young widows, like Bhuvana who works in the bead department, are featured in our new calendar. With gorgeous photos and heartfelt text, the 2017 calendar will inspire you every day!

To purchase the calendar or inquire about the handcrafts, please email Aruna Designs at: handcrafts@arunapartnership.org.

The handcrafts are available through Aruna Designs at New England crafts fairs and in shops around the country. For our craft fair schedule, please visit Aruna Designs.