Friday, March 2, 2012

Day with Thatta Kedona Dolls

On the weekend of 26th and 27th November 2011, I (Professor Gwendolyn from BNU) visited Thatta Ghulamka Dhiroka together with my friends Mohammad Ali and Asma. The aim was to combine our general curiosity about the diverse activities that have been taking place in the village for almost two decades with our own research interests regarding the development of this community.

I myself had visited Thatta Kedona – the Urdu Translation for 'Toy Village' – several times since I moved to Pakistan in fall 2004. In fact, even before I came to Pakistan for the first time, I had met German designer Dr. Senta Siller and architect Dr. Norbert Pintsch who initiated the various projects. Being involved in design education at the School of Visual Arts and Design, Beaconhouse National University in Lahore since then, field trips for the students of the Department of Visual Communication Design have been organized earlier as I always saw the Thatta Kedona projects as successful examples in which design, handicraft and community development are intertwined.

Now I was interested myself in looking into those links deeper. Since 2010 I’m working on a research, in which the focus lies on the potential of design and handicrafts for livelihood improvement in low-income environments. In many conversations with Norbert and Senta I understood their approaches of designing the dolls, tin rickshaws, stationary and other small items. I understood how the Women Art Centre has been set up, how processes flow within and how volunteers with very different skill sets contribute through a variety of projects. 

Over the years a boys and a girls school have been established, a health unit has been set up, a sewage system has been implemented as well as solar panels, and a village radio station is functioning. Over the years theatre performances took place, study trips for young girls from the village to Pakistan’s Northern Areas, where they got English language tuition, and every year there is a competition that awards the house that is best maintained in traditional clay architecture and decoration. Apart from that two guest rooms are ready to welcome guests interested in escaping busy city life for a few days.

Being familiar with the scope of projects through their initiators I was now keen to find out about the perspective of people living in this community. I planned to go from house to house and interview people. My friend Asma, with whom I have worked before on a community project, agreed to join me and translate. Another friend, Mohammad Ali, whose own research is located in the Okara District of Punjab, accompanied us as well in order to meet Badrunissah, who is the president of the Kalyana Estate Women's wing of the Anjuman Mazareen Punjab, the organization of landless farmers in nearby districts in Okara. Badrunissah herself was interested in the different developments in Thatta Kedona as she is planning to set up a school for young girls and a resource centre in her own community. 

After picking up Badrunissah on the way, we were welcomed by Farooq and Farzana, who coordinate a lot of infrastructural processes in Thatta Kedona. After a quick freshly cooked lunch we started our work. Asma and I entered around seven houses on this afternoon. All people had high opinions of Senta and Norbert and appreciated that they had brought improvements to the village. The sewage system was mentioned often as well as the Women Arts Centre. Especially older women remembered the time when Senta started the doll making workshops. Interestingly some people didn’t make the connection between the income that is sent to them and the dolls and small wire animals that they produce. So the project was appreciated but the connection of production and income was not entirely understood.

Impressive to us visitors were the beautifully decorated houses, built according to traditional mud and brick architecture. Some people said that they would prefer a concrete house over a mud house, because they wouldn’t have to renew it after every monsoon. However it was also understood that the traditional building technology was more appropriate to the climate, especially in the hot season.

The evening and the night were spent in conversation open air on the roof of the Women Arts Centre. With Muharram prayers from neighbouring communities and village sounds unfamiliar to urban ears sleep found its way rather late. The following morning consisted of another walk through the village, some more brief interviews and – of course – shopping of beautiful souvenirs in the craft shop.

In the aftermath Mohammad Ali organized a fundraising event to help Badrunissah to build a widow's home in her own community in which she will set up a school and in the future perhaps a resource centre. The fact that she has been very inspired by the design of the houses and other projects in Thatta Kedona showed that there is an opportunity for Thatta Kedona to function as a model for other communities. If proactive and dedicated people like Badrunissah get exposure to such successful examples they may be able to replicate or translate similar structures to their own environments.

Originally posted at Light Within