At the beginning of March, Natasha and Lavinia took a journey back to India for the first time in three years to work on an exciting photoshoot with ES Magazine, celebrate Holi and then visit some of the charities we work with. Here is their diary of their time there.
Thursday 9th March
We arrive in Jaipur after two rather gruelling flights; one 10 hour flight from London to Mumbai and another internal flight from Mumbai where the turbulence coming in to Jaipur was like nothing I have ever experienced… (Note to self, probably not ideal to travel when six and a half months pregnant). After a short ride from the airport, we breathe a sigh of relief as we enter the grounds of the Sujan Palace, greeted by two statuesque Indians in pale pink turbans, crisp white and large moustaches. We mount the stairs beneath the porte cochere at the front of the pink and white façade, across the gleaming checkerboard tiles.
This is one of the most beautiful hotels I have seen. Built in 1729 for the ruling family of Jaipur, for many years this was the British Residency, the seat of power in Rajputana during the colonial era. It was the British who remodelled the palace extensively, adding the art deco touches. Now run by the Sujan group, styled by Adil Ahmad, one of Delhi’s modern rococo designers, the look is like something out of Marie Antoinette’s’ playbooks.
One of the porters leads me into our ‘Mountbatten’ suite which is vast, elegant and has the most exquisite blue wallpaper. The suite is the size of my house in London. It has a separate dressing room, dining room and even the bed linen is monogrammed. I am asleep as soon as my head touches the pillow….
Friday 10th March
Waking up without my two year old screaming for ‘more milk’ and demanding another episode of Paw Patrol seems very bizarre. We have a very civilised breakfast overlooking the checkered swimming pool in 25 degree heat. I could get used to this. But we have a busy day ahead; the Evening Standard fashion team are shooting Beulah for a fashion story. We walk into the suite they have taken over, filled with makeup brushes, accessories, shoes, and a rail of Beulah’s new SS’17 collection.
We shoot 8 or 9 different looks throughout the day (I end up losing count….). It’s very rewarding seeing pieces you have designed and laboured over photographed on a glamorous model and in such a fabulous location. Very excited to see the final photographs when they go to print in early summer.
Saturday 11th March
The three of us take an uber up to the Amber Fort. After an hours drive through tiny lanes, dodging lazy cows standing in the middle of the road we arrive at the Amber fort, which sits high on a hill above Amer, a town with an area of 4 square kilometres. The magnificent fort comprises an extensive palace complex, built from pale yellow and pink sandstone. The history of it is as follows; in 1727, the rulers of the Kachhawa Rajput moved their capital to Jaipur, but for the previous two centuries, it was based here, outside the city, in this sprawling fortress-cum-palace.
As with many places in Jaipur, you are keenly aware of a royal presence; until 1956, when it was given to the state, the fort was occupied and used as a summer palace by the Maharaja of Jaipur. It is lovely to imagine him and his family entertaining guests in many rooms and overlooking the breathtaking views.
We climb up to the top of the fort, stopping briefly to admire the elephants (Sophie has never seen one in real life and has a mild obsession with them). Feeling incredibly unfit at 6 and half months pregnant, I manage to make it up to the very top feeling very pleased with myself! We walk through many rooms, corridors and open gardens…. The showstopper room for me, was the Sheesh Mahal, or mirrored room, which is covered every inch in tiny chips of mirrors – arranged in abstract swirls and floral patterns. It is said that just a single match can light the room, so you can only imagine what it looked like when the Belgian cut-glass chandeliers once hung from the ceilings…..
The second part of our day was spent in the Sanganer district, 16 kilometres south of Jaipur. It is famous for textile printing, block printing and the handmade paper industry. We visited a couple of factories within the district and witnessed the process of hand block printing. This is a process we have developed for our SS’17 collection, and one we feel is intrinsic to the brand. We watched an elder man hand block print onto the silks with such precision and care, it was beautiful to witness and see this ancient tradition come to life.
In the evening, we headed out to Bar Palladio, described on their website as ‘a candlelit wonderland, a floating world’. It is exactly that. You feel like you have entered a dream world. It serves classic Italian cuisine which is a welcome relief from the ‘club sandwich’ and carbohydrate overload in other cafes and hotels (we were told to avoid salads at all costs… especially being pregnant). The bar is inspired by the iconic Caffe Florian and Harry’s Bar in Venice and christened after the Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. Designed by Dutch designer Marie-Anne Oudejans, I walk away that night after a couple of virgin mojitos wanting her to design my entire house…. And feeling inspired…..
