Category: art and culture of India


At the Ramaswami Foundation, children enjoy a lively celebration with a peacock dance. This is from two years ago, right before the pandemic and was part of the celebration of Republic Day.

As well as the offices of the Ramaswami Foundation and the CPR Environmental Education Centre, this property, on four acres, is also the location of the CP Art Centre, where art exhibits are held.

On the other side of the buildings shown here, there are shops facing the street, used by women who do beautiful handicrafts and clothing. Inside, up a little semicircular walk, is a large exhibit hall and, upstairs, is another hall for lectures and other events.

Near the offices of the Ramaswami Foundation (the C.P.Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation) is the main hall of the original 400 year old building, which is still in use. A section of the building had to be remodeled following severe flooding in 2015. One of the leading charities in India, the Ramaswami Foundation was established here over fifty years ago.

The outreach programs of the two sister organizations, the Ramaswami Foundation and the CPR Environmental Education Centre, extend over six Indian states including the Andamans Islands, reaching 50,000 students a year, and many thousands of other people as well, including tribal artists and women being trained to start their own businesses.

In other buildings, not visible here, are the Saraswathi Kendra Learning Centre, for children with learning challenges – and also the award-winning Grove School.

Normally, these are all very busy places, bustling with activity. During the time of covid, for the past two years, even when there have not been lockdowns, the number of occupants has been greatly restricted.

Now, with the arrival of spring, life is returning and brighter days lie ahead.

Young women sit on the floor, deeply engaged with the task in front of them. Learning how to shape and polish coconut shells into wonderful animal and other shapes – they are also taught how to use machines that will help them in their work.

Dr. Pellur Sudhakar, the Director of CPREEC (the C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre), has traveled to Gudalur, a city in the Nilgiris Hills in south India, to conduct classes in making traditional handicrafts.

Handcrafted products made from coconut shells can be wonderfully imaginative.

Coconut trees grow abundantly in India, and many products are made from them, for example, coconut oil. After the oil is extracted, the shells are left, and this extremely abundant material, which would otherwise go to waste, can be turned into delightful works of art.

CPREEC teaches groups of students or teachers, or both, how to do these crafts. By teaching the teachers, who pass on what they have learned, they reach a great many students.

The Nilgiris hills of Tamil Nadu, where the town Gudalur is located, are one of the most beautiful places on earth. Unbelievably green hills are enveloped in mist that drifts among the hills. It is a magical landscape. Gudalur is the farthest point west in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

In the town of Gudalur, thirty young women, from a low-income background, were identified as trainees to take part in the two-month training program to learn how to make coconut shell products. CPREEC came up with the products that would have the greatest marketing potential: “angry birds,” spoons, bowls, cups, key chains, soap stands, incense stands, flower vases, wall hangers, and doorbells. The young women were taught how to make these.

An expansive program

In 2020, Dr. Sudhakar and his team traveled to 24 locations in four different states to teach teachers and students. The course in how to make handicrafts from coconut shells was just one of several programs that were offered to the students. As well as the town of Gudalur, the training programs also traveled to twenty-six other locations.

In the Tumakuru district of Karnataka, the state just west of Tamil Nadu, another hill district, a range of hills 4,000 feet high, running north to south, creates spectacular vistas, as one looks down over the valleys below. It is a wonderland of green hills.

In the state of Odisha, to the north, they traveled to the Khorda District, a land of coastal plains and startingly beautiful, ancient temples.

The long history of Indian folk art

Handicrafts in India are not something that one just does as a hobby. They are part of a long, much respected culture and tradition – an art form that has been passed down from generation to generation. Indian handicrafts are extraordinarily beautiful and creative.
CPREEC taught the trainees how to use machines safely — grinding wheels, polishing tools, cutters, and drills to make and polish the finished products. The young women were also trained to use natural colors to decorate the products. The training would enable each of them to make a good living as an entrepreneur, and also a professional artisan.

