“Women in our community often are married off early and they are kept indoors,” says Mira Khatun, a 48-year-old woman from a small town named Modho Srirampur of Bardhaman district, West Bengal. Mira got married at 16. By 18, she had her first child.
Mira Khatun and her daughter Saira make ‘pola’ (the traditional Bengali red bangle worn after marriage). An electric machine is used to imprint miniature design patterns on the bangles. Mira's begins to tell her story and the reason behind this new endeavour in the last 4-5 years.
Mira said,” I wanted to study but due to family pressure, I could not complete even class 10. Despite that, I wanted to earn and do something productive. One day, when my friends and I were relaxing after lunch, a man came to us with a proposition.
He said that he would teach us making polas, and we would be paid to make the bangles."
At first, Mira was unsure about this stranger with a business idea. But soon they heard about women in the next village earning good money for their work.
“Because I didn't need to go out, my husband agreed to let me earn,” she says. Mira started to learn along with her friends and soon they began innovating, adding new patterns. They started with sticking gold-plated designs on the bangles, eventually buying the electric device to up their production.
Now, depending on the work done, she earns Rs 25-65 for every set of bangles. She about Rs 1500-2000 every month.
Mira and Saira making polas
Saira Khatun learnt the art from her mother by the time she was 9. It started as a way to help her mother, but has now become a passion. ”Like the other girls, I was not allowed to run around a lot in my childhood. When Ammi began making polas, I used to observe her. I used to love drawing, and even now, I enjoy tracing new designs for the bangles,” she says.
Saira now aspires to become a jewellery designer. One day, she even wants to design for her idol, "Kareena Kapoor is my favourite actress and one day, I want to design for her. I watch all her films at my friend's house. I want to keep making more jewellery.”
She is at present studying in class 9 in a government. Mira smiles while she says, "Saira has big dreams, I do not know if the community will allow her to have a career. I have managed to make a venture work, and I will always support Saira in making her dreams come true."
Making polas has given Saira hopes of becoming a jewellery designer one day
“Today’s prices make it essential for two people to earn in the family. We never saw our mothers work, and we were not allowed to. Together have started this business which makes us feel happy and confident. When we can buy a saree with our own money or get a chocalate for my son, it feels good!” says Asifa Bibi, Mira's partner in the venture. Asifa has studied till class 8; she too was married off early.
Mira engaged her and taught her the work. Asifa enjoys having this opportunity mainly for her son. Asifa says, "Being a mother, it gives the best feeling when I also have the money to buy him things. I don't feel voiceless now,” Today Asifa makes her own savings. She is a borrower from Gram Bikash, one of Milaap’s field partner. "I want to use the loan to get more material so that my output can grow. My husband has seen my efforts and supports me now in expanding this work.”
Asifa Bibi with her 4-year-old son
“Women from the Muslim community do not wear the ‘pola’, it is worn by Hindu Bengali married women but we feel proud to make these bangles as they add beauty to another woman," remarked Mira. This solidarity with the buyers of her bangles made evident through this small gesture showed Mira to be a true artist. The women gather to work together, and as Asifa says, "We love to talk and share our stories and we do it while making these bangles."
This small town has many such women who are modifying the private space designated to them to make it on their own. Stories of a different kind of empowerment within the household are read in Mira, Asifa and many others. Their economic productivity helps them and promotes the well being of their family.
Their smiles and their confidence reflect the satisfaction they have achieved weaving dreams for coming generations.