#InspiringWomen: A Pioneer, An Entrepreneur – She Built Lives Not Only Institutions

Today is the international Women’s day and we will hear/ read stories of many exemplary women, high achievers in their respective fields. It is important to acknowledge the great work and achievements of these women. In a world that still does not offer equal opportunity or a level playing field to women, recognition of those who have crossed many barriers to reach where they are today is essential.

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However, to a common woman, the achiever’s story might well be a benchmark but perhaps not an example she would be able to follow easily. Most of us common people look at the people on top with longing but never assuming that we can reach those levels. This is where it becomes important to look at women around us – women who have faced issues similar to ours, fought the same battles, maybe even worse than ours and came out a winner. When we see them overcome the challenges life threw their way, we believe we can do that too. We can also achieve, overcome, overthrow, win. As I wrote a few months ago – I have been shaped by the women around me.

For this women’s day, I have decided to bring out the stories of everyday women, women like ourselves who have made the best of their circumstances. By being true to themselves they tell us we can do it too. They have overcome grief, physical hardship, disability, poverty and built institutions. They are us. We are them.

Like the Navratans (9 jewels), I have chosen nine women whose stories I would like to share over the next few weeks. Whether it is Anita, born in poverty and thrown out of her house or Tara, the only female doctor in small town Rewari of the 1950s or Joyce who lost her only child, each of them has the power to encourage us, to tell us that nothing is insurmountable.

As I spoke to each of them, a common pattern that emerged was their own mothers or fathers, that shaped them to who they have become. So let me also start with the story of my mother. I have not chosen her because she is my mother – but because she was part of the first wave of women entrepreneurs of the 1980s, who started out on their journeys, without any examples they could follow, without formal guidance but only their own skills, confidence and conviction.

So let me stop here and dive into Purnima’s life.

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“The person I am today, is in a large part influenced by how my mother brought me up. Even in 1960s, when women had limited power over their own lives, she wanted to make sure that I was educated and trained to be self dependent. I was given full choice in choosing my career and life partner”, says Purnima. A textile designer by profession, Purnima is one of the handful of women entrepreneurs that existed in the small city of Jaipur of 1980s. She established her own institute that went on to develop a formidable reputation. It is also probably not an exaggeration to say that she pioneered design as a serious career option for a generation of young women that had started to aspire for economic independence and challenging professions.

Soon after moving to Jaipur post marriage, she was approached by a lady wishing to start courses in textile designing for young women. Purnima accepted her offer to develop and conduct the course which soon became very popular. A few years later, however, due to differences with management she resigned from her job.

Given the newness of the design field and lack of quality teachers at the time, some of her students insisted, begged and cajoled her to open her own institution. Moved by their faith in her and their own passion to prove their abilities to the world, she opened the Institute of Designing (IoD) in 1984 out of her own house. The garage became a classroom, the driveway was laid with two large printing tables and the terrace a place where students gathered to discuss and debate. Without any financial backing and with only her own skill and experience, Purnima took a decision that changed the course of her life and the lives of many of her students. (and i guess mine too!)

Keep in mind that this is the Jaipur of late 1970s – early 80s. Like most Indian cities of that time, Jaipur also aspired to greater development and urbanization. Infrastructure was developing, new schools were opening and businesses were growing. The mindsets were however still conservative. Many girls from well off families were still not being educated and many of those that were sent to school, were married off as soon as possible. Girls getting professional education were even lesser and the motivation in a large part was to add to their “sarva gun sampanna” status and make them more eligible for marriage. (photo credit colourbox.com)

Jaipur city

The first batch consisted of 7-8 girls which soon grew to 20 plus and then crossed 100s. At its peak, the institute had more than 120 students, many more classrooms had come up on the terrace and classes were conducted in two shifts. The spare room had been converted to the front office.

As garment and fashion industry continued to grow in Jaipur and in India, more courses were added to cater to various needs. Textile designing and printing; fashion designing, garment technology and so on. As NIFT and NID became more popular, designing became a more credible option. Children with a creative flair could now opt for a career more in sync with their talents – instead of having to go for science or commerce. This not only led to a greater demand for the institute, it also ended up in introduction of foundation courses for students who wanted to prepare for NIFT and NID entrance exams.

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By 1990s the institute had developed a strong reputation, so much so that postmen only needed Institute of Designing written on the address to deliver mail. (one of our neighbors got a letter addressed “opposite IOD!!” Another time, when I told a new acquaintance my address, he exclaimed that I live in Purnima Varma’s street! The pride I felt telling him that I am actually her daughter is indescribable!). She even had a few international students to her credit – who came all the way from the U.S. and Japan, lived a year or two in Jaipur to learn the craft. Media also did its bit in recognising her achievements.

