“Each of us has the right and the responsibility to assess the roads which lie ahead, and those over which we have traveled, and if the future road looms ominous or unpromising, and the roads back uninviting, then we need to gather our resolve and, carrying only the necessary baggage, step off that road into another direction. If the new choice is also unpalatable, without embarrassment, we must be ready to change that as well.”
― Maya Angelou
I met a passionate textile entrepreneur recently. She had come to the mountains to get a break from her hectic work schedule to find some resolution for her heart. It is a good chance encounter that we got to have a meaningful conversation. I was on the first floor of the cottage just below the open sky. And she was at the ground floor’s open courtyard seated on a jute chair just above the dotted stone and granite flooring. Through this unusual setting of no same ground, no sameness of a zone inviting an intimate conversation, our words, phrases, concepts, confessions streamed through the winds of mountains. Her ground floor balanced the grounding of her wavering heart. My top floor balanced the excess grounding that I may project. The conversation found a tangent right at the onset. Our host had introduced us to each other with our common thread- textiles.
The following account is a re-telling of our conversation. The pursuit here is not of the exact accuracy of the words and the chronology. But of the essence that it brought out.
Her existential dilemma
She mentioned that she has been re-thinking her brand model. She has a team of 22 people to support and that perhaps is burning her out. The dilemma was how to support the livelihood of 22 people versus choosing a life where she has the freedom to pursue her passion for craft without the pressure and guilt.
She asked me how I have been able to sustain mora through all these years. She mentioned that she has been following mora journey.
Her ethical dilemma evoked an instant explanation of “what has been done so far and has worked in some ways” rather than elaboration on my design philosophy. Her tiny shoulders carried a lot more than what I could ever think of carrying. She needed practical solutions, doable changes- a requisite for someone who is hands on, and not just conceptual.
What worked for Mora is my most existential feedback. And establishing with contentment that we are proudly “homemade & family-run”.
All mora weaves are made at home by weavers across the geography that I have chosen as my area of collaboration. While weaves get made in rural homes in the hills and mountains, they are sent across to the next destination, Punjab, my mother’s home.
Mora has never had an office, never a workshop or a working shed. Each mora is made at home. We don't have employees. Not one person on salary. My mother still looks after our tailoring unit which is a team of of a male tailor (trained by mumma since 2009) and 1 female (who never did craftwork before mumma trained her) who does beadwork and other finishing jobs. They work from my mother's home and come as the tailoring need arises. We have not created any dependencies with both the members of our unit. Though we have supported them both in setting up their own entrepreneurship beyond mora work. Over these years, the tailor has set up a small tailoring shop in his village where he takes up other stitching jobs. When he is busy with Mora work, he hires another tailor to take care of his daily commitments. This format has been an ideal "growth without obligation" model that works for him as well as mora. We mutually decide our timings to come together to start the work. The “work” is at my mother’s home. She cooks for them as she cooks for rest of her family .
With each artisan, the culture remains the same- make at your own pace. And as time and situation permits. This doesn’t turn any of us into work machines. So, we work to value-add to life. Keeping survival as a necessary theme for work, we include family and restfulness as the pre-requisite for any decent work to happen.
For this structure, we had to sow new strain of patience, and resilience in our heart. It bagan with the key question- “What is the worse that can happen?”
Weave won’t come at a time when I expect it to come.
What is the worse that can happen if the weave doesn’t reach on time?
The collection cannot be made on time.
What is the worse that can happen if the collection is not made on time?
We either make a small collection or we delay the launch.
What is the worse that can happen if we do that?
We won’t be able to go as per the plan and so we will have less money for the next cycle.
What is the worse that can happen if we have less money?
We will not be able to have ample resources to explore and create for next cycle.
What is the worse that can happen if you have less resources?
We will need to maximise from what we have and optimise the resources. Contract to what we have. And not expand to what we seek.
This has worked out closest to the most workable solution.
Now, after all these years, I believe we survived because we have kept our overhead expenses minimal, to almost no excess. I tend to remain conscious of what direction the money and other resources should flow in because it keeps my desires in appropriate reign. I ignite only those passion that I can sustain without burning others and myself.
How does one begin to minimise the overheads? How can we even begin to downsize? I do not want to sack people off their job. But I still I want to enable more flexibility.
It is always easy to scale up when we set our intention to it. It is also easy to choose a down- scale if we are clear about what we want to do. It depends on the size of the cup.
