-By Fatima Waheed
“The Thatta Kedona Project is not a mere community uplift program – by economically empowering women in ways that are consonant with local traditions, it has in fact, restructured an entire rural community for the better.”
Quietly tucked away on the outskirts of central Punjab, lies a tiny village called Thatta Ghulamka Dharoka. With a total population of only 1200 residents, one would hardly expect the name of this sleepy little hamlet to be known amongst international circles. And yet, forgotten as it may be in its home country, the place has been creating quite a buzz abroad for the past two decades.
Known as the ‘toy village’ of Pakistan, Thatta Ghulamka Dharoka (popularly referred to as Thatta Kedona), is responsible for producing dolls and toys that are now prized collectors’ items. Each toy is meticulously handcrafted from a scratch by local women, who carefully paint, embroider and sew together scraps of cloth and wool to shape a delightful work of art. The dolls project has not only been a regular fixture in exhibitions and tradeshows worldwide, but has also won numerous awards. Currently, the dolls are showcased in museums all around the world, from Japan to Turkey to Iceland.
The fame is well-deserved. Today, Thatta Ghulamka Dharoka stands as a living testament to a reality that was long perceived as utopian within the context of rural Pakistan. The Thatta Kedona Project is not a mere community uplift program; by economically empowering women in ways that are consonant with local traditions, it has in fact, restructured an entire rural community for the better.
The story of its rise to international fame started around 1992. Two German volunteers, Dr. Senta Siller and Dr. Norbert Pintsch, stumbled upon the village, nestled amongst wheat fields on the peripheries of Okara. Their visit to Thatta Ghulamka Dharoka may have been short, but it certainly left an indelible mark. The very next year, in 1993, Dr. Siller returned to set up a Women’s Arts Center in the area. The aim was to involve local women in creative income-generating activities that drew upon their existing skills while being consonant with the local village culture.
A graphic designer by profession, Dr. Siller arranged training courses for local women who were taught to incorporate simple, locally available materials into handmade toys. From clay to bamboo stalks to hairpins to beads, anything and everything could be turned into a work of art—one that had the potential to generate thousands of rupees.
The WAC remains the hub of the village’s economic activities to this day. The hours are flexible and the women are also given the option of working from home, which allows them to work at their own convenience. Every once in a while, additional training courses are organized for women to allow them to diversify their skills—over the years, several workshops on tile making, painting, pottery and needlework have been arranged. Collaborations with local organizations such as Lok Virsa and Rafi Peer Theatre as well as international organizations have been useful in generating marketing assistance. Here, it’s safe to say that while philanthropic intentions have been a factor in generating this support; sustained support has been more a result of the quality of craftsmanship than anything else.
Due to the ‘efforts’ of the local media and the fashion industry we no longer live in times where locally produced Pakistani craft is looked down upon (read: considered paindu). From shoes and bags embroidered with truck-art inspired threadwork, to fluorescent kurtas proudly sporting images of rickshaws and sitar players, elements of local culture that were once frowned upon by the upper layers of society are fast becoming a part of haute couture. But there is a difference: these changes have done little to improve the status quo.
The mass production of artisanal works results in more than just a loss of intrinsic value. While such cultural goods may have found new ways to thrive in a society which was once bent upon ignoring their existence, the popularity has come at a price. The means of their perpetuation are rather capitalist in their nature; large corporations are attempting to monopolize their production, branding them and selling them at exorbitant prices and middlemen with better knowledge of the market than these home-bound workers are able to exploit the actual producers of these goods. In fact, much of this work is done under questionable labour conditions. Such methods serve to alienate these works from the very people who have proudly held on to them as a part of their traditions for centuries. As a result, with the production of such goods taken out of their hands, locals are denied economic benefits. And the products that are proudly marketed as cultural items are in actuality separated from their very roots.
It is in this sense that the project at Thatta Ghulamka Dharoka is unique. Workers take pride in their work, not just just because they get to share economic benefits, but because they are given an opportunity to actively participate in the project—from collecting raw materials to higher level decision making, the workers are heavily involved at each step. And the result is a system that is, by now, (mostly) self-sustainable.
The project is not just about a group of women who have come together to make a few trinkets. It’s about how an entire community, both men and women, has banded together to support women an activity that benefits their society as a whole. The project has helped to underscore the value of women as active members of the community and the results are clearly manifest—enrollment, especially female enrollment, in the local NGO-run school has risen dramatically over the past few years. More and more families are opting to send their girls to nearby villages for secondary education. Over the years, several programs pertaining to energy solutions, health and residential improvement have been successfully introduced in the village. All have been actively welcomed by the residents, who take immense pride in the village they have helped to develop.
Here, it is important to note that the story of Thatta Ghulamka Dharoka is not just a mere fairy-tale—a Cinderella of sorts—one that is heard, appreciated and conveniently forgotten. It teaches us important lessons in terms of understanding how to involve less privileged areas into larger economy. It teaches us how women can be involved and encouraged to participate in wage labour by means that are not frowned upon by the society they live in. It teaches us how an entire community can unite to work towards their own betterment. But most importantly, it teaches us a lesson in human resilience—even the most underprivileged of humans can be successful if given the correct opportunity.