The Fragrance of Independence

By Shyama Parui

The soft ringing of the brass bell, the lighting of an oil lamp, and finally the sound of the conch shell signaled the start of prayer time for my family. The fragrance of jasmine agarbatti (incense) would draw us to the puja room, where my mother typically decorated the images of gods with flowers and sandalwood paste. Simple offerings of rice and sugar were presented daily, followed by our prayers. Decades have passed and age has turned Maa into a frail woman, but she continues her ritual of lighting a lamp and burning incense at prayer time just as religiously. Agarbatti has been associated with prayers and festivals in India long enough that we don’t question it. The aroma of patchouli, sandalwood, rose, and the famous nag champa also sets the mood for meditation, relaxation, and romance. Did you ever stop to think of how it is made or who made it? For some women, these fragrances are associated with their sense of financial independence.

They did not see themselves merely as victims, but as women who could take charge of their lives.

In 2018, Yes She Rises sponsored 40 women to attend training on how to make agarbattis with the objective of teaching them a skill that could turn into a profession, ultimately giving them a chance to earn a steady income. Most of these women were caught in the Devadasi system that had unfortunately deprived them of formal education. Self-sufficiency through the making and selling of agarbattis raised an opportunity to break free from their impoverished situation.

You may be wondering why an agarbatti making workshop was selected? It came as a surprise to me, but Karnataka is considered the Capital of Agarbatti. The ingredients used, such as thin bamboo sticks, pastes combining natural fragrance and adhesives are inexpensive, and the manufacturing process does not require complex skills. In fact, the process can be completely manual using a simple wooden platform and a rolling pin, like the ones used to make rotis. They can also be produced with the use of semi-automatic and automatic machines. Learning to make a product that is used everyday in Hindu households provided a practical option for self- employment to these women. The impact is not limited to one village or a handful of women, a ripple effect is expected.

Indrani Nayar-Gall was beaming with pride, when she spoke to me about the six-day workshop. She was delighted to see that the participants were optimistic and shared the dreams that they had for their children. These women may have endured a difficult past, but they were not ready to abandon their hope for a better future. They did not see themselves merely as victims, but as women who could take charge of their lives. The Kannada speaking teacher, a woman with considerable experience in making and selling agarbattis delivered the class with energy and enthusiasm. She offered several tips on how to sell their homemade agarbattis at the village market. Lessons on basic entrepreneurship became a part of the workshop instruction. Additionally, Hindi speaking classes were conducted so that the participants could communicate with a wider range of customers and gaining literacy as we must acknowledge, is a small step that can lead to huge improvements.

One of the highlights of the week as described by Indrani Nayar-Gall, was a motivational conference facilitated by the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) VIMUKTHI at the Hospet branch of the well-known, NGO MYRADA. Yes She Rises invited the legendary social reformer B. L. Patil, who was the first to begin a program to eradicate the Devadasi tradition through reform and rehabilitation for Devadasi women and their children. The other speaker was none other than Padma Shri* recipient, Sittavva Jodatti, the grassroots activist, a former Devadasi and CEO of MASS, Belgaum. Their words made a tremendous impact on all present. Sittavva Jodatti spoke from her heart to inspire and motivate her sisters.

As the workshops and Hindi speaking classes continue, there have some bumps on the way but Yes She Rises remains optimistic about the progress of the participants. Fifteen of the original forty participants have shown tremendous promise in these skills. With the help of the semi—automatic machine provided, the production rate can be up to 50,000 incense sticks a day.

So, the next time we light an agarbatti / incense, let’s take a moment to appreciate the efforts of the person who transformed some sticks and powders into aromatic wands. Just as its delicate scent infuses the surroundings with a calming effect, we hope that it brings a wave of autonomy to the women who have strived for it.

* Padma Shri – Every year on Republic Day (January 26th) the Government of India presents this prestigious award to civilians for their exceptional contribution to society in any field.

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