As the pandemic swept through India and the country went into lockdown, businesses shuttered and almost everything came to a standstill. But as livelihoods went into freefall, stories of incredible resilience and humanitarianism emerged; one of them even led to the evolution of Diwali special gifts.
Bangalore-based entrepreneur Deepa Chikarmane heads Pretinterpret Clothing Private Limited which has been around for over 20 years, exporting garments. She specializes in embellishing garments with hand-embroidery for top designers in North America. At the heart of her operations are karigar (craftspersons) from all over the country, especially home-grown ancient traditions handed down through the generations.
“But with the lockdown everything came to a standstill. However, quite apart from our own workers, there were plenty of garment factory workers everywhere who were unemployed and struggling to make a livelihood,” Chikarmane says. The team looked around for ideas and within 15-20 days decided to design a simple mask, not a designer face mask, one that anyone could make with a sewing machine at home.
“Since it was the need of the hour, we thought it would be the perfect thing,” she says.
Chikarmane, who employs about 70 people, opened up the factory for other garment workers as well, and people could work but with social distancing and masks. She also gave away extra machines they had so people can work from home.
“We gave out fabric for tranches of 300 masks, which the workers could bring back the next day or whenever they could finish,” she says.
The initiative gained momentum because everyone wanted work and it became a movement.
“We touched quite a bit of lives and helped with livelihoods,” Chikarmane says. Impressed with her work, a philanthropist stepped in to distribute the high-quality masks to underprivileged people across the country who would otherwise not have access to them.
“So we started a campaign called ‘Let’s mask India’ supported by sport stars such as Rahul Dravid, Sunil Joshi and Rohan Bopanna,” Chikarmane says. “We made one million masks and distributed and even in airports through vending machines.”
Chikarmane also trained her craftspersons in sewing, so they could also be gainfully employed.
“But our other karigars, about 200-300 who are all over the country, also wanted to work,” she says. “So we thought we’ll talk about this powerful story, one that resonated with everyone, about people coming together and reinforcing faith in humanity.”
The next step was designing pretty masks that also talked about the rich tradition of the country.
“We decided to make a set of six masks with fabrics and embroidery traditions prevalent in different corners of India,” Chikarmane said. “We put it together and called it the Festival Edit, which makes for ideal Diwali special gifts. So there are masks that showcase kasuti (North Karnataka), kantha (West Bengal), Kutch and Kashmiri embroidery… Pretty much from the four corners of the country. We want people to buy into this idea.”
Woven distinctive woven fabrics from Assam to Kancheepuram were also used to lend uniqueness to the designer face masks. Proceeds from the sales go to support the karigars and workers.
So far more than two million masks have come out of this movement and the project has touched the lives of about 5,000 people. “If there’s one thing I have learned in these last few months, it is not about how I can get ahead but about how we can all work together to get through tough times. That has been my motivating factor,” she says.
With the pandemic showing no signs of abating, and with masks now an unequivocal requirement for safety, stories like Chikarmane’s are incredibly touching. The heartening thing is that anyone, anywhere can buy into it and support a cause as well as use them as Diwali special gifts.