Producing this beautiful and very popular form of folk art will give them a livelihood based on creativity and inspiration, which engages their inner spirit and natural joy in producing works of beauty. It is an art form that is filled with life and charm – that will bring delight both to themselves and their customers.

Helping the earth

As well as artistic creativity, the coconut shell products are friendly to the environment. They make use of a by-product – the coconut shell – left over from the production of coconut oil or coconut milk. The process destroys nothing and creates great beauty.

During the year 2020, in 27 programs, reaching 1,215 students and teachers, which took place in 24 towns – from the Nilgiris hills to Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, further north along the coast, Dr. Sudhakar and his team have brought out the natural creativity of these young people, giving them a very practical – as well as delightful and environmentally friendly — future. They will now be equipped to make their way in the world with confidence and pride in their own talents and abilities.

Photos:

Photo of Gudalur. Needle Rock View Point
Raj, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

All other photos: CPREEC

© Text copyright, Forest Voices of India, 2021

Most of us cannot speak Tamil; however, if you take a moment or two to look at this beautiful video – somewhere in the middle, you will be able to get an idea of the peaceful, graceful surroundings of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation….

Mrs. Tamima

Mrs. Tamima’s business is called “101 Strawberries”

She makes a great many different varieties of jam: strawberry, kiwi, fig, plum, apple – 22 varieties in all. Also, some chutneys, south Indian pickles, and brownies. Her customers call her and place their orders on the phone.

Around twenty years ago, she went to a class to learn to make jam. Then she gave some jam to her friends to taste. “They liked it a lot!” she says. That’s how her business got its start.

In one day, she can make five to ten jars.

She has to wash the fruit, then chop, cook, and boil them all. It’s a lot of work, but she explains “It’s very satisfying to get to the end of the day and see that it is done.”

She calls her business “101 Strawberries” because when she asked her niece to suggest a name, her niece replied that she had just been watching 101 Dalmatians, so why not call it, “101 Strawberries?” – which she did.

For the past fifteen years, she’s been coming to the C.P. Art Centre to take part in the Women’s Bazaar when it is held once a year. The C.P. Art. Centre is run by the CPRA Foundation in Chennai, in south India.

Mrs. Tamima’s lovely smile indicates clearly how much she enjoys what she does!

It would be hard to underestimate the transformative power that running their own business has meant for these women. On a practical level, it’s a huge help to the family income and on an emotional level, it’s a great blessing!

Mrs. Rukmani Jayaraman

Mrs. Rukmani Jayaraman sells Tanjore paintings and temple jewelry.

Tanjore paintings are a classical art form, which began centuries ago during the time of the Chola Empire. Its popularity continues today. Mrs. Rukmani Jayaraman sells these paintings which are done by artists in Tanjore, a city known for its artistic expression, around 200 miles (340 kilometers) to the south of Chennai, in south India.

Income means a lot

Running their own business helps the women, whatever their circumstances may be. For some, their income has been really essential, and it has enabled them to feed their families and send their children to school (which is not free in India). For others, it has simply made the family’s life easier, and enabled them to have some extra money to spend.

Their prosperity brings happiness. The sense of community, of getting together with the other women, is a joyful occasion. They take breaks together and catch up with each other’s news. They feel a sense of gratitude to the CPRA Foundation for making all this possible, and especially to Mrs. Shantha, Manager of the C. P. Art Centre, who organizes the entire bazaar and encourages each of them.

Mrs. Sajida

Mrs. Sajida has been selling textiles for sarees for more than twenty-five years.

The Women’s Bazaar has helped these women to get a start and has taught them how to run their own businesses.

These are all traditional Indian enterprises. With their businesses these women are also doing their part to preserve the art and culture of India, including folk art, which always has a meaning and a cultural value.

The women do not pay any of the overhead expenses of running the Women’s Bazaar so that they can keep all of the income they make, so if you’d like to help with a donation, that will go toward the costs of running the Women’s Bazaar and benefitting the women.