 

Purnima was very clear that her courses will not be constrained to theory. Well aware that she was creating a skilled workforce that has to go out in the world and work, she laid a huge emphasis on practical work and exposure to industry. Her students did everything from scratch, right from preparing their own dyes to stitching their own designs. They were also given many opportunities to interact with the industry, display their work at exhibitions and fashion shows. One of the exhibitions attracted such a large crowd that the management of Jawahar Kala Kendra (where the exhibition was held) mentioned that this was the first time ever an art exhibition had so many visitors.

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(photo: Maharani Padmini Devi admiring the artwork)

In 1989, Purnima conducted the first ever fashion show in Jaipur. This not only gave a chance to her students to showcase their work, it gave them important lessons in managing such events from scratch. As was practice, the entire event was created and managed by the students and teachers of the institute. The fashion show started with a closed theater in Jaipur and over the years moved on to the large open air theater with the audience going into thousands.

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As a child (later teen), the institute for me was a fascinating ground for growing up (more in a later blog). On a busy day, you could see students busy tying knots on their bandhni designs. On the terrace, a few others could be seen making their screens for printing – painstakingly hammering the fabric on the wooden frame; tracing the design on the fabric and blotting out portions with enamel colour. In another corner you could smell the strong fumes of melted wax where students were dyeing their batik cloths. Upstairs sewing machines hummed amid the chatter of students. During the days leading to fashion shows, there was palpable excitement in the air and music all around as amateur models practiced their catwalk and students busied themselves preparing their costumes.

Through the decades of 1980s, 90s and 2000s, Purnima was witness to the changing social landscape of Jaipur. Some of her earliest students were driven to classes by their drivers who stayed till class ended and took them away soon after. Later in late 1990s, more and more girls started coming on their scooties or kinetics. One year, she had three students from the same family – mother, daughter and daughter in law – all three wanted to explore their selves and become more than just their familial duties. Many of her students went on to take jobs and start their own enterprises. Many came to her under-confident and went out ready to take on the world. A student describes her experience – “When I came to ma’am, I was like Jassi (an underconfident character from a popular TV show) and today I am as confident of myself as I can be.”

Unlike today, when education has become a money minting machine, at that time, an education provider was revered for the learning they imparted. Purnima established the institute to develop confident, mature women able to hold their own in a world, not balanced in their favour. Like a sapphire, she symbolizes honesty, purity and trust and those are the values on which she built her institute.

In her own words, “the best compliment I ever received was – ma’am aadmi banati hain (ma’am builds a person)”. Her life’s mantra – “Be true to yourself and have courage of conviction. Before becoming ‘somebody’, be a good person”.

So when I am in doubt, I think of this woman and tell myself, “if she could achieve all this, why can’t you solve your own little problem”.

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The women who shaped me…my personal influencers

One of the most fascinating aspects of being a parent is to see your children shape up. How a baby starts to develop a character of her own as she grows up. As she starts interacting with the world, different facets of her personality start emerging. There is a very interesting interplay of her innate disposition, her upbringing at home and finally the social influences that ultimately shape her into the individual she becomes.

I grew up the same way. One of the stronger influences all through my life has been the women around me. Luckily for me, I was surrounded by strong women, by women of character. As a young girl, I looked up to them and knowingly or unknowingly absorbed their qualities. And the process of learning is still on – I continue to observe and emulate. Today as I navigate a tough world, trying to maintain a healthy work life balance between bringing up three boys, being a wife, running a household and managing a demanding job, these learnings stand me in good stead.

I believe that our foundation stones are laid at least two generations before – how our grandparents or maybe even their parents lived their lives trickles down to the kind of persons we become. I had grandmothers who were ahead of their times. My nani, a woman of grit, published her own magazine called Arsi back in the 50s and 60s. Unfazed by her husband’s untimely death, she took a strong decision to bring up her children on her own, not depending on anyone. My dadi, married to a renowned professor of political science, had a PhD to her credit as well as a number of collections of short stories and novellas. She was also the person who sowed the seeds of a lot of principles I stand by today. Her elder sister was the first girl in her district to give the matric exam. She was also the first woman in her family to take up a job – as a journalist with the weekly “Saptahic Hindustan”. My nani’s sisters – all highly educated, professors, doctors, etc. One of them was the first lady doctor in Rewari, which in the 50s was no better than a village in terms of facilities and worse than a slum with people waiting in long lines for water, garbage piled high. In those conditions, she delivered babies in their homes with lanterns as the only source of light, took women in labour to her clinic on thelas or whatever else was available– the list of stories is endless. Along with her husband, she went on to establish a full fledged hospital in Rewari. Her journey is nothing short of inspirational. These women, my grandmothers teach me to not be afraid, to blaze my own trail, and that once I decide to take a path, I will also know how to navigate the roadblocks.

