'Move beyond the sweater'

Updated: Dec 12, 2019, 07:52 IST | Hemal Ashar | Mumbai

Tibetan woolies sellers need to reinvent themselves to stay relevant in challenging climes

A Tibetan dance. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar
A Tibetan dance. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar

There is a pun intended when you call Tibetans a closely-knit community. This is the season when the Tibetans, numbering a few hundred, descend into Mumbai to sell their colourful woollen wares. The Tibetan sweater sellers had a few hours off on Tuesday when they gathered at a hall in Parel (E) to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the conferment of the Nobel Peace Prize on His Holiness the Dalai Lama. They also marked World Human Rights Day.

Speaker and invitee Suresh Londhe, Jt. Director, Development Commission Industries, Maharashtra government exhorted the Tibetans to, "move beyond the sweater. You come to Mumbai to sell your sweaters, but you have other traditional skill sets too. You also have marketing know-how." Londhe said it was time the community "brought other expertise for commercial gain. You have a rich and varied history of traditional medicine. Tibetan textiles and handicrafts, home decor items are much sought after too."

"My field level officers will extend co-operation to help them set up. Approach us for help, we will help you navigate the technicalities about the system, you are our brothers and sisters," he said, striking a note as warm as the Tibetan tea going around in large flasks.

Political take
A bit of the political was knit into the programme as well. Tenzing Tsundue, Tibetan activist who was born in India and is well-known as a revolutionary fighting for Tibet to shake off the yoke of Chinese oppression, said, "Programmes like these are important to sustain our culture and lifestyle. Today, many from here or the generation before have escaped Tibet coming over the mountains to Nepal and fanning out to different places. Now, people cannot flee Tibet, with the Chinese guards stationed there shooting if one tries to flee." According to Tsundue, "The Chinese are worried about the current Hong Kong protests because they know this might inspire similar uprisings in China."

It was back to sweaters though, with Rizin from Mundgod, the tiny Tibetan town near Hubli (Karnataka) saying, "We sweater sellers need a small market in Mumbai, even a makeshift one for Tibetan sweaters during these three months. Other places in India do give us a marketplace, I hope Mumbai authorities, many of who support us, can think about this." He added that knitting these sweaters, "was a Tibetan skill earlier. Today, much of that is lost through the passage of time. We source our sweaters from Punjab (Ludhiana) and take them to different places to sell. I am happy to be in India, but I will always have the badge of a refugee."

Sales pitch
Sweater seller Tsering Dolma said, "we sell primarily outside CSMT, in Parel, where we also live, and a few other places. We do get support but at times we have been evicted from near CSMT. The demonetisation also hit us hard. A decline in business is also chipping away at our courage." She came to India in 1959 and has been selling in Mumbai since 1978. Sweater seller Pelmo also rued the vagaries of the weather.

"It rained right into November in Mumbai and now it is not too cold yet. Let us hope sweater season starts soon, yet our selling window is getting smaller," she said while Choneydolkar and she expressed gratitude to India for giving Tibetans refuge.

Viraj Karnik, a Nana Chowk resident who was present at the celebration visited Tibet in 2014. She has also made a film on Tibetan sweater sellers in Mumbai on YouTube. "It documents their journey from Tibet to India, selling sweaters in the city, trials and triumphs. There have been victories too, because they have made a life for themselves in India in the face of adversity," she said even as Tibetan dance music wafted through the venue giving rhythm to a serene but stoic people.

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