Posted tagged ‘SEWA’

(W)riffing on W (Not Bush)

April 26, 2014

(W)riffing on W (Not Bush)

What words (do I wait upon)
to work wonders?

What words
to wrangle
from wishful winking
weal world well-being;
to wend us west
of woe;
to not warfare
our Womeos,
to wreck war-mongering (wanting not

to even, when whirled whichaway,
make magic–

“We, women…”

Here’s a rather silly one for some late day of April, National Poetry Month, posted for the prompt of Marian (of Runaway Sentence)  on With Real Toads, to use the letter “w”.   Hannah had a specific list which was just too hard for me to use on this late day of April; I’ve tried to comply, however, with the letter, as well as the spirit of the prompt. 

I think/hope women’s empowerment worldwide may be a huge force for positive change  this century.  That said, I do understand that women are a VERY diverse group, and I know that some can certainly be just as warmongering and egotistical as men!  (I still have hope for them though!)  

The above video is the reposting of super brief clip of a woman reading at a poetry slam held for a women’s labor collective called SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association), founded by the very remarkable labor leader, activist, community organizer, revolutionary thinker, Ela Bhatt,  in Ahmedabad, India.   I do not know the name of the woman reading.  (She is not Ela, whose picture is below.)   All the women on the stage are SEWA members. 

Ela Bhatt of SEWA (Ahmedabad, Gujerat) (photo by Manicddaily)

Ela Bhatt of SEWA (Ahmedabad, Gujerat) (photo by Manicddaily)

Drawing The Veil

April 7, 2013


We wait for Gopal to bring chai.

He is taking a long time and we begin to suspect that although he came up to the office to take the order, he has now in fact left for the day. (This turns out to be right.)

I am in the meantime feeling down about faces. I like to draw faces. I do not do it terribly well.

I’m okay with little children. With children, it’s usually good enough to just draw sweetness–simple lines.

Adults are more difficult. The lines are creased.

I had thought I might be able to do teens–no wrinkles–which is why I started up on the Muslim girls in the car. Here’s what happened:

There is traffic and the one squeezed a seat away has taken my picture – for some reason, Indians like to have photos of Westerners– and so I take out my notebook and start to draw her. She is the girl in the burkha, a very pretty sweet girl. (It is not a classic burkha, but a cloak with a tight black head covering and a veil over her face.) I figure that will be simple, if a bit strange,

It is not so simple though. I haven’t drawn anything but cartoons (i.e. elephants) for a while, and when you are actually drawing a person, you want to show at least some aspect of them, something that they will recognize as themselves. Which, in the case of this girl meant it almost all had to be captured with the eyes.

Well, she has slight circles showing under the eyes, so I get them too. And the individualized hairs of brows and lashes.

But it is so difficult. My vision is not good (so many excuses!)–I cannot see the page well. Finally, I take off my glasses, which seems to help–the shape of the veil covering her head is also surprisingly hard. Hair can be drawn quite gesturally, but this has to be more accurate- she has a very slender scalp I check the closure – the way the veil that covers her nose and mouth laps over the head veil.

She is pleased. I tear off the page and give it to her and she is very pleased. She does not seem to think that the idea of a portrait in veil was odd, and now her friend, who sits just beside me, wears blue and not the hot black, and is not veiled, looks expectantly, and traffic still sluggish, so I begin again, making all kinds of excuses that they do not understand about how bad my drawing is, especially in the jerking car.

I make these in part because I can tell from the start that she will be more difficult. To me, the most important part of amateur portraiture aside from capturing some aspect of the face, is that you make the person look pretty. (Honestly, I think prettiness is probably even more important.) This girl is pretty, but she has bigger features (well, features), and it is hard for an amateur like me to capture the idiosyncrasies but maintain the strong prettiness.

I erase as much as I draw–it is surprisingly hard to do her nose stud in a way that does not look like some weird extra nostril or pimple.

But I get something down and she too is pleased, and now we have arrived, and I turn to the third girl, in black burkha but with her veil down (face showing), and I imagine that she looks disappointed–we are on a rough dirt street, sandy, brick and trash strewn, and we say goodbye, and I offer to do hers, I would be happy to try standing here in the street, but I know they cannot understand my English, and my portraits are so bad, I hate to make a big deal of it –so we say goodbye, walk on around the corner, go up to the office – they are on their way home.

To get to the office, we have to go through another building, onto a dirt alley, and then up an external stairwell. On one side of the stairs is a a view over a Hindu Temple; it is jammed into very narrow space beside some poor shanty-type shacks, charpoys (crude cots) on the dirt alley, where extremely poor people, naked babies, sit or lie down at the end of this hot day. Just next to this alley is the overpass of a large bridge that goes over an expanse of river, mainly dried up right now, the strands of remaining water deep green, the dried silt bed littered with garbage that people seem to pick through or pick their way through.