***

Update – Covid precautions. These photos were taken during a previous visit to India before the pandemic. Since then, during the pandemic, all covid precautions have been taken, with mask being worn, social distancing, and limits to the number of visitors.
The exhibition held from March 4-9, 2020, was inaugurated by Mrs. Suhassini Maniratnam, film actor and director.
The exhibition held from March 9-14, 2021, was inaugurated by Mrs. Akhila Shrinivasan, woman entrepreneur.

***

As the breadwinner for her family, Mrs. Vijayalakshmi makes pickles and Indian tortillas called papads.

Sunlight streams across the entranceway as the women set up their products on tables.

Nearby is a busy street, not too wide, but busy enough. Trees grow in the outside area, casting friendly shadows over the tables. There is an outside area and then several inside shops, all buzzing with activity at the Women’s Bazaar which is about to begin.

Many of these women have been participating in the Women’s Bazaar at the C. P. Art Centre every year for 25 years since it first began, and others have been there fifteen or twenty years.

These determined women have overcome hurdles and obstacles to create successful sources of income for their families and themselves. Earlier in their lives, few of them had envisioned a career as entrepreneurs.

They have been mothers and housewives who rose to the occasion when their circumstances required it.

Stepping up to help women become creative

The CPRA Foundation stepped up to fill a need and to empower these women who had never been involved in the world of business, showing them how to make use of their own gifts and talents.

Most of the products they sell are handmade. They may be food made from recipes passed down from generation to generation or may be textiles either bought or created by hand. All the products are environmentally and animal-friendly – for example the beautiful jute handbags that otherwise might have been made of leather. Mrs. Niraimathi runs a very successful business now and also provides all the jute bags that the C.P. Art Centre uses for conferences and other events.

Mrs. Niraimathi

Having learned how to market their wares at the CPRA Foundation, these entrepreneurs are now able to expand their reach by selling products at other venues too, creating a steady income.

The income from their enterprise may cover food and the family’s basic needs, as well as their children’s education from elementary school on through high school and university. In some cases, they are the sole breadwinner. In other cases, their income supplements that of their husband.

Mrs. Shanthi with her pickles, powders, sweets, and savories

Self-reliance brings freedom

As well as providing for the needs of the family, having their own income brings a whole new sense of freedom and well-being into their lives.

With their children provided for, they may be able to expand their businesses to open their own boutiques or shops. No longer feeling trapped inside the house, they are out and about, leading active lives.

The entire day at the Women’s Bazaar is not all spent working – there is time for taking a break together, renewing friendships, and catching up with each other’s news.

Mrs. Shakila displays her cloth garlands for pooja (devotional services) and door decorations.


A community of friends

They value the time spent with each other highly, and they form a community of those who have – over the course of 15-25 years — returned again and again to take part in the Women’s Bazaar – which is always there for them as a steady presence in their lives. They appreciate the warmth and friendship of other women in the community as well as the guidance provided by the C.P. Art Centre – and the ever-present encouragement extended by Mrs. K. Shantha, the Manager of the Centre – who is always a dynamic, lively, and inspiring presence.

Mrs. K. Shantha, Manager of the C.P. Art Centre

The value of economic freedom is hard to overstate. Some among us may take it for granted – but it is a lifeline that makes a big difference towards peace and well-being in the lives of all of us.

***

Update – Covid precautions. These photos were also taken during a previous visit to India before the pandemic. Since then, all covid precautions have been taken, with mask being worn, social distancing, and limits to the number of visitors.
The exhibition held from March 4-9, 2020, was inaugurated by Mrs. Suhassini Maniratnam, film actor and director.
The exhibition held from March 9-14, 2021, was inaugurated by Mrs. Akhila Shrinivasan, woman entrepreneur.

