The makers of Afghan dolls in Delhi Khirki

Delhi’s Khirki Extension is one of those neighborhoods often portrayed in stereotypes such as ‘alive’ and ‘a melting pot’. An old village that has been absorbed into the ever-changing urban mass of South Delhi, Khirki Village and Khirki Extension are a mishmash of historic ruins, unplastered buildings, colorful graffiti and, despite the ever-looming threat of gentrification , still home to many communities that would find it difficult to rent homes and stores elsewhere. Among these are families of Afghan refugees.

It was a natural fit for Iris Strill and Bishwadeep Moitra when looking for a location for Silaiwali, the social enterprise they started in January 2019. Silaiwali employs Afghan refugee women, many of whom are members of the Hazara tribe, who were persecuted. in their home country for decades to make dolls from scraps of cotton. They are mostly rag dolls in a variety of skin colors, dressed in traditional hand-sewn outfits. “The idea was to set up somewhere easy for women to access from their homes, and Khirki is where many of them live,” says Moitra. Strill and Moitra drew on studies of Amartya Sen’s Capacity Approach from the 1990s, which consider workers’ well-being and provide an important guide for social enterprises like theirs.

Why dolls? This made design sense, Strill explains, given that most of the fabric waste she sourced from clothing manufacturers came in the form of smaller “cuts” and scraps. She was also a little tired of the same old quilts, cushion covers and bags, and remembered the rag dolls that French grandmothers often make for children to play with – “dolls tell a woman’s story.” Strill said.

Iris Strill and Bishwadeep Moitra

The location-based approach worked particularly well during the pandemic. Despite the blockages, many women could still walk to the workshop, where the heavy lifting is done, and did not necessarily suffer the loss of income that often supports their entire families – they earn ??15,000 to 35,000 per month.

Having a good number of dolls to exhibit also allowed the organization to participate in the Maison & Objet fair, a biannual event that brings together product creators and professionals from the decoration and art market. live across the world, held in Paris last month. He helped Silaiwali, a self-funded business, cash orders for the French department store Merci.

This was by no means their first international order – the brand has established itself in the international design community through collaborations with brands that manufacture in India. Silaiwali collects waste from their factories and shapes it into dolls and other small decorative items, which are then retailed in brand stores around the world. Her distinctive dolls are available in many stores in the United States, such as the Cost Plus World Market, an American chain of import retail stores, and the New York-based Banjanan boutique; in France, they are already present in stores such as Scarlette Ateliers and Emile et Ida.

Sales in the Indian market, however, remain low, barely 5% of their total turnover. “Our dolls are not cheap by Indian standards (from ??1,866) and although we stocked in lifestyle stores in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, sales were limited. It would be difficult to break into the Indian market without spending on advertising, ”says Moitra.

Nargis Mom and Mini dolls

Nargis Mom and Mini dolls

Although Silaiwali was just over two years old, the seeds were sown when Strill, a French art and design student, came to India in the 1990s to study Indian design and block printing. She slowly immersed herself in the craft industry, working with women-led organizations and helping them craft contemporary designs, and eventually became a design consultant for international clothing brands that made garments in India. . It was then that she became aware of the large amounts of tissue that was wasted. “I felt a certain loathing for fast fashion and wanted to do something more meaningful,” Strill says.

“I used to go to Rajasthan often to work with certain craft clusters (command for brands) but this time I couldn’t travel, and the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) put me in touch with this group of Afghan refugee women living in Delhi who were also artisans. I really liked the atmosphere of the workshop I attended with them, and the refugee issue was very close to my heart, ”says Strill.

Something clicked. Her husband, Bishwadeep, who has a background in graphic design and was working in journalism at the time, quit his job and they created Silaiwali. This has helped them almost immediately become part of UNHCR’s MADE51 program, which markets products made by refugees to the global market by working with local social enterprises to provide livelihoods and preserve craft traditions.

Although few Afghan women were trained in the type of needlework required to make dolls, they quickly learned the trade. In fact, they also provide design inputs. “When we started, one of the women made a doll and dressed it in the traditional Hazara costume. We called it the Nargis doll and it’s still in our catalog, ”says Strill.

Starting with 10 women, the organization now supports more than 70 Afghan refugee women. “They are completely motivated and take a lot of initiatives in the management of the studio, like deciding who will come in when, dividing up the work, etc. When they are here there is a lot of laughter and chatter – they put on music, they talk while they work, “Strill says.” The studio is a space they can call their own. “

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