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`It helps if you're part of the local culture'

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WHITE WONDERS Muzaffar and Meera Ali
WHITE WONDERS Muzaffar and Meera Ali
Here is a couple that dabbles in diverse artistic fields design, architecture, poetry, filmmaking, music and painting. That's Meera and Muzaffar Ali for you. Muzaffar's magnum opus, "Umrao Jaan" is remembered even today, as are his paintings and poetry. As a fashion designer, Meera's artistic sensibility comes to the fore in the clothes that she and Muzaffar create together under the label `Kotwara.' Muzaffar, the Raja of Kotwara (near Lucknow), and his graceful wife Meera are also involved in the empowerment and education of the women of Kotwara through craft and embroidery.They discuss with Renuka Vijay Kumar the importance of giving back to society, their love for Sufi music and its expression through Jahan-e-Khusrau, their annual music festival, and more.Muzaffar Ali: The fashion industry is not of great significance to us but what matters is the environment we live in and the culture we belong to, especially as we relate to the craftspersons, their lives and aspirations. Today, the outlook of a person is important. Even if we can do a little bit to change it, it would be a big step forward.Meera Ali: Let's talk about Kotwara and Lucknow, how to improve these areas and how it's going to impact the people.Muzaffar: Ok. So it's really one's outlook that matters and how people can empower themselves. You can't impose a business on them but you can encourage them to look at themselves, at each other and at the environment, which has to be sustained. If you can't sustain the environment, you can't empower the people. People get carried away by small issues and problems.Meera: Exactly.Muzaffar: I think you've first got to be concerned about such issues and then realise that if you were involved in their livelihood, you can change their outlook. Meera: But I think it helps if you are part of the local culture. If you understand their culture, what they want to do. Then they feel we're with them, we understand them and their background and this enables us to guide them.Muzaffar: After all, it's people who make things ugly for themselves. So, we have to make them realise that they can create beauty by changing their outlook. Meera: Yes, there are people who have so many children that they would rather send the boys to school than the girls. (The couple run a school in Kotwara under the name Dwar Pe Rozi)Muzaffar: But once the girls are admitted to school, problems persist, but of a different kind. Like lack of attendance. It is very difficult to make them understand the importance of education. The fee in my school is just Rs. 20 but they feel they are paying enough for what they receive. The people we bring in are those who can give something to the school.Meera: Okay, let's talk about the Kotwara Palace, which is now a home stay. Its atmosphere helps guests relax and gives them a feel of the place. Hopefully it will encourage them to contribute as well in terms of ideas and other ways.Muzaffar: Yeah, I hope so too. Meera: You know, the first time I went to Kotwara after we met, I found that people still look up to you and expect something (as Raja of Kotwara).But I see a lot of changes in the women of Kotwara. The children are automatically picking up what their mothers do. The girls are better dressed, wear jewellery bought with their own money. They also learn a craft.

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