Shalom Ooty: empowering Toda women through handmade embroidery

Shikha Bansal
Shikha Bansal • 19 May 2023
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Sheela Powell, founder of social enterprise Shalom Ooty, has a huge passion for Toda women and their special Toda embroidery. The Women on Wings business partner chose the name ‘Shalom’ as it stands for peace in Jewish, which is exactly what Sheela wanted to provide oppressed Toda women through economic independence.

The Toda and their unique handmade embroidery
The Toda population of around 2,000, live in the upper plateaus of Nilgiris, in India’s southern state Tamil Nadu. Traditionally, men rear cows and buffaloes while women look after the household and embroider. The unique and traditional Toda embroidery received the Geographical Indication tag in 2013 and Shalom Ooty is helping preserve this.

Sheela Powell comes from Ooty – a town in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu – founded as a British Raj summer resort. Says Sheela: “I studied at the Gell Memorial Girls Higher Secondary School, set up by the British in the early 1900s for the education of Toda girls. Later, girls from other communities were also allowed. My school education alongside Toda children gave me a good understanding of their unique culture and heritage.”

Creating a market for oppressed Toda women
In 1992, Sheela opened a store in Ooty which initially only sold household items handmade by local women in Ooty. However, women from the Toda village began approaching Sheila to sell their hand-embroidered shawls.

Sheela says: “Seeing many Toda women, once my student friends, being oppressed and not having a lot of opportunities to empower themselves, and seeing the unique beauty of the Toda embroidery, I decided to transform my store into a social enterprise to enable Toda women to strive for increased financial freedom by selling their unique embroidery.”

Paying a fair price
Today Shalom Ooty works with about 250 Toda women, who cannot independently sell their products due to the language barrier and lack of awareness about market demands. Continues Sheela: “Earlier, they embroidered shawls, which only the rich tourists would buy. We trained them to make small products like clutches, coin purses, and mobile covers. Those became an instant hit and Toda women started earning money that they used to fund children’s education or buying gifts for them.”

Sheela pays the artisans instantly. Whether she sells the stock or holds it is her problem. “We buy the cotton fabric and cut it into pieces for making shawls, cushions, bedcovers, etc. We give the women the design layout but don’t interfere with the patterns,” says Sheela. “When the women bring their ready products, they decide the price themselves, and I pay them immediately. I also reimburse their bus fare.”

Future looks bright
There is a rising demand for Toda embroidered utility products and Shalom Ooty has been training the women in making them. “We are also adding newer products to our collection, like skirts. And we recently started online sales and that’s picking up slowly,” concludes Sheela. Next to the store and online, Shalom Ooty sells through exhibitions and fairs.

Collaborating for a better future: Women on Wings and Shalom Ooty
Women on Wings and Shalom Ooty have collaborated since March 2019 on realizing their joint mission of empowering rural and tribal women economically and creating a better future for the next generation.

Image | Sheela Powell, founder of Shalom Ooty, holding products with the typical Toda embroidery

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