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Mumbai’s marginalized mums sewn up by Colours of India

Step inside Colours Of India’s boutique in Jalan Klang Lama, Kuala Lumpur, and you’ll be mesmerized by its collection of clothing ranging from traditional Indian outfits to Thai silk A-line dresses and flared skirts.

The shelves are adorned with fabric bags of all sorts ― handmade laptop bags, shoulder bags, batik reusable grocery bags, yoga bags ― and there are beautiful shawls in different hues.

Though the products seem similar to those available at other Indian clothing stores, what sets COI apart is that their merchandise has been stitched by low-income women from the slums of Bandra, Mumbai.

COI is the brainchild of Malaysian entrepreneur A.G. Arull, 43. The idea to set up the fashion label was sparked during a business trip to Mumbai in 2010.

A friend had introduced him to Yogesh Karnik, a volunteer from MarketPlace: Handwork Of India, a nonprofit organization that supports economic development for disadvantaged women in India.

“Yogesh had worked with the underprivileged from the slums in Bandra. On one occasion, I accompanied him and met several underprivileged women and learned of their plight ― poverty, abuse, neglect and deprivation seemed prevalent.

“I was deeply moved. Their heartfelt stories struck a chord within me and I was inspired to empower these women. Two years later, COI was set up in Mumbai to provide these women with training and jobs to attain financial independence,” says Arull.
Women work at Colours Of India. (The Star)
Women work at Colours Of India. (The Star)

To kickstart the project, Arull teamed up with Yogesh to come up with free programs like tailoring, language and personal development classes. The women were taught how to produce handcrafted items from recyclable goods and leftover fabric.

COI’s inaugural three-month training program started in April 2013 with 23 students. Over 12 months, COI has conducted three courses and trained 135 women. Another 140 students have recently signed up for its fourth session and will complete their training this month.

Among them is newlywed Heena Shaikh, 22, who considers the COI center as a perfect place to acquire knowledge and skills for better job prospects.

“COI has provided me with craft-based skills which can help with employment. Now that I have basic tailoring skills, I can continue to provide tailoring services from my in-laws’ home.”

COI also collaborates with local social enterprises that support the empowering of women. It works closely with Mumbai-based Kotak Education Foundation, which offers vocational training for school drop-outs. At the recent International Women’s Day celebrations, COI even hosted a special gathering to recognize the achievements of its female artisans.

COI’s main office and training center is located in the slums of Bandra. Though it may not be the swankiest of locations to house a fashion label, Arull isn’t perturbed. According to him, the center serves as a platform to bridge the gap between the underprivileged poor and middle class in Mumbai.

“If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. But if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime, or so the proverb goes. By providing these underprivileged women with a skill they have found hope and a chance at a better life for themselves and their families,” says Arull, who hopes to begin similar programs for underprivileged women in Malaysia.

It may be challenging juggling work responsibilities in KL and community work in Mumbai, but Arull’s not complaining.

“I came from a poor family. My father worked as a lorry driver and slogged to feed the family, comprising my five siblings and I. Though life was tough, my father never complained and always instilled in us the importance of helping the needy.

“I understand life’s hardships and the importance of giving back to the community,” says Arull, who has been involved in social work for over two decades, having volunteered at the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary’s Assunta Children Society, the Vivekananda Margam, and he’s served as a part-time counsellor at the social welfare department, all of them in Petaling Jaya.

He adds: “Setting up the label has come with a fair share of hurdles. Besides having to source for a good designer, we also had to come up with a proper business plan, and adjust it to a different work culture and social environment.

“There was also the challenge of having to travel between countries. Despite it all, I’m glad that the project has worked out well. The products ultimately reflect the heart and soul of these strong-willed women who are seeking a better future for their families and themselves.”

At COI’s design studio, designer Priyabrat Panda leads eight male tailors who cut and stitch outfits for the label. To live up to their mission to provide support for underprivileged women, COI has also employed eight graduates as full-time staff and seven part-timers who help out in production processes, ranging from cutting, knitting and quilting to crochet and embroidery.

The women, employed based on their artisan skills and willingness to work, play an important part in the final touches, including the trimming and quality checks on every garment. They are also tasked with stitching items like yoga bags, shopping bags and cotton blouses.

The women are paid 35 rupees ($0.58) an hour and, on average, some can earn up to 5,000 rupees a month ― that’s for roughly 18 eight-hour days. Additionally, 30 percent of profits earned from the business goes back to COI to enhance its community programs.

At the heart of the brand, says Arull, is a group of women who have found hope and the choice to dream of a better life.

“Through the program, marginalized and low-income women from Bandra are given the opportunity to gain social and economic empowerment to help alleviate their hardships.

“Their life experiences, hope and strength is the inspiration behind this brand with a conscience,” says Arull, who opened COI’s first retail outlet in KL last November.

The label offers handcrafted and fashionable women’s apparel inspired by the vibrant cultures of India. Comprising Indian, Western and Indo-Western designs, the collection includes casual and formal wear in a palette of rich colors and intricate patterns. These include saris, salwar kameez, kurtis (knee-length blouses), dresses and trousers.

Items are tailored using a myriad of fabrics including handwoven materials like ikat and bandhani sourced from remote villages in India. Chiffon, georgette, crepe, silk and satin with brocade, and tie-dye to kalamkari block-prints add vibrancy to the collection.

The ready-to-wear brand also encourages mix and match, providing customers with a freedom to express themselves. The brand also produces a range of accessories made from leftover fabrics such as handbags, reusable bags and cushion covers.

By Sheela Chandran

(The Star)