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Tailoring success

Feminine skills such as tailoring and needlework, meant to keep a woman occupied indoors, can be remodelled into careers. K. Padmakala, who started the first `by women, for women' Industrial Training Institute in Karnataka, has shown the way.

Padmakala: Determined to achieve her goals.

HUCKLEBERRY FINN, masquerading as a girl, is caught out by a sharp old lady by a foolproof test of femininity. She asks him to thread a needle, and sure enough, the boy takes the needle to the thread and not the other way round.

Is one woman enough if tailoring and needlework are not part of one's repertoire? Equations may have changed a bit for women of this generation, but every "girl seeing" ritual that our mothers went through put these skills to test. In our context, the ability to sing a devaranama or two would be additional qualifications.

But can these traditionally prescribed skills be subverted and used as tools of empowerment? We have before us a number of women entrepreneurs, big and small, who have done this quite successfully. Puppet making, pickle and papad-making, embroidery... all these womanly skills can now (with some modifications and capital input) launch careers. K. Padmakala is one of the many women to have made this shift — from a small-time girl with a flair for needlework to a successful entrepreneur.

Back in her hometown, Hunsur, Padmakala was always keen on learning every kind of craft. She was quite the star of the crafts class during her high school days. Having lost her father early, her special skill also helped her earn a few extra rupees even as she studied in college. "My mother was a nursery school teacher, and she was a gritty woman who didn't want help from anybody."

When Padmakala got married and shifted to Bangalore in 1976, one of the first things she did was to find a tailoring teacher close home. "When my daughter was very small, it was my sister-in-law Usha who looked after her while I went for classes," she remembers. (It was this gratitude that made her name the industrial training institute (I.T.I.) she started much later after her.) "I had three children, all girls, which encouraged me to learn new styles in tailoring," she laughs.

In fact, when they shifted to their own house in J.P. Nagar, the neighbours who saw Padmakala's daughters wear lovely clothes wanted her to stitch clothes for their children too. It was at this point that tailoring began to seem a serious financial proposition. "We had raised a loan to build the house, and the money I earned was valuable," she recollects. Soon, orders started pouring in. "Believe it or not, I have worked for over 20 hours in a day during festival seasons." She also started taking classes. Padmakala is quick to add: "I may have cooked simple meals those days, but I never really neglected my family."

Padmakala was not content being just a busy neighbourhood tailor. On one of her relative's advice, she thought of starting an I.T.I. But that meant a lot of paper work, finding the financial resources and the infrastructure, and more importantly, getting people at home to say "yes". "My husband initially thought that women only gossip when they get together. He also said that a venture of this kind was only for moneyed people," she recollects. But she was determined not to give up. The money for registration came from the Rs. 1,000 that her mother had given her to buy a Mysore silk sari. "My husband left me at the gate of the Department of Employment and Training, which was then on M.G. Road, and told me that I could do what I wanted. Those were days when I didn't even know how to draft an official letter," recalls Padmakala.

Finally, Saphalya, an umbrella organisation, which Usha I.T.I. (with cutting and tailoring as its chosen trade) is part of, was born in 1987. This, incidentally, was the first "by women, for women" I.T.I. of Karnataka. Talking of how she learnt everything the hard way, she quotes a Kannada proverb: "You jump into the well and measure its depth."

Paving the way for other women.

Padmakala and Saphalya have come a long way since then. Hundreds of women, particularly those from the lower middle-class, have been trained here and helped in finding a means of livelihood. ("Cutting and tailoring is one I.T.I. trade which even those who have failed in their SSLC exam can take up," points out Srilakshmi, Padmakala's sister who helps her out.) The institution has held special training camps for rural women. One of her students, B. Indira, has won national award for her expertise in the trade. The organisation itself has also won a national award. But for Padmakala, the biggest satisfaction comes from the fact that she is able to help so many women forge an identity. But she is keen on inscribing this within the family structure. "If you know tailoring, and you have a good husband, you can start a boutique. If you end up with a bad one, you can still earn your daily bread with a single sewing machine." She is proud that she has been able to prove her husband's misgivings wrong. "He and my mother now help me a lot," she says.

But where does a humble sewing machine stand when large players are dominating the garment industry? "There will always be demand for a good tailor. You can, for instance, never be happy with a readymade sari blouse," she says. Padmakala also points out many of her poor students have, in fact, found employment in garment industries. Being a television artiste and a dress designer for stage and small screen herself, Padmakala also initiates her students into these areas. "It helps if you have a specialisation."

Saphalya is holding a seminar today (called Golden Needle) to highlight the possibilities of the tailoring and needlework trade — from taking small orders at home to starting an export unit. The day-long event is at Ravindra Kalakshetra.


Photo: K. Gopinathan

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