Notes From the Road: Mela Artisans in 2016
A Letter from Our Founder
I’d like to take a few minutes to tell you about the journey of Mela Artisans and the projects we’re working on in 2016 to bring you more beautiful, handmade products from India.
I started this company five years ago with my daughter, Sonali Mehta-Rao. As a father, I have taken my family all over India — adventures that led us to understand a larger global issue, mass manufacturing. As supply chains have shifted to volume and mass production, the art of making products by hand in cottage industries has declined.
We traveled to villages in India where we met women and men who took pride in weaving textiles, laying mosaics, cutting marble, and crafting wood into pieces of art.
Sadly because they didn’t have the means to reach a larger market, their efforts went unnoticed.
That’s why we started this company — in an effort to support livelihoods and preserve heritage. In 2015, we created 7,000 full-time jobs for artisans in India. The bulk of those, or more than 4,000 jobs, went to women. You can read our full impact overview here.
As the company has grown, we’ve seen individuals and communities thrive. For instance, in the landlocked and politicized region of Kashmir, we’ve seen a community of women refine their skills in embroidery, and give new life to a 15th century technique.
In visiting the majestic valleys, I was particularly inspired by the story of Tasleem Akhter, a tenacious woman who went from being an orphaned child to a successful entrepreneur and is now mentoring other young women in the area. You can read her story here.
As a group, though, these Kashmiri women have gone from earning $2,000 a year to nearly $60,000 last year — all because we could showcase their products to new markets, like here in the US.
We’re thrilled with their progress. That’s why in 2016, we’re hoping to affect more women artisan groups. We’ve seen that as women rise and gain financial independence, their communities flourish as well: more children go to school, their families are well nourished, and they seek healthcare for themselves and their loved ones.
What we’ve also discovered, thanks to our expeditions in Kashmir, is that we should support more communities off the beaten path. This year, for instance, we’ll be introducing a new line of woven products by tribal communities in South India, such as the Toda tribes who live in the Nilgiri Hills near Ooty. They’re producing crafts that are endangered. That is, with such small communities (their numbers have dropped to less than 700 individuals), and few individuals who still practice them, these art forms are at risk of disappearing altogether.
These artisans are aging rapidly as well, as younger populations are seeking work elsewhere. For instance, in Erode, a two hour drive from Tamil Nadu’s capital Coimbatore, I met a man in his 80s who had been weaving natural fibers his entire life.
He had to keep up the profession into his late years to support his wife and daughter who battles mental illness. It’s frustrating and saddening to see how his life-long toils have not been enough for this family.
That’s why we’re trying to hit the root of the problem — wages. By increasing their monthly pay, we hope to avoid these harsh realities. That’s what Mela Artisans as a company was conceived to do. And that’s what we’re going to continue to push for in 2016: connecting these artisans to new markets, with hopes that it impacts their earnings and quality of life.
Join us in this venture that goes beyond just a bottom line. We’ve recently launched a beautiful new site where you can see all these handcrafted products and read more of these stories behind the world of Mela.
As always, we’re keen on hearing from our customers. If you have ideas, suggestions, do drop us a line.
Founder and CEO of Mela Artisans