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ASHA in Sanskrit means 'hope'. The true significance of this meaning is that through fair trade, Asha Handicrafts has brought hope into what was largely a 'hopeless' situation for over 103 producer groups and 5,000 artisans throughout India.
Asha Handicrafts is an association of voluntary professionals men who provide technical training, medical help, education, financial assistance and a marketing outlet for marginalised Indian craftspeople. From the carpet makers and papier-mâché workers of Kashmir to the leather workers of Calcutta and women artisans doing Kalamkari printing in Andhra Pradesh, Asha's work has encouraged the growth and development of cottage industries, assisting once impoverished artisans towards self-sufficiency. Asha also serves to support tribal Gujarati women doing their ethnic embroidery, wood workers, brass workers, weavers, silversmiths and rural blacksmiths.
Madanlal Sharma is a wood carver who worked with one of Asha's producer groups in Jaipur, carving wooden Christmas decorations and nativity sets. Madanlal was born in the Sirsi village in Rajasthan into a family of farm laborers. It was here that he learnt his craft early by apprenticing with his father, who taught him the basics of woodwork.
In 1980, he and his family, including his wife and young children, migrated to Jaipur in search of employment, and it was here that he began work with one of Asha's producer groups. With regular work and perseverance, Madanlal prospered over the years and was able to build his own house, see his children progress through their studies and reach high school graduation, and also build a workshop where 10 artisans worked alongside him. Madanlal has now retired and has handed over the operation to his eldest son, Ramesh, who oversees the workshop with his younger brothers.
Asha also strives to help children through providing educational resources and training them for future work, while also offering grants to further support the artisan’s children. The Hope Institute has also been set up to train young girls to become tailors, giving them the opportunity to become independent. During 2007 and2008, 23 young girls completed the course and now have the chance to earn an income. Asha also aims to empower women through awareness programmes concerning their health, environment, legal matters and current issues.
Asha have taken further steps to express their concern about the environment by planting 1,000 trees, with some planted next to their artisan’s homes as a means of raising awareness amongst their workers. Asha has also established impressive health initiatives, with their medical centers treating over 2,000 patients every month, and they also provide free medical camps for the artisans and their families. Asha also organises awareness programmes about various illnesses for the benefit and education of many community members.
Asha’s paper mache workshops are based in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir. The paper mache products are totally eco-friendly – they are made using old newspapers recycled and processed manually. One of the workshops is run by Mugloo & Sons, a family run organisation in Sringagar who have been working with Asha since 1979. There are about 35 artisans working in the workshop, of whom 15 are women. Previously, men dominated the craft but due to efforts by the government, women are now being encouraged to join the profession. Assistance is given by the Mugloo family to meet medical expenses of the workers and their families and equal opportunities are offered to all groups of workers – no one is excluded on the basis of gender, religion, caste or disability.