Nine yards of happiness

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Nine yards of happiness

How one simple act of giving away a collection of saris turned into a social experiment - and snowballed into a mini movement for women's empowerment


Karen Ann Monsy

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Published: Fri 22 Sep 2017, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 22 Sep 2017, 2:00 AM

On August 9, Kolkata-based Mudar Patherya received a phone call from an acquaintance. The latter's mother had passed away a few months ago and had left behind a collection of 100 "excellent" saris. "Can they be donated?" he wanted to know. Mudar, who works closely with scores of NGOs across the state of West Bengal, suggested Sarbari, a home for mental health patients run by NGO Iswar Sankalpa. He had just one concern: he was keen not to make the recipients 'feel small'.
"I could visualise the scene clearly," says Mudar, who also runs Trisys, a financial and corporate communications consultancy. "We'd go over to give out these costly saris, and all these women would stand in front of us gratefully, even apologetically." The idea seemed really distasteful to Mudar, who wanted to avoid turning a kind act into an exhibition of charity. "I didn't want them to feel beholden - I wanted them to feel great." That's when he hit upon the idea of giving the women makeovers and organising a photo shoot of them in their saris. He knew it was a departure from standard 'anonymous' donation practices; what he didn't - and couldn't have - anticipated were the ripples of change it would bring.
In the few minutes that it took to apply some basic makeup on the women at the Sarbari shelter, Mudar notes, a remarkable change was occurring that wasn't entirely physical - it was psychological as well. "The women began developing poise, turning coy, walking with confidence, smiling wide. Somewhere," he says, "there was a desire to be beautiful. That's the nerve we touched. And a single sari made all the difference."
It was only when his post about the event was shared more than 365 times on Facebook that he woke up to the fact that "something was happening" and decided to take the initiative further. He created a video telling the 'story of a sari', which has since been widely distributed on WhatsApp - and the donations began to pour in from all over Kolkata: 120 saris went to ragpickers in Topsia, 650 to leprosy patients in Purulia, 100 to the less privileged in Howrah, 200 to the needy in rural villages, 300 to the poor in Sunderbans... All the donors asked was that the saris be given a new lease of life. And in the six weeks since they began, Mudar and his team of helpers have already distributed close to 1,500 saris. The power of social media? Sure. But more than that, it's been the power of an idea.
It wasn't just social media audiences that were being inspired either. Mudar says he was most surprised when the project's beautician Ishrat Ansar - who was doing this pro bono - became equally motivated and challenged him to think "radical". That's when they decided to look at acid attack survivors. Naturally, the challenge was much greater than it had been with the women they'd worked with up until that point. "There were various skin tone shades to work with [from a makeup point of view], because of the women's injuries," says Mudar. "Where it normally took Ishrat five minutes to turn women around, these cases were taking her about 45 minutes each."
But yet again, the payoff was in the makeover process. Women who came in with their faces partially covered had a sparkle in their eyes, when they were finally asked to pose. "For the little time that they had makeup on - when their skin was being fussed over, their eyes outlined, their hair done - the memory that a part of their faces had been destroyed by acid was distant. They were in a completely different zone, because no one had paid attention to them in this way in a long while."
Perhaps one of the best outcomes of this mini movement to give the saris 'a new life' has been that Mudar is now in talks with doctors to arrange for free medical support and even surgical intervention for the acid attack survivors, who have not been able to afford the cost of such treatment so far. "The sari has now become an excuse," he deadpans. "We've moved on to bigger things."
The philanthropist doesn't have a name for his successful sari-donating initiative. "It would be very glib of me to say that we do," he states, frankly. What he does know is that he's helping give each of the saris that come to him a new narrative. Where once it might have belonged to an affluent woman, it now belongs to an acid attack survivor - and Mudar believes it's because they're "opening up a new conscience". Like they did with the woman aged well over 70 who travelled at least 35 kms to their office the other day to donate saris. "She needed help getting through the staircase to my office, but she came by herself, instead of sending someone," he notes. "Every day is a different story."
The catchphrase these days is 'think big'. Mudar's philosophy is 'think small, think outrageous'. He has just two words for readers: one sari. Every woman has at least one sari that they can donate, he reckons. To them, it may not mean much. But the saris are going to leprosy patients who live all year in the same sari, visually challenged women who haven't felt a new sari in decades, and villagers living in interior areas who are thrilled that they won't now have to buy saris for upcoming festivals. "These are things we won't understand," says Mudar. "But the difference it makes to their lives is incredible."
Happiness looks different to different people, but to these women, it's about nine yards long.

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