Bala Darshan, a production and sales centre for bags, gives underprivileged women a hope for empowerment

The starred tiles on the floor of Bala Darshan match the little stars on the woven baskets that line its purple and green walls. Called the Slum Showroom, this production and sales centre for bags is at Sathyavani Muthu Nagar, just off Pallavan Salai. Kalyani, Sumathi and Farida, who live thereabouts, are sitting amidst reams of plastic wire and weaving baskets in a dizzying mix of colours. Farida is shy and it takes a while for her to talk. “How many baskets I make depends on how much work I do,” she says. “Sometimes I take a day, or just a few hours.” She’s the newbie here, and has been training for four months.

Supporting family

Sumathi, who’s leaning against a pillar, is weaving an orange and lavender-coloured basket for a client in Japan. She’s been weaving for four years and the income supports her family of four. “My husband knew about this place and sent me here to work. It’s close to home,” she says. Kalyani adds, “Her husband passed away recently. Now she has three children to feed.” Sumathi nods.

Kalyani herself has been weaving for eight years for additional income. “When you’re ageing, who’s going to help you? I don’t want to be dependent on anyone,” she says firmly. K.S. Prasad, the manager of the showroom, drops in, “We need more people like you, Kalyani.”

Bala Darshan, a part of Speed (Slum People Education and Economic Development) Trust’s project, began as a production centre for woven bags, flex bags and wallets in 2009, employing seven women trained by them in tailoring. But now, it has grown to support more than 100 women from different parts of the city, and given them a new lease of life. “One of our first projects when we started in 1999 was tailoring, and we were not trying to just impart a skill but to promote it. So, in 2002, we began Bala Darshan to export the products. We also made them weave baskets, giving employment mostly to women who were HIV positive, physically challenged or underprivileged,” says Philippe Malet, the founder. “They are eager to get a job so that they don’t feel dependent.” Bala Darshan also has 20 organisations that promote products of disadvantaged people.

Bala Darshan sends its products far and wide. While the tailoring work is exported to Australia and the U.K., the baskets go as far as Denmark and Italy. “We also supply to the boutiques of a few star hotels and retail chains, locally and nationally,” says Philippe. “The women are happy because otherwise they’d take up jobs as domestic helps or construction workers. This is convenient; the centre even has a crèche. Those who can’t work at the centre can take materials from us and work from home.”

K.S. Prasad has been working with Speed Trust since 2007 and says that most women weave to support their families. “The husband might not give them money, will waste most of what he earns on alcohol and won’t send them out anywhere,” he explains. At the centre, the women work between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., with an hour for lunch in between. “These days, it’s getting tough to make a lot of bags because the power situation is unstable.”

Who buys bags directly at the showroom? “Tourists and other foreigners who know of the place. We barely get any local people,” says Prasad, “It could be because they don’t know the place or find the bags a bit expensive. But, they don’t see its worth or where the money is going.”

Making a difference

Philippe is happy that the showroom is making a difference in his employees’ lives. “One of the girls who’s been weaving since 2005 is physically challenged. And by learning this skill and earning through it, she’s able to support her family,” he says.

Bala Darshan’s flex bags are priced between Rs. 26 and Rs. 310, while the woven bags range from Rs. 150 to Rs. 1,100. For details, call 6457-2188.