The rug saint of India
He is a quiet man, and slight, wearing a well-worn white dress shirt with the collar buttoned all the way up to the neck. On a Sunday night in January, the two of us are sitting at a battered conference table at his company’s head office in Jaipur, India, in what is rapidly becoming an unnerving silence. Nand Kishore Chaudhary’s limited English leaves him reluctant to speak, which makes me all the more curious about him and his work. From what I’ve been able to learn thus far, for the last four decades this man has built a big, highly successful company — essentially, by listening to his heart.
Back in 1978, long before terms like «corporate social responsibility,» «fair trade,» and «sustainability» became part of the popular conversation, Chaudhary set out to improve the lives of rural artisans — and, in particular, to empower large numbers of disenfranchised women of rural India. The enterprise he built, Jaipur Rugs Company (JRC), now dominates the hand-knotted carpet manufacturing and exporting business across the continent’s broad belly and well into the north.
JRC provides the only source of employment for 5,000 women in Bikaner, an arid region where there is little water and hence no agriculture | (Jaipur Rugs Co./Courtesy Craftsmanship)
Chaudhary’s success is legendary. He established 6,000 hand-looms in 600 villages that lie in some of the most impoverished regions of India. His rugs are sold in 45 countries. Just in the U.S., JRC has 5,000 retail clients — a customer base that has resulted in a fast growth-curve, with sales of $20 million in 2017. Over the course of a year, his company engages approximately 40,000 people, more than 80 percent of whom are women.
But the most astounding part of Chaudhary’s formula may be how closely he has worked with India’s lowest class of citizens. To Chaudhary, this was simply common sense — and the only way to honor the true meaning of sustainability. «Although many companies do not recognize this, sustainability is not only about protecting the environment, and economic stability,» he says. «It’s about bringing dignity into the lives of people.»
In building this third leg of sustainability, Chaudhary found a deep source of inspiration. «I think the most perfect place for me is in the villages,» he says. «I enjoy very much working with those people. I learned the wisdom from them. The more connected we are with them, then things get much easier.»
But how could it be easy, in a country famously structured around a strict caste system, to build a business with society’s least educated class? To do so, Chaudhary also has had to work in an industry dogged by child-labor issues. I wanted to know how he had managed to navigate these dark waters.
The mud vessels on the right, called kalash, are used for food preparation, but they’re also considered auspicious. In the Vedas, the empty pot symbolizes the earth; the water that fills it represents divine life force. Together, they symbolize immortality. | (Cathryn J. Ramin/Courtesy Craftsmanship)
Cast out, among outcasts
As a young man in his hometown of Churu, deep in the desert region of Rajasthan, Chaudhary worked as a salesman in his family’s shoe shop, but hated it. Then, to his family’s dismay, he turned down a job at a bank.
One day, in 1975, a young British art historian named Ilay Cooper, who was traveling across India on a second-hand bicycle, wandered into the shoe shop. He and Chaudhary struck up what would become an enduring friendship. Cooper had cycled through the most inaccessible parts of northwestern India, encountering a tribal population that faced rampant discrimination and deep, generational poverty. While traveling through a series of «painted towns» — merchants’ houses with wall after wall of meticulously painted patterns — Cooper recognized that the region’s once-robust design tradition had been largely abandoned. Pained by this loss, Cooper encouraged Chaudhary to think about making his future in handmade carpets — and to do so in a place where there were few options for employment beyond seasonal farming and breaking rocks for construction.
Heaps of trash are the norm in India, and the Dalit (formerly called «Untouchables») is the caste assigned to get rid of them. It falls to the Dalit to manage the majority of India’s unpleasant jobs, including cleaning latrines and removing dead animals. To keep Dalits in these menial roles, members of higher castes make it impossible for them to save money, or to own anything of even minimal value. | (Cathryn J. Ramin/Courtesy Craftsmanship)
When Chaudhary presented the idea to his family (who were firmly entrenched in the merchant caste), they were furious; they wanted nothing to do with handwork, which was generally done by those at the bottom of India’s social ladder. But Chaudhary felt he had nothing to lose. «My whole family was very different from me,» he says. «They were not so innocent, or honest. I thought they were hypocrites, and most of them didn’t like me.»
Determined to start a business of his own, Chaudhary coaxed his father into giving him a $200 loan, which he used to buy two hand-looms and a motor scooter. But when he set nine male weavers to work inside the courtyard of his home, the objections were loud and immediate. «My own family, my friends, my neighbors tried to stop me,» Chaudhary says. «They told me that I could not work with the untouchable people, but this did not make sense to me. The people I was working with, they had been rejected by society. Nobody was taking care of them.»
The untouchables’ legacy
The week before I visited one of the villages of weavers who work with Jaipur Rugs, I was asked by Meghna Jain, head of research and corporate communication for the company at the time, if I would eat lunch prepared by the weavers. This puzzled me — why would I refuse a delicious home-made meal?
I soon learned that, like 90 percent of JRC’s rug-makers, the residents of this village (Aaspura) are Dalit — the name now used to describe India’s poorest and most marginalized class of citizens, a group long called «Untouchables.» Although the government banned this pejorative classification in 1947, it has stubbornly stuck.
In Sanskrit, Dalit means «broken, ground-down, downtrodden, or oppressed.» One out of every six Indians is Dalit, and thereby relegated to the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system (which is led by the Brahmins, then followed by the Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra, and finally Dalit).
According to the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, throughout much of Indian society, Dalit are traditionally considered «impure and polluting, and are therefore physically and socially excluded and isolated.» And it can be worse. «They are murdered for wearing a watch or footwear,» says Sujatha Gidla, author of Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India. In an email, Gidla offered the following examples: «There is a case of an educated, Untouchable man who grew his mustache and fashioned it like Dali. He was beaten up. A young man who fancied owning a horse was brutally murdered in Gujarat.»
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