June 29, 2015

My First Taste of Rural India

by Shanav Mehta '18

Shanav is the Founder of the Panika Project and a Social Innovation Fellow. His venture looks to create commercially viable products using hand-woven cloth from rural India, in an effort to lead the people of the Panika tribe to a future of self-sustenance.

I've seen this vision many times. 

It's the year 2012. The financial markets are recovering, Libya is spiraling out of control, and everybody is talking about whether a certain Mr. Barack Obama will serve a second term as president. Of course, at this point, I have no idea that any of this is happening. I'm just a ‘privileged’ city boy in India lying on the wooden bed of an overnight train, travelling with my grandfather to some place in Madhya Pradesh (which literally translates to the middle of India) called Katni that will change the course of the next few years of my life.

My feet hit the ground with a thud as disturbed specs of dust disperse around my ankles. The sun shines bright in my eyes and the sounds engulf me. So this is rural India. 

The night passes most serenely, albeit surprisingly, for I find myself immersed in the most peaceful sleep, guided solely by the thin sheet between my back and the ground and the sounds of crickets chirping.

When the morning arrives I am taken to house of one of the weavers to spend the day, as my grandfather goes off with the leaders of the land rights organization that he works with.  

A man walks up to me and introduces himself as the administrative head of the weavers. Then without another word he walks back to his station and continues weaving the piece of cloth he had left half way in order to greet me.

As the day progresses I begin speaking with this man about everything from how he weaves the cloth to the history behind the tribe that the entire population of the village belongs to: the Panika tribe. I learn that the art of weaving this cloth is an age old tradition that has been passed down the generations. He hands me a piece of cloth which is unlike anything that I have ever felt before, but as I begin to express appreciation for it, I see sorrow in his eyes. When I ask him, he says: "My children will probably have to go to the city and do perform undignified forms of manual labor to simply feed themselves. Nobody wants to buy cloth like this anymore."

The rest of the day passes in a sad silence. He continues to weave and I continue to stare at the swatch of cloth that sits in my hand not knowing what to think or do. As the sun sets and he begins to close up shop, I turn to him numbly offering back the swatch of cloth that has draped my hands all day. He smiles at me, the sorrow still consuming his eyes, and tells me to hold on to it.

I sit here and write this words three years after that day. I show that swatch of cloth to every customer that I meet at trade shows, as they browse through our catalogue of consumer products made from this unique hand-woven cloth, and this story of how the Panika Project came to be never fails to bring a smile to their faces. 

I began this project not too long after my visit to Katni in an effort to break the bubble of privilege and ignorance that surrounds most of urban India, the same bubble that burst for me that day in Katni, and show them the people – the India – that they have so conveniently forgotten. I’m constantly driven by the want to bring a change in this small place in whatever small way I can, because I believe that every small change creates something so much bigger than we can even imagine.

Over the summer our team plans on attending several trade shows across India to spread awareness about this unique cloth and the unique people who weave it. And we hope, by the end of the summer, to have our products in a few retail stores across India so that the people of Katni have a much-needed stream of sustainable income over the years to come.


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