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Year of Dread, Doom, Hope and Gratitude: What I Learned From the Resilience of Indigenous Communities in India

Year of Dread, Doom, Hope and Gratitude: What I Learned From the Resilience of Indigenous Communities in India

As we get ready to bid adieu to 2023 and welcome the new year, I am faced with mixed emotions — dread and doom, as well as gratitude and hope. Dread and doom are because of the intense horror and deplorable violence across the world, especially the wars between Ukraine and Russia and Palestine and Israel, resulting in the loss of innocent lives, rising divisiveness, and growing disconnect. In the era of identity politics, I am pained to see how different interest groups privilege just one marker of identity, e.g., religion, ethnicity, and sexuality, to name a few, at the cost of other identities, to spread hatred and destroy the diversity and interconnectedness in society. 

Amid the challenges, I’m grateful for all the experiences, struggles, and realizations that have shaped me to become a stronger, more resilient individual. This year, I got a chance to admire the strength of indigenous communities, and learn how they embrace new opportunities, overcome challenges with determination, and engage in self-reflection to foster personal growth.

Women who receive help from the nonprofit South Asia Study Initiative (SASI) in Nuapatna in Odisha. Top photo, the author, center, with Gayatri Patra and Sunil Rana who run the NGO.

Although I have lived in California for the last 35 years, I go back to Odisha almost twice a year. The main reason for my extended visits is my 90-year-old mother. She is my only family connection left in my home state after my father passed away in 1993 at the very young age of 64. 

As an anthropologist, I have taken this opportunity to work with diverse groups of artisans, weavers, and craftspeople, learn about their indigenous knowledge in crafting their cultures on the textiles, their marginalization in the era of globalization, and promote their products in the global market. As we enter the New Year, I want to highlight their strengths and use the lessons I have learned from them as a foundation for my growth and accomplishment.

I was introduced to 24-year-old Sunil Rana and Gayatri Patra in 2019 through a designer friend when I was the president of the South Asia Study Initiative (SASI), a U.S.-based nonprofit organization. Sunil and Gayatri, run the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) in Nuapatna. Sunil manages the computer center, and Gayatri leads the sewing center. The two initially joined the center as teachers, but at the end of 2019, due to a lack of funding, the NGO closed its office in Nuapatna and asked them if they would take over the center.

They mustered the courage to run the center with ten computers and six sewing machines. They had to pay the rent for the building and take care of all the operational expenses. They started with six students, and in 2023, the student strength has reached 140. The center, which was operational during the COVID-19 pandemic, trains young local people for their livelihood and finds small, effective ways to influence young women, their families, friends, and the village community. It provides a social networking space for these young women outside their homes. Sunil runs three to four batches of computer classes with 15 to 20 students each.

Gayatri belongs to a weaver family, but her parents are ailing and too old. She got married at an early age and lives with her parents. Her husband is short-tempered and abusive. Her daughter adds to her worry as the in-laws consider a girl child a burden rather than a blessing. Sunil credits her for the overwhelming response to the center.  Young women from several villages come to Gayatri for sewing training. She nurtures ambition in women to succeed, learn new skills, and get a job.  Many girls have turned to marketing their weaving products without any middlemen. Belonging to the local community, they both exude a sense of agency, a feeling of duty, and ethical integrity to help find the voice of numerous young women, learn new skills, and develop personal growth.

I met Rashmita, one of the many women trained by Gayatri, in Dec. 20, 2022. The demure, 38-year-old who was clad in a cotton sari looked sad and lost. She admitted to having many problems at home. Gayatri told me that Rashmita came to the center about two years ago to learn to sew. Fearful and traumatized, she could not handle physical and mental abuse at her husband’s home and moved to her father’s with her five-year-old son. At the center, she could not remember simple steps such as putting thread into the bobbin. Her brother said she was worthless. However, Patra was persuasive, and Rashmita was persistent. She wrote down every step of her lessons; it took her two years to complete a three-month-long course. Now, she has become competent at sewing. Patra has ensured her success in sewing, as it is her only way out of her daily struggle. 

