Helping the wider community in the areas where it functions is central to the Tata Tea ethos. In Munnar, the resplendent town in the high ranges of Kerala where the company has one of its largest tea gardens and processing operations, a shining example of this belief is helping disabled youngsters find their feet.
Aranya is a project that trains and employs handicapped youngsters in extracting natural dyes from the abundant natural resources Munnar is blessed with. Established in 1994, the project forms a part of the activities of Srishti, Tata Tea's umbrella welfare centre in the region. Srishti embraces a wide variety of undertakings aimed at making the disabled productive and self-reliant members of society.
The youngsters at Aranya learn and implement the art of using leaves, roots, barks, seeds, sawdust and tea waste to dye yarns and fabrics. Aranya also makes use of several other raw materials, like arjun, goran, pomegranate, catechu, jackfruit, henna and indigo, in the manufacture of natural dyes.
Aranya, which got off the blocks with just four disabled youngsters, was part of the Tata Tea's erstwhile vocational training centre for handicapped youth. It began as an experimental project and took shape after many meetings and workshops. In August 1996 Aranya was established as part of Srishti.
Youngsters with the right aptitude are identified and sent to various workshops and training programmes, where they imbibe the skills required to meet the demands of national and international markets. Besides plain dyeing of fabrics, these youngsters learn things like tie-and-dye, block printing and batik printing.
Aranya arranges for the training in institutions such as Weavers Studio, Kolkata (for natural dyeing, printing and batik work) and in Auroville, Pondicherry, and Chiang Mai, Thailand. Helping the project with their expertise are people like Darshan Shaw of Weavers Studio, Gurappa Chetty of Parambarik Karigar, Mumbai, and Jagatha Rajappa.
Aranya has grown by leaps and bounds, helped by the exhibition and sales events it has organised in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Coimbatore, and in Malaysia and Thailand. The projects members have participated in national and international seminars on natural dyeing and also organised workshops in natural dyeing for artists, craftspeople and students of fashion technology from various parts of India.
Impressed by Aranya's progress, Tata Tea has expanded its infrastructure and increased its facilities, with the result that the project now benefits 22 disabled people. Victoria Vijayakumar, who runs Aranya, is justifiably proud of the project's achievements. "We have now reached a level where, when people think of natural dyes, they think of Aranya," she says.
Aranya has progressed enough to spread its wings beyond India. Its business contacts today touch Sri Lanka, Austria, the United States and Japan. Before that happened, its products were tested and certified for their colour fastness by the South India Textile Research Association, Coimbatore (as a prerequisite for international marketing).
That fact that Aranya uses only natural dyes, and not the environmentally harmful synthetic dyes, works in its favour. "Everything in nature gives beautiful colours if you know how to extract them," says Sheeba Chandy, who works with Ms Vijayakumar in running the project. "At Aranya, we extract a variety of colours from spent natural products that would otherwise waste away or decay. Then we transfer these colours on to drab fabrics and yarns and transform them into beautiful works of art."
The real thing of beauty at Aranya, though, is the meaning the project imparts to the lives of the disabled who work there. People such as Bhanumathy from Kanniamallay. "Aranya was like a guru appearing before a desperate soul searching for meaning and guidance in life," she says. "Today I get paid well for the job I'm doing and my medical expenses are met by the company."
Krishnaveni, of Puthukady division in Chundavurrai estate, echoes Bhanumathy's feelings. "I used to think, why did God create me like this? Why has this happened to me?" she says. "Coming to Aranya made me happy and optimistic about the future. I may be physically handicapped, but not mentally."
Aranya is but one project under the Srishti umbrella. Theres also Athulya, a paper-making project run on similar lines, and Development Activities in Rehabilitation (DARE), a programme to help children with learning disabilities. The mother figure behind all of these activities is Ratna Krishna Kumar, and everybody involved in these projects regards her as a source of inspiration.