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The Friday Mania

Project Kalayatra – A Solo Traveller’s Sojourn with Art

Project Kalayatra is barely months old, kick-started in the month of March 2016 it’s an endeavour by solo traveller turned social entrepreneur Lekshmi Gopinathan. Supported by a team of enthusiastic and ably talented volunteers, it’s an attempt, a crusade to help and protect endangered art forms in various parts of the country. Twenty nine year old Lekshmi quit her full time role as the Head of Communications of an e-commerce website and set out to travel the length and breadth of the country, unravelling artisan communities, interacting with them and making art tours, on the go.

Project Kalayatra was formed out of a purpose for Lekshmi’s wandering, an avid traveller, she knew that the life of a nomad called out to her. Yet, her travels needed a purpose and she found them on the streets of Varanasi, talking to a weaver, one fine day. There has been no looking back and Kalayatra has travelled to Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Nepal and Uttarakhand searching for artisan communities. Kerala is her next month long project.

Explore the Gavri Dance of Bhil Men, the sensual Kalbelia of the gypsies, learn puppeteering in Jaipur, make some patch quilts in Barmer, visit the legendary and fictional ghost town of Kuldhara, live in the desert with the camels, paint in Pushkar, sing in Jaisalmer, weave with the Gurungs in Nepal, pray with the monks in Mcleodganj, explore a writer’s muse in Mussorie or trek in the mountains to meet the artists, this is the world of Kalayatra, a small step at changing lives, one at a time.

Through Kalayatra, anyone can witness and experience the life of an artist in the remote corner of the country- volunteering, working and living with them. All of these at a very affordable cost, these are all backpacker’s art tours and hence are not heavy on the pocket. The idea is that anyone and everyone should be able to afford it. Lekshmi’s experience of having worked as a documentary producer and setting up other start up organizations has come in handy while she rows the Kalayatra boat, solo.

Art is dying and by art, Kalayatra does not mean the incredible ones you see in galleries and museums, they mean art and craft created by artisans in villages and small towns, from crammed up spaces, using their hands, it means handicrafts. Lekshmi saw their endangerment up close while travelling and after toying with the idea it marked its spot in her head and heart. Numerous websites offer artisans the choice to a kind of fair trade by offering their products online on e-commerce websites, that’s great and needful but in reality the issue is much deeper. Lekshmi through Kalayatra wants people to encourage, motivate and experience the life of these talented men and women, because everything is not about money and Kalayatra believes in that.

Lekshmi is working to build the idea into a self-sustainable model for the communities. Kalayatra is a means to give these artists a chance to preserve their history and the travellers a chance to embrace art.

Discovering and re-defining Art- In Jodphur

It is extremely difficult to define art in entirety.

Highly appreciated, in galleries, traversing through paintings, murals and sculptures and parallel unexplored, found in hundreds of nooks and crannies of the ever so vibrant India. Art is created everyday by hundreds of artisans, unknown and unheard of. In one of our documentation trips, Project Kalayatra navigated through Jodhpur’s Sardar Market to discover a community of artists, creating one of India’s favourite footwear.

The history of footwear in India can be traced back to the Vedic period. To put it in easy terms, Indians have been wearing shoes and sandals, forever. In the midst of the evolution to international brands and unconventional designs, there have been things closer home, which still find abundant space in our hearts and wardrobes, alike. Jodhpuri chappals, enclosed in multiple hues is the protagonist today.

A walk through the ‘Chappalon Wali Gali’ behind the Clock Tower, leads to a narrow nondescript lane. Awaiting no second glances, the lane looks like any of the hundreds winding around Jodhpur, famous for the 15th century Mehrangarh Fort. Chappalon wali gali is literally translated to the Footwear Street, lined on both sides are a dozen houses, rhythmically constructing their version of art in the form of Jodhpuri chappals.

The story of a Jodhpuri chappal is as romantic as they get, the metamorphosis of plain leather into a completed colourful chappal is incredibly, disciplined as much as it’s beautiful. The process of making the chappal is an example of a well-oiled factory line, where the women and men share equal responsibilities to bring out the finished product. The leather received from various parts of the state is treated and then worked on by the men who learn the art from their fathers and have been doing so for generations. The soles and covers are turned into sturdy shapes to fit various kind of feet and sizes. Now, the women take over with their nimble fingers, creating the beautiful embroidery which makes the Jodhpuri chappal so distinct from the various footwear coming out of other parts of India. Cooing to the infant on her lap, sought by the whistle of the pressure cooker every five minutes, this artist from under her ghungat (veil), embroiders three to four pairs of chappals, every day.