I have been working with Sunil and Gayatri since 2019 to promote the artisans in Nuapatna and provide them with a free global platform on a worldwide market website. Earlier this month, I visited the DEF. In 2019, on behalf of SASI, we planned professional sewing and advanced computer training for young women, and this month, we raised money to provide 24 sewing machines. 

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But everything is not perfect. Sunil laments that he has no extra earnings; his family pressures him to get a steady income and get married. Gayatri’s family situation is dismal; she does not have any means to make more money, and she sometimes feels life is useless if she cannot provide medicine for her ailing parents. But seeing the women making a difference, she realizes that breaking the boundaries of social norms is not always easy, but it is not impossible.

Sunil and Gayatri’s efforts to motivate the artisans to be self-governing and self-supporting have yet to succeed entirely. There are many barriers: young women face family constraints to get married at an early age, curtailing their dream to be self-reliant, and the lack of availability of jobs in the villages makes it hard for women to be self-dependent. Even if small shop owners hire these talented women, they do not pay them and harass them after long work hours. Yet, Gayatri and Sunil persist in creating an ideal community without hierarchy and collaboration in sharing resources, know-how, and mutual support. In a neoliberal society, their successes (and there are some) and failures point to the challenges of creating a sustainable life within market capitalism and state-sponsored lopsided development.

However, their efforts introduce us to a new awareness, and the wisdom of rural artisans will help guide us in recentering ourselves. They promote a sense of equanimity and democracy in a hierarchical society. Professor George Santayana used to say that we live in two worlds — one given to us by nature, and the other we create ourselves in our stories, life experiences, poetry, prayers, and other things we create. These two worlds are interconnected, and our acknowledgment of that will center us, and make us feel less alienated.

Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge University, the U.K. Her current research interests include diaspora studies, South Asian religions, and immigrant women’s identity-making in the diaspora in California. In 2017-18 she received a Fulbright scholarship for fieldwork in India. Dr. Pandey is also an accomplished documentary filmmaker. Her 2018 award-winning documentary “Road to Zuni,” dealt with the importance of oral traditions among Native Americans.

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  • It’s nice to see how somatic practices like sewing can create a reprieve from difficult domestic circumstances. I hope additional social support services come to these areas to help people who are abused at home or in the workplace. Thanks for another great article.

  • You wrote a very touching and sincere article, apa. I’m grateful that you opened up about your life experiences with us. I’m proud to be part of SASI and I’ll always support you.

    • Thank you, Daisy! You are an angel for SASI. Thank you for being part of SASI and relentlessly promoting the upliftment of the young women in villages of Odisha!

  • Madam,
    Thank you for your story on Nuapatna girls. They need more and more
    training and encouragement to be self-reliant in the field of
    entrepreneurship, and also, poor young women need help in education
    and livelihood.

    At our center, We train many poor girls and provide computer education
    at a 50% discount, i.e., 4000/ ( $50) for ten months compared to the
    market rate of 8000/. Many young women need more funds to do the
    training. We are also happy to provide discount education to the girls
    and play a small role in their happy lives. We also offer tailoring
    services with a monthly fee of 200/- ( $2.50) instead of the market
    price of 600/ ( $7.50). We want to make sure that more female students
    become successful in the field of computer education as well as
    We need your help with better training for the girls because
    initially, we had fewer students, but now their number has increased.

  • The article on Nuapatana weavers is really a touching, emotional and at the the same time, the way, Dr. Pandey has described the determination and commitment of Gayatri and Sunil, is very encouraging .

    I am a part of SASI , the Non-profit organization, started by Dr. Pandey in the state of California. One of the mission of SASI, is to support and improve the socio-economic conditions of weavers. I have visited Nuapatana village few times, spent time with the weavers but her narration, shows a deep intuitive understanding of weavers social and financial issues. I am truly proud to be a part of SASI, will do my best to promote and support the weavers.

  • Thank you, Suchitra, so much! You inspire Sasi, and we look forward to working together for the cause of the indigenous weavers and craftspeople!

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