Perhaps begin by finding your Constants. Then dynamically choose all the Variables that life brings to you without deviating from the constants. The constants can be your work ethic. Or your work practice. The more simplified they are, the easier they are to follow. Soon, they become totems to keep bringing you back to your own axis.
Mora has three constants since the beginning years of mora:
Never to retail through someone else. Direct relationship with buyer keeps me in a healthy cycle of feedback and encouragement. With my key focus on buyer empowerment, this is a necessary condition for application of Empowerment of Lifetime Loyalty and Empowerment of Shared Responsibility. The loyalty shared with the buyers brings home the confidence of a shared responsibility. The story of artisan needs to be communicated to the world. When I say the story directly, it bridges the gap of misunderstandings.This also reduces overheads and keep the focus on creation and not on maintenance of a store or complex inventory.
Only make one of a kind prototype. This is to ensure my interest in Ethnography through Design. Treat each piece as a celebration of living archive of textiles and thus a tactile documentation. Be grateful to what remains in the indigenous community and bridge the past and future through each piece of textile individually thought and sensitively presented. To ensure a well-thought out approach to cultural appropriation and limit possibilities of marginalisation. To never get into mass production of repeats. Even if the weave is the same, the representation always goes through a creative process. This decision turned me into a creative human being in pursuit of ancient and ethnic textiles. This also keep the involved artisans as artisans and not “skilled labour/ mistry” of craft because each piece requires a new set of understanding. The production remains slow, collaborative and mindful.
Never settle for less. Never underestimate my own self worth. Never compromise on the quality, effort and creative input in my work. Keep the conduit of learning gently strong. Never hesitate to be curious. Work my 100 %. Give abundantly! Then, always ask for everything that justifies the effort of artisans, myself and all others involved. The buyers must also never settle for less. They must get from me a true genuine labour of Heart-work.
With the resources from Mora sales, I sow the seed of abundance. Let that what comes to me, go into many hands. And grow from seed to a tree. No-one should settle for less than what is their entitlement. So, I minimise expense by creating least dependencies, always looking towards seeing maximum in minimum. This enables me to envision secure community- concern projects without external pressure. My commitment to these projects is also driven towards “no one needs to settle for less”. Just enough. Just what is needed.
These three unchanging constants keep the flow of variables in check. Any decisions that take me away from these, I do not spend my time pursuing or responding. Energy conserved is energy Reserve.
So, it is perhaps not important to downsize or perhaps that is the only way, but heart-sustainability is project sustainability. See what constants does your heart seek? What are you ready to let go off? How deep is your commitment to the constants? How clear is the clarity of your constants? What is the intention? And what is the purpose of the intention?
This understanding has potential to breakdown the dilemma and arrive at a clearer understanding of the steps ahead.
She said, I got her thinking. But I must say, she got me thinking too. For the first time in all the years of mora, I gave my own process some credit. I always felt that I am working through some randomness. But when I attempted to answer her questions through the right brackets, they were not randomness after all. They are never randomness. And someone with an open mind could make sense of it, feel tangibility in it. She immediately broke through me and said, “Ritika, you must share this with others. I am sure there are more who may find some solution through your trial and errors.” She indeed broke through my “reservedness”. And encouraged me to write, talk, share about the process I follow. So here, this blog is dedicated in virtual attendance to Rini, who made me spill out few details of my “behind the scene” process in brief then, and with memory of that moment, in detail now.
1) We have never spent any money on social media sponsored ads or marketed mora with paid resources.
2) Mora has eliminated most possibilities of exhibitions since 2012, seeing how much waste they can generate for the sake of visibility and quick sales.
3) I have always believed in making less numbers but involving many artisans and keeping them involved over a single textile for a longer period of time. If the end result I seek is enough & sustained livelihood for the artisan, then it can be created through less numbers and more time on each piece. Quality and intricacy is added through deliberate slow production and attention to details.
4)We have been multi-tasking and picking diverse skills to avoid any excess cost that can be avoided. We have up-skilled our abilities so that Mora resources can be most efficiently utilised, to bring to practice a reverse pyramid model for all our grassroots community initiatives.
This attitude led to establishing Thebvo Project in Nagaland and Ahimsa Eri silk Project in Assam without any external financial support. The friends and family stepped in as moral, technical and creative support. We could initiate and sustain the projects solely with funds generated from Mora sales through the loyal members of our collective. Mora’s circle of loyalty have always raised me up through any situation where I needed abundance in my hands to spread ahead.