Sunday 12th March
We are given our own tour around the Gem Palace by a rather handsome Indian named Siddharth, son of the late owner of the Palace. His father was a jewellery maker and his family served as the crown jewellers to the country’s Maharaja since the mid-18th century. The collections included the most stunning jewellery I have ever set eyes on; rubies, opals, gold and many coloured diamonds. Siddharth showed us the engagement ring for his future bride; (mine being about a 10th of the size….) and he allowed us to dress up in the most opulent jewels and pretend like they were ours for the morning…..
Monday 13th March
It just so happened that we were visiting Jaipur on ‘Holi’ day which is a Hindu festival celebrated in India, also known as the ‘festival of colours’ or the ‘festival of love’. It signifies the victory of good over evil, the arrival of spring and end of winter. For many, just a festive day to meet others, play and laugh, forget and forgive. We are invited to celebrate Holi at the Maharajas’ palace, (apparently it’s very dangerous as a foreigner to go out onto the streets…so we avoid at all costs). We are told to wear white to the festival as the colour shows up much better. So we walk in, feeling like we’ve just walked out of an airing cupboard with crisp white clothing. Not for long. As soon as we enter, I am greeted by an elderly Indian gentleman who cups my face and then (kindly) splatters red paint all over my face. People are dancing, running, fighting, there are trays of colour all over the garden, we grab the powder (feeling like we are 5 years old again) and throw it at one another. Lavinia gets dunked in multicoloured paint, still managing to look glamorous and Sophie’s immaculate blonde hair turns green (which a week later, she still hasn’t managed to get rid of). Water guns and water filled balloons get thrown around, people dance to the DJ and get thrown in the swimming pool. And I avoid the marijuana pizza at all costs……
Tuesday 14th March
We travelled late last night from Jaipur to Kolkata. First thing this morning we travelled to one of the projects we support called Freeset. We have visited them before, their production unit is based just outside one of the biggest red light districts in Kolkata, called Sonagachi. Freeset is a fair trade business offering employment to women trapped in Kolkata’s sex trade. Within a few square miles more than 10,000 women stand in line selling their bodies to thousands of men who visit daily. Many are trafficked from Bangladesh, Nepal and rural India. For others, poverty has left them without options. The cries of their hungry children drive them to sell their body. It is truly heartbreaking.
Beulah has supported Freeset for 6 years, and it is wonderful to be reunited with one of the founders, Annie, who is such an inspiration and set up the production unit over 16 years ago now with her husband. She told us that most of the women who ended up in the red light district have been trafficked from rural areas such as Bangalore, where traffickers prey on families who are vulnerable and not educated. They are sold into prostitution at such a young age, as young as 12 or 13, it is truly devastating. We walked around the production unit and see many women making our canvas bags, with big smiles on their faces. Freeset gives them a bank account, health insurance and chance to build a new life, free from abuse. So proud to be supporting the project through our canvas bags.
During the afternoon we travelled to Women’s Interlink Foundation. The Foundation works towards implementing integrated Women, Child and Community development projects, providing need-based interventions such as literacy for women and children, prevention of violence against the vulnerable, rescue, rehabilitation and reintegration of trafficked victims. It was set up by a wonderful woman called Aloka (see image of us three) who is like a mother figure to the women and works tirelessly to help reintegrate the girls, and support them in their new journey towards freedom. We met many of the girls, some worked with the silk block printing process, others were training to become chefs or make jewellery. Most of all, I was so moved by their laughter and smiles as they stood around us watching our every move. At such a young age, what they have been through no woman or child should ever have to go through. I think about the mundane things at home which I might complain about, this just puts everything into perspective.
We meet one beautiful girl who served us teas and coffees, who had a little girl in the home called Minna who was only 2 years old. I later found out the mother had been a victim of rape and her child had been born as a result. The mother had found it very hard to love her, and had wanted to give her up for adoption, but she had been encouraged to keep her. They now have a very special bond… Minna grinned at me as I walked past and I had to swallow back tears as she tried to jump into my arms. To think she is the same age as my baby girl is heartbreaking. For her mum to have been through what she had at such a young age and to see Minna’s innocence and laughter as the girls carried her and played with her was incredible to witness. It further motivates me to support such a worthy and worthwhile cause where women are being supported and lives are being changed.
View the pieces from the collection which have been block printed by Women’s Interlink Foundation here.
Wednesday, 15th March
Nats and Laura, our photographer, left early in the morning and having been quite a large group travelling around, it felt rather strange and a little daunting just being the two of us, Sophie and myself, in a country where nothing seems to go quite to plan. Missing our travel companions we were nonetheless excited for the remainder of our trip. We had a busy day of back to back meetings, first with a project called Thanapara Swallows which works mainly with widows from the war, women who are affected by violence, and/or economically disadvantaged. The two men had travelled all the way from Bangladesh to meet us which was incredibly humbling – we take for advantage living on a small island where distances are comparatively small to those in such a vast country like India. They showed us beautiful embroidery, garments and hand spun fabrics all produced by the women – an inspiring way to start the day and techniques we hope to introduce for SS18.
