The Kolli Hills rose majestically to my left as I travelled pillion with Mrs. Navamani, my field officer for the day. We were going to the village of Thusur to meet Uma Devi, a borrower who had taken a loan to start stone-work designing business. Little did I know as I feasted my eyes on the hills, that a brilliant encounter was awaiting me.
Before the bike was parked, Uma Devi came running out to welcome us. A few of her neighbours had gathered and we sat down in her verandah. I observed while Uma Devi explained my visit to her neighbours. Right then, I realized something was different about this woman. She was a smooth talker and knew to say just the right things to the right people. Eager to know about her business, I interrupted her small talk and asked, “So how’s business?” She grinned at me. “Exceedingly well,” she said. A peek into her home from the verandah confirmed it. A sewing machine stood in the middle of the hall. And strewn around it were clothes, huge piles of them. Behind the sewing machine was a row of shelves, again stacked with piles of clothes. Spellbound and abashed that I had under-estimated her business, I continued conversing with a new-found admiration.
Coming from a big family with three brothers and two sisters, Uma was never a good student. Education didn’t interest her or her siblings, and all of them built their careers from scratch. “My three brothers might not have attended engineering colleges, but I doubt if you’ll find engineers as good as them,” she declared. She learnt to stitch from one of her brothers. She didn’t attend formal tailoring classes; when she attended one, the trainers made her feel inferior about her lack of education and she stopped taking the classes.
Uma Devi started tailoring 15 years ago and still holds the same passion for the profession. Despite not having official training, Uma is well-versed in the nuances of sewing and has developed a novel way to work. “Honestly, I don’t know how to read a tape measure,” she told me in confidence. “With years of practice, I have developed a knack of coming up with the right measurement.” So how does she actually stitch, without involving the tape measure element, I asked. She lugged out a plastic cover from under a table. Out came sheets of papers, cut in various designs. A little confused, I looked at her askance. “Don’t you get it?” I shook my head. “It’s pretty simple,” she explained. “I have made paper cuttings of all the blouse cuts and neck designs I would need. I simply place this on the cloth and draw the outlines. This way, my inability to use a tape measure doesn’t really hinder me. Sizes may differ, but with my knowledge I stitch it right.” Amazed by the simplicity and sheer brilliance of her sewing technique, she went on to give us a demo of how a blouse should ideally be stitched. She didn’t stop there, but continued to draw a design freehand and embellished it with stones. The design for stone work was highly intricate and required a neck-breaking level of concentration. I was scrutinizing her the whole time. As she finished her demo, I told her she would have made a tonne of money if she had worked in a town or a city. She laughed and told me that she was happy where she was.
As I spent more time with her, I got the sense that she was an astute businesswoman as well. Women from Pudukottai and nearby villages such as Kanagapatti and Palapatti come to her for their blouses. She knew her competition well and joked that she doesn’t have to poach any customers, for they come to her once they see her work on other women's blouses. Uma doesn’t overcharge for her work; she knows if she charges more, customers would start thinking twice before coming to her for stitching and stone work designing.
The tailoring legacy has passed on to her college-going niece who has started stitching clothes for her friends. “Wait, let me show you,” she commanded. I sat back meekly. She rummaged in her bureau for a few seconds, and then, “See this? My niece stitched this in two hours,” she said proudly, referring to the blouse in her hands. “It’s imperfect, but for an amateur she is really good. I can’t wait to teach her more.”
As I got ready to leave, the tenacious Uma began another session of stitching. I left satisfied and happy, that a woman of Uma’s potential was proving her worth, in a far away land.