We have never felt bogged down by the pressure of changing times. When difficult times come, we have taken trust-based loans from our loved ones and given them back before they were asked. Because we know the very circularity of our format will not let any "difficult time" wipe anyone out. During Covid 19 pandemic situation, there has been no change in our working style.The format allowed us to work remotely, at our own pace, without “laying off" anyone. Artisans have continued to earn through the pandemic and we have faced no panic at any stage so far.
This makes me think if the unmanageable scale of the projects with no safety net or shock absorbers, leads to panic for facilitators. The panic is perhaps of the expectation of numbers more than the work and the lack of it.
There is a beautiful passage in mool Mantra of the Sikh scripture, “Bhukhian bhukh na utree je banna puria bhar”. It literally means that one cannot satiate their hunger even if their barns are full. Growing up, I created my own translation which to this day I reserve for the deepest part of my inspiration.
I translate this as, “My hunger will never be satiated, if I always have my barns full and overflowing.” No matter how much I eat, if the barns don’t go empty, how will my hunger go, how will I tell myself, enough! But if I keep emptying my barns to share with others, I will begin to feel satisfied and manage well within what I have. And this way I learned to say, enough! Seeing that the barns will not always remain full, my stomach reduces the size to what is optimum for me. Constantly living a “feast of merit” based on the principle of sharing my excess. This learning got a big affirmation when I observed the indigenous culture of feast of merit among Naga tribes. Then, it began to make practical sense beyond just being a metaphor.
This small-scale of home-made mora has not changed since the beginning. The ability to say “enough” is the “secret” of mora sustainability.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
it is the holes that make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there,
usefulness from what is not there…
shape clay into a vessel;
it is the space within that makes it useful.
– Lao Tzu
What we call the mundane is the essential.
The creative is a by-product.
For creative to take form and start bearing its own energy, mundane monotony is necessary.
Mora's approach to design is the same as the indigenous communities. Living in seclusion from the outside world, these communities are accustomed to solving problems at hand, by observing and improvising from the mistakes.
Design for me, is an appropriate bridge to connect a problem to its solution using the tools that are available in the context. Design's underlying intent remains "Ease" and necessary solution through Right View, Right Action and Right Effort. Intuition then becomes a requisite to want to see the problem and have the courage to find its solution. The by-product of design is Responsibility.
My favourite design brief is Aparigraha, a Jain philosophy emphasising the need for “no excess”. And that is born out of Responsibility. The responsibility of “being of some use”. And we all may already know that the usefulness of the cup is its emptiness.
My Constants have kept me on my axis and I am able to minimise all unnecessary expenses that may occur if I give in to a more “maximised” approach. Being hyper minimalist in my process, helps me diversify the product and the product-makers I work with. It allows me to indulge in aspects of my work that I like doing. And also keeps the scale small enough for me to keep enabling sustained livelihood to craft communities. The number is never large, but it goes consistent. And I enjoy that scale. It is never “large impact”. It is just “good enough”. And the work remains interesting. And so it doesn’t burn me out. And even for weavers, there are no tight strings attached. They are never pulled by a hook in their nose. They work in their available time. They are not encouraged to create dependency with Craft. This format relieves me of most pressure. In fact, it is a format that I am beginning to extend to my own life, where there is a sense of responsibility, arising from self-motivation, rather than external pressure.
When I work with responsibility that is of adequate pressure, it gives me purpose while also retains my passion for exploring. I work with the clarity that I don’t need to worry about time and quantity, if I keep myself at a pleasant scale understanding with clarity my purpose, my commitment to it and my circumstantial abilities.
For each collection, we take care of many aspects beyond weavers in various regions of Himalayas, its foothills and North East India. The weaves have been the most talked about factor in this flow. However, they are just part of the flow, not the whole flow. These weaves reach my mother’s (madhu) home. This is the space where Mora is finally put together after navigating through the geography.
Parcels travel from the mountains and hills to the plains of Punjab. I come here periodically to design the collection. I call this time “going down the mountains”. This is also the time in my life that I get to spend with my parents. This year’s lockdown extended this period to many months. And while collection 2021 is building, my relationship with parents is also taking a fresh dimension.
Do I feel safe here? yes! In my mother’s lap, I know the weaves are protected. Creativity appears as a bonus when the essential grounds itself. I am most creative in my mother’s grounding. That is a given when our essentials are carried out with care. And this leads to sustained creativity.