Jodhpuri chappals have adorned feet for years, picked from these streets they are usually sent in huge numbers to shops in bigger cities, especially to the metros. They are supplied to the hawker at the pavement and dozens of e-commerce websites, alike. The cost of a Jodhpuri chappal ranges from Rs.300-500 when bought from any of these sellers. The artist usually are paid as low as Rs.30 to embroider one pair of the Jodhpuris. For years, they have worked under clouds of economic disparity and it’s not unknown to them. Quite contrary to the morose atmosphere that is expected, these artisans overwhelmingly display happiness, punctuating their everyday juggling of work. There is an infectious camaraderie of sharing a common goal to create a craft.

What sets this community apart, is their pride in accepting themselves as heirs to a skill, passed on to them since generations. The younger artists have migrated to cities as is the story to do with many art forms in small cities and villages, yet many have returned to their community in the recent times. Unknown to many, more often than not, economic support plays second fiddle to the appreciation and encouragement that the artist seeks. In the last few years, few resident history guides have brought sets of tourists and visitors to the chappalon wali gali, the difference is evident in the faces of these artists. No prominent support for financial independence has been initiated by any individual, organization or the government. The artists themselves, seek no aid and are vocal about the fact that all they need is a chance at fair trade.

A little effort can go a long way, may it be the tourist, the visitor, the volunteer or the shopper, one can script a significant role in this movement. Jodhpur is visited by tourists, all year round. Inculcating these artists and other existing art forms as a part of the tourist trail can be amply beneficial. A visitor to Jodhpur can contribute by taking half a day out of the schedule, to spend time with the artists, chappalon wali gali is central to Jodhpur and easily accessible. Volunteering to help or learn the trade and buying directly from the artisans or organizations who support fair trade for the artists is another positive. It is heartening to see the comeback of Indian indigenous Art in the lives of the Indian shopping enthusiasts. Indian is a kaleidoscope of handicrafts, exploring, learning and being aware of this is the first big step to indigenous art conservation.

As much as the city of Jodhpur owes its glory to history, it also does to the various art forms which have originated and strived here. It is about the Jodhpuri chappals, the Bandhini sarees, leather bags, camel bone sculpting and so much more. All it needs is an effort to explore and discover that little extra which is usually unheard of. This vibrant city welcomes explorers, connoisseurs, artists, story tellers and wanderers, to experience Art which not easily found in books.

Want an awesome art-tour at Rs. 500 a day? Project Kalayatra could help
A venture that allows

A venture that allows you to experience artisans and their way of life – up close and personal.

Think of ‘art tours’ and an exorbitantly priced tour of complex art and architecture comes to mind. But what if we tell you that you can now indulge in a tour as good as any, with just under Rs 500 per day? Chennai based traveler Lekshmi Gopinathan’s Project Kalayatra does just that.

Lekshmi launched Kalayatra back in March 2016, aiming to help the struggling artisan community in India. “I started Kalayatra to connect these indigenous artisans to the real world,” says Lekshmi.

Facilitating a real-time experience for the tourists, Kalayatra is for people who want to get up-close with the artisans and their way of life.

Though the price varies from region to region, the fee begins at Rs 500 per day, including accommodation and food, for week-long trips enabling people to live with these craftsmen. From learning the folk dance of Kalbelia in Jaipur to mastering the art of weaving patch quilt in Balmer, Kalayatra lets you be a part of their journey.

Carrying a strong passion for travel since she was 18, Lekshmi knew that she wanted to do something to appease her wanderlusting soul. “I didn’t want to be a wandering soul without a purpose,” she says.

A trained journalist and also a start-up specialist, she worked with a renowned e-commerce company that specialised in native Indian ethnic wear. But she quit her job soon and initiated Kalayatra.

“As part of my job, I would go often visit the native weavers and interact with them,” Lekshmi narrates. “On one such trip to Varanasi, I spoke to a weaver who told me about the challenges which forced him to migrate to a nearby city and work in a garment factory,” she recalls. She remembers it as the moment which gave her strength to quit her comfortable job and work for these artisans.

A few sessions of research and brainstorming later, Lekshmi decided to couple her passion with a cause. She started going for recce trips and approached artisans with the idea. In the two months since its inception, Kalayatra has arranged 6 trips across Rajasthan with backpackers coming from Brazil, Austria, Germany and France. However, Lekshmi says that the venture is not just for the foreigners but also for the exploring Indians.

“The venture is absolutely non-profit with every penny going to the artisans. In fact, the money exchange is strictly between the traveler and the artisan,” she says.

The firm is now looking for crowd funding. “Though the responses for the same have been minimal, we are looking to tie-up with a few investors,” she says. She is eyeing Himachal Pradesh, Nepal  next, along with a few heritage spots down south.

Eventually, Lekshmi hopes to have a self-sufficient e-commerce model for these artisans.

Deccan Chronicle

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