As we get upstairs to the office (where now we wait for tea), I look down the stairwell – it is open to the world – the alley, the bridge, the jam of temple, and there see the three muslim girls just across, on the concrete overpass of the bridge, beside the whizz and honk of traffic. They are standing there, on a part of the overpass opposite our stairs, clearly waiting for us to look down to them; they all three wear their black veils now, head and face coverings —even the girl who does not wear black, whose face I drew in full, and the girl I missed, the one I still regret, who wore the tight head veil but not the face covering.

I wave at them. They wave back. I imagine that they smile. Their eyes smile.

(I took a photo of the three girls, but two of them did not have their faces covered and although my daughter does not think that their photos would ever been seen, I feel worried to show their faces online, so have cropped the picture only to show the one girl who always kept on her veil. These girls are among the group studying computer at SEWA, the Self-Employed Women’s Association. I rode in a car with them from the SEWA poetry reading, which they also attended.)

PS — thanks so much to you all who read these posts. I’m sorry that I don’t have much time to edit – i.e. shorten, and haven’t written poetry, and tried working on novel. I really appreciate your stopping by though. It means a great deal to me to have someone to write to. K.

SEWA Slam, Women’s Poetry Reading, Ahmedabad

April 6, 2013









I cannot understand more than a word or so of Gujarati but it turns out that there is a certain style to empowerment poetry–strong rhythms, impassioned spirit, use of repetition and refrain, and sardonic humor–that is universal.

But before getting on to poetry — and you can see it being read in all of the photos above –I should say that the reason that I am in Ahmedabad right now is that my daughter has been working with the Self-Employed Women’s Association, a women’s organization that was started by the extraordinary Ela Bhatt in 1972, first as a women’s wing of the Textile Labour Association, which in turn is India’s oldest and largest union of textile workers, founded by Anasuya Sarabai, the philanthropic daughter of an Indian industrialist family in 1920 (after being inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s successfully led strike of textile workers in 1917.)

SEWA split off from the TLA in 1981, as a separate woman’s collective, made up of “self-employed women,” that is, women from the informal labor sector – headloaders, rag pickers, vegetable sellers, piece workers (usually working at home), bidi cigarette rollers (also often working in the home), women who tend to be extremely poor, with few sources of capital and little bargaining power against their bosses, landlords, the law, family members, anyone.

After its split from the TLA, SEWA spread out a number of limbs and roots –its symbol is a Banyan Tree–including (in addition to the labor collective), the organization of a women’s bank, social security system, insurance program, health clinics, child care, rural workers associations, training programs in various trades (everything from henna decoration to computers), literacy programs, life skills programs, a girls’ club (largely for the daughters’ of SEWA members), a SEWA academy, video SEWA, radio SEWA.

So, I come here to visit one of the offices for the afternoon as my daughter finishes her work, and guess what they happen to have set up for that day — a large poetry reading! (Not, I admit, in any connection to me.) Except that I got to go.

About thirty women read. All were beautifully dressed. (A few in my daughter’s office were busily applying eye liner to each other before they left.) Many spangles and bangles. (Some people think of women as dressing up for men, but when women dress up for other women, they can really go to the max.)

There were young girls reading, and also women who had been members for thirty years. This means that these women most likely started out as manual laborers–headloaders or vegetable hawkers, women who first learned to read and write in SEWA literacy classes.

The poetry was serious and impassioned–some, you’ll see in the videos below, read with great gestural emphasis. There were also, of course, many jokes. Although I had a strong sense that “the Man” was mocked somewhere, I really do wish I could have gotten the particulars.

SEWA is multi-religious, multi-caste. Hellos were said by poets with traditional muslim or hindu greetings and sometimes both. The hoots and whistling following some refrains would occasionally have an Inch’Allah thrown in, if the poet was Muslim. (I also think that some poets read in Urdu, but I cannot be sure as it is also a language I do not understand.)

Was it different from a Western slam? Sure, aside from the beautiful dress, each reader sat cross-legged, was barefoot, and afterwards took, as a reward, a wrapped-up wad of pan (betel nut leaf with flavorings folded into a little triangular “football”) from a small brass pot in the middle of the stage.

But even my unschooled ear could pick up the rhymes, the repeated phrases (each one growing and growing into a further, longer, more resonate repition), the rhythms and echoed refrains.

Ela Bhatt, now fairly elderly but unbelievably sweet and dignified, spoke (and even sang briefly). The women adore her, often using her name in their verse. It is clear that they feel that she (and SEWA) have given them a chance in life.

The closing, which my daughter tells me is typical of all large SEWA gatherings, involved the singing, with rhythmic clapping, of “We Shall Overcome.” In Gujarati. With multiple verses. All known by heart.

Pure poetry.

(I have included very blurred photos of some readers above, and of Ela Bhatt. Sorry that my light and camera were poor. I was only able to upload one video and I’m not sure it’s really there. She was one of many spirited readers. )