She queried further as to why Mora has not chosen to be a social enterprise yet, when mora can get enough support and resources for their social tangent of work?
The answer I gave to her was the answer I actually needed to hear from my own self.
“I like what I do because the tangent of my work is not tilting towards how many people I “help”, but about how joyously the craft and the craft makers still express.”
If I am a social enterprise, I am expected to do the “good work”. That is my job. Slowly, perhaps I can lose the light of why I am doing what I am doing. Am I just doing a job? Or am I actually doing some “good work”? If I am an entrepreneur with a social tangent then it helps me keep a close check on my intention of “good work”. My journey sees the clarity of my intention while understanding the complexity of circumstantial changes. What do I do when I am at a threshold of making a decision? What do I choose? Who do I prioritise? This quest of knowing my intention through the changing circumstances is my fuel to keep doing teh work I am doing without labelling it as Social work.
It is indeed beyond any practical understanding of scale, functionality and “maximising”.
I have begun to see that if I am in the ocean of life, and I am on my own boat of choices, then there is no set pattern on how I will navigate through the waves. Some boats carry people, others carry resources, some boats carry messages and stories, some wander, some found, some parked at the shore, some drift through the flow and ebb. In the end, we are in our own boat with our own flow.
One thing I have prioritised is that I definitely do not want to lose the charm of what I do in getting lost with just “numbers” of what I do. Anyways, it is not that our government is most supportive of the hand craft’s social sector and takes care of the artisans across the country. I sometimes fear, government’s solutions will bring governmental problems. So, I tell myself to keep things simple and use my resources modestly and appropriately. There has been no desperate need to ask government and philanthropists for extra resources. This has been made possible by choosing a scale that can sustain without expectation of external financial aid and grants.
I want to share with a couple of examples about what makes my heart glow!
There is a buyer of Mora, who raised our horizon of interaction from being a buyer to becoming a collaborator. She decided to put an amount in my account as a recurring deposit each month. She never asks me how I spend that money or what I do with it. Based completely on trust, she identifies with my heart and work culture and wants to keep encouraging me towards my chosen Path. Her silent contribution is my gentle reminder that I am on a good road ahead and all I have to do is keep walking. In this way, she has become my heart collaborator. She nudges my heart with the right motivation.
A blessing like this, when it is able to touch mora “without asking”, “without seeking”, “without tax reductions”, “without social project registrations”, it offers a very strong affirmative to the trust we have been able to build without meeting, and without any contracts. I am an entrepreneur who is trusted by this person who I have never met in person. This trust is my calling. This trust settles my heart. This is my validation. Motivation. And driving motor.
Thank you Anitha Kothandaraman. You have given me the confidence that I never imagined could be my precious gift.
Another buyer, Amelie defined my commitment to mora fireflies, from miles away, in an answer to my dilemma, on our fb community page, in 2014. She wrote, “the only commitment you have towards us as fireflies, is that you will always follow your heart.” I close my eyes when confusion arises, and all I see is her words dancing in complete bliss eliminating any possibility of self-doubt.
And this circle of trust is growing. This trust came as silently as the trust from the people of the mountains and hills. Perhaps this trust also observed the repetition of patterns and observed me over seasons. I can feel its presence through every letter I receive from the fireflies that something about our process is resonating. I am becoming more and more sure about keeping this as a constant- This pursuit of rowing my own boat of choices, navigating through my Constants and Variables.
Thank you Constants, without you Variables would keep me too occupied and distracted. Thank you for efficiency.
I see my work-life with a different kind of efficiency. An efficiency that doesn’t treat time-crunch as the most important resource. This efficiency is more like farming. One does the hard-work, then when the right time comes and when all the right conditions meet, perhaps, there is a good crop. Without working hard at the soil, the good crop won’t appear as a miracle. So one keeps at it.
It is an efficiency of sustained and sincere hands-on effort. The efficiency of optimisation. And no time-crunch can compensate that.
Thank you Rini, for power punching my confidence to express that what I can “make right”. I do wish these details are really no-nonsense and can make sense to a few, as you mentioned! And I do wish, I keep concentrating on the process as the key product, while beautiful conscience products keep appearing as the by-product.
Often the lines between the mundane and the creative are so fine. Sometimes the mundane can become so creative. And sometimes the “creative” is so mundane. What is essential to you holds the key to decoding your own constants.
Until we meet again. May movement be your constant. And may constant navigate your movement.