We all know what a big influence a mother is. Not surprisingly, so was mine. I saw her, I listened to her, I observed her and kept imbibing from her. She emphasized the importance of prioritizing and taking the right decisions. She believes that everything has a time – and acting belatedly is like not acting at all.  She constantly reminded me about the importance of relations and taking everyone along with oneself. I also learnt from her how to survive under pressure and stress.

But more than learning from her lectures (as she likes to call them – and still hasn’t stopped giving them!), I learnt from seeing her in action. She is a textile designer and an entrepreneur. When I was 5 years old, she established The Institute of Design in Jaipur, out of our home. The institute grew and so did her reputation. (our neighbours once got a letter which just said – opposite Institute of Design!! – when I told a friend where I lived, he said excitedly – oh you live in Purnima Varma ki galli – and I dryly responded, yes, since I am her daughter!!). The Institute shaped my personality like nothing else. I learnt all my management lessons there, I learnt relationship management skills, I learnt about handling conflicts, I learnt about event management and much more. I can write a full blog on this, and maybe I will, but let me limit myself here.

It is hard to believe, but even irritating little sisters, can have an influence on you. Mine did. As my husband says, she provides me the foundation on which I stand. Despite being a good three years younger, she sensed my innate weakness – the need to be liked or loved. While that might have left me with a pleasant, open personality, it also left me vulnerable to hurt. I don’t think I realized that till much later, but she did. As I got ready to go to college, she showered me with advice on learning how to say no and how to put myself first. She kind of grew in my shadow – the quiet younger sister and the more bubbly elder sister. However, she has a resilient personality that I envy. Things, people or situations that can tear me apart have only made her stronger. As she likes to say, “things that don’t kill you, only make you stronger.”

Talking of sisters, an older sister is often a role model for little girls. I had one too. Unknown to her, my older cousin was someone I really admired and subconsciously tried to follow. A vibrant personality, winner of extempore debates (that was a huge deal for me), a confident, outgoing person, a lovely smile. When I started shortlisting colleges for graduation, I found that I had kept with me a copy of the LSR prospectus she must have got for herself – and while she didn’t join LSR, I did. I ended up going to the same postgrad college as her. And finally when she married a good friend – I wished fervently for such a friendship based relationship. Ended up following in her footsteps even there!

The lesson on overcoming obstacles through sheer will and grit is best taught by my mother in law. A teacher by profession, she almost single handedly brought up her two sons, since her husband worked away from home. I mean literally single handedly. Her right hand is deformed from birth. But that has not stopped her from doing anything – and unless you see her hand, you will never guess that she does everything with her left hand – and mind you, faster than most people. Drive a car? Make a roti? Peel vegetables? Tie a saree? Carry a baby? Maybe two? She can do all that and more. Her persona exudes I can and no one will ever doubt that. And today, when I sometimes fear for Anvay’s future, I am reminded that all I need to do is keep my will and grit and teach him the same – and good results will surely follow.

Professionally, I have also learnt a lot from two of my past bosses. Both represent a very strong work ethic, amazing attention to detail and exacting expectation of excellence from their team. Multitasking and always being on call, and carrying the team together, are some of the other things I have learnt from them. Both are non – Indians (one British and the other American) but took to India like their own country. My first boss is married to an Indian and they have together established one of the best firms in my sector. And, just a tip here,  when next to her, please do not try speaking in Hindi, assuming she won’t understand – I have seen many make that mistake and the shock on their faces after realizing she is as fluent in hindi as they are!!

The list does not end here. My chachi from Chandigarh, a gold medallist in bio technology, seems to have struck the perfect balance between her work and home life. A mausi, an ex IAS officer has continued to write and publish many books after her retirement – it tells me to make sure to keep at least one passion other than work alive. My bua, an excellent dancer in her younger years, teaches me to continue to spread love – her handwritten cards always reached us before time and her regular phone calls remind me to never forget loved ones. And while continuing as a homemaker, she took up study of dyslexia and published her work on it. Another bua, a cool dude, well into her sixties continues to direct and present her plays with a never say die attitude. My mami, a homemaker, an excellent example of keeping the family together. Thanks to her I know even her side of the family as well as mine. Also, almost a second mother to me in Delhi, she has cooked my favourite dishes, taken care of me while sick. My other mami, an entrepreneur, an outspoken person, never afraid to air her views, encourages me to do the same. And finally my taiji, who maintains an impeccable house, with extreme attention to detail, a teacher who brought history classes alive. Along with my tauji she has supported my family through thick and thin, making sure I remember the importance of relations and value them.

So while today people talk about social influencers, I prefer swearing by my personal influencers – the women who have shaped me.

photocredits: @photosynthesisbyaditi

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