***

Under the leadership of Dr. Nanditha Krishna, the CPREEC (C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Environmental Education Centre) in Chennai, India, has restored 53 sacred groves, over the past thirty years – bringing back the original flora and fauna and restoring these small forests with the same species of plants and animals which always lived there in the past, providing once again beautiful tranquil lands which the people living nearby had treasured in the past. Each village in India once had a sacred grove. Now, the village people themselves maintain and care for these restored sacred forests and the abundant wildlife that live there.

These ancient sacred groves represent one of the amazing traditions of India, which has traditionally valued and preserved the life and the beauty of the natural world.

Dr. Nanditha Krishna is an environmentalist, art historian and well-known author of over twenty-five books about the art, culture, and the natural world of India. Among these are Hinduism and Nature, Sacred Animals of India, and Sacred Plants of India.

Listening to this short video, you will be transported to the city of Chennai where you will be among the tall, peaceful trees of the CPREEC and CPRA Foundation centers, yet not far from the busy city life of nearby streets.

Just as they did during the lockdown a year ago, Blue Cross has been giving thousands of meals every day to the street dogs in Chennai, in the south of India.

During normal times, many street dogs hang out around tea shops and restaurants where customers give them handouts. During the lockdown these businesses have all been closed, and the dogs have been left with no source of food, so the feeding by the Blue Cross volunteers has saved their lives.

Chefs to the rescue

This has been a huge undertaking. Blue Cross has coordinated cooking the food – dog food in India is cooked and is a healthy mixture of rice and other nutritional ingredients and supplements. They have worked with chefs in restaurants and hotels who have volunteered to cook the food. When the restaurants were closed, the chefs came in every day especially to do this, while Blue Cross provided the ingredients. This has been a very large expense for them – around $600 every day, and this is in addition to feeding the one thousand or so animals who they care for, at any given time, at their main shelter.

Blue Cross has organized many dozens of volunteers to distribute the food to the dogs; some of these kind people also feed the dogs during normal times, but now it’s risen to a whole new level. They also bring along food for cows and other animals out on the street. Last year Blue Cross was able to arrange an understanding with the police for the dog feeders to be out on the street during the lockdown, and this has continued this year. In some cases the police themselves have helped with the feeding.

A native breed

Most of the street dogs in India are a native breed of “All-India” dogs that arose naturally and was not “bred.” They are of medium height, with short fur and ears pointing up. For thousands of years they have existed in Indian cities. They tend to be shy, quiet, and very adept at crossing the street while avoiding traffic. They are quite used to being out on the street. The five thousand or so humane shelters in India do not and have never rounded up the street dogs to kill them in shelters. It would not have occurred to them to do so. They simply help those animals who are injured or in distress.

In 1964, Blue Cross of India began the first, continuously running, spay/neuter program in the entire world. This program has been going ever since and has never stopped; it paused only briefly during the two lockdowns for the pandemic. It is efficient and effective and is known as the ABC program because, as Blue Cross’s co-founder and chairman emeritus, Dr Chinny Krishna, says, “It is as simple as ABC.”

A long history of helping street dogs

The ABC program has always included rabies vaccinations, which have brought rabies under control throughout the city of Chennai (and eliminated it entirely during several years), saving the lives of both animals and people.

The ongoing, dedicated work of Blue Cross caring for the street dogs of Chennai has had a powerful influence on the care of dogs and other animals in cities all over India – although India has traditionally, true to their culture and philosophy – been a land which values kindness towards all animals. The ABC program maintains a steady, stable population of the dogs, who are calm and well habituated to their neighborhoods, where they can live peacefully for many years.

In addition, Blue Cross runs a very active ambulance rescue service for animals in distress, helping many thousands of dogs and other animals each year. Dogs found on the street who have formerly been pets are taken to the Blue Cross shelter and placed in the adoption program to find loving homes.

Please help Blue Cross, if you can. They have undertaken the monumental task of feeding the street dogs during this time when they have had no regular source of food. A little goes a long way. Bless you and thank you.

Photos: Velu, Blue Cross of India