We then travelled across Kolkata to meet a lady who is the queen of Kantha, a traditional Indian embroidery technique, working with women in rural villages. Again, our heads were buzzing from ideas for our SS18 collection – we were both taking photos ferociously so as to try and savour every memory of the beautiful stitch work and designs.
In the chaos of Kolkata we sought refuge for a quick lunch in the beautiful Oberoi hotel where we ate enough food to last us for another week – we hadn’t seen any green food for the entirety of our trip and in India you never know when you might see it again (and for it to be safe for you to eat)!
That afternoon we went to visit a project called the Loyal Leather Workshop which is located in the back-alleys of the Bow Bazar red-light area. The workshop exists to provide employment alternatives to fight human trafficking, similar in setup to Freeset. We were showed around the unit, met by the smiling faces of the women who were making beautiful hand stitched leather bags and wallets. At the end of the tour we were taken up onto the rooftop where we could see some of the rooms of the red-light district that were so tightly packed together in conditions I can’t bare to describe – at that point I feel such anger towards the men I can see wandering into the rooms. I have such disbelief that a human being can treat another human being with such disrespect and cruelty and that this is happening on my watch, in my lifetime.
Friday, 16th March
Having flown from Kolkata to Mumbai the day before and had more meetings once landing in Mumbai, I am feeling a little jaded but incredibly excited for the day ahead.
We were greeted in the morning by the lovely Sheetal who runs the Mumbai operations of a project called You Can Free Us. YouCanFree.us is an international human rights organization that is fighting human trafficking around the world through advocacy, rescue and rehabilitation.
We were taken first to the training facility. Here the girls are taught life skills and provided with psychological care and holistic healing in order to help them re-enter society. We sat around a table and the girls were asked to introduce themselves by telling us first their name and then their dream – some wanted to work in fashion, some wanted to be a chef, and some even wanted to be a police woman so that they could lock up all of the men/women that had done horrific things to them and all of the other girls out there. I can’t describe exactly what it was that brought me to tears (although I tried to disguise them through my sunglasses so that the girls couldn’t see), but I think it was seeing their beautiful faces full of joy and happiness that reminded me that even though these girls have gone through things that no one should ever have to endure, there can be a beautiful story to tell at the end of it with much hope and big dreams.
Sheetal pointed out six of the girls in the room to us and explained that they had been locked up in small rooms, or ‘cages’ as she referred to them, and I think this better describes them, since the age of around 13. One of the girls hadn’t seen daylight for seven years. It is unimaginable.
We are then taken to the safe house where the girls have cooked a delicious meal for us. One of the girls takes us on a tour of the safehouse. In one room there is another girl sitting on her bunk bed – Sophie and I are asked to pray for her. As we pray for God’s healing and protection over the girls I am again brought to tears but this time they are very difficult to hide. I am annoyed with myself because if anyone is crying it should be the girls, but they are so much stronger and braver than I am. As we finish our prayers, they wipe away my tears from my cheek and wrap their arms around me, telling me not to cry for them. I can’t help it, I am so angry that these beautiful girls have been through traumas that no person should have to endure but I am also so moved by their gentleness and kindness. It is an encounter I won’t forget.
After the safehouse, Sheetal drives us to one of Mumbai’s biggest red light district so that we can see where some of the girls came from. As we walk down the alleys, I am reminded of my first visit to the red light district in Kolkata where all I could see in the women’s eyes was darkness, as if they were void of all life. For Sophie, this was her first time in a red light district and it was visible how distressing this was for her.
At the end of our walk, Sheetal takes us into one of the small rooms which cannot be larger than 1mx1m. Here we are greeted by a woman on the floor, surrounded by her three children on the bed. Sheetal prays for the woman whilst Sophie and I look on, not understanding what is being said but taking in the surroundings – I have never actually been in one of the brothel rooms before. This lady with her three children, live in this small room with nothing but two beds, a hole in the ground and clothes hanging from rope across the walls. There is no daylight in the room and in the darkness it suddenly feels very claustrophobic. When we leave Sheetal explains that the lady is in her last stages of HIV and has only days left to live. I am concerned what will happen to the three children and Sheetal explains that the son will most likely live on the streets and the daughters, trafficked into the sex trade – the heartbreaking and horrific reality of what goes on.