Recently I found myself sitting with three generations of Newari ladies in a small, cosy room in Tahachal, on the opposite side of the Vishnumati River to Basantapur and Durbar Square. The three ladies in question were Meera Shakya, a reserved but charming woman of sixty years old who allowed her personable grown-up daughter, Samasty Shakya, to do most of the talking while nursing her eight-month-old and extremely sweet-natured daughter, Smitasya Meera Shakya, on her lap.
They and their enterprise, Maa: Yu Creative Creation, had recently been forced to move to Tahachal from Patan due to a road improvement scheme, keeping only a small showroom in Mangal Bazaar, not far from Patan Dhoka. As a result, they were still dealing with a host of related problems.
“Shifting our location has been disastrous on so many levels,” Samasty explains. “I didn’t foresee that our employees would not move with us. We are having to find totally new people. And, on a practical level, everything has had to be relocated and put in place.”
I had first become aware of Maa:Yu less than a year previously when a sponsored post appeared in my Facebook feed just as I was feeling the need for some lightweight bed linen to make the hot nights prior to the onset of the Monsoon more bearable. I contacted them and went to visit their premises.
The name Maa:Yu—maa and yu respectively meaning ‘mother’ and ‘of’ in Newari, and therefore, perhaps, a plural possessive or even ‘maternal’—encapsulates the eternal feminine, the wisdom and creativity of the Mother.
“When we were searching for a name for our new enterprise, we first thought of using mamma’s name, Meera,” Samasty explains, “but then we did not want to put all the focus on her. The emphasis had to be on ‘mothers’ in the plural so that all our workers could feel involved.”
Meera, who suffered a cerebral haemorrhage in 2013 resulting in her having to initiate various lifestyle changes, smiles gently as she listens, showing a degree of deference to and pride in her educated and erudite daughter. She has been a designer for around forty years, well before the birth of Samasty. For many years, she was one of seven partners in Rainbow Crafts, doing much the same work as she does with Maa:Yu today. Their products were good: it was the lack of organizational and promotional skills and expertise that meant that the enterprise could not expand and resulted in its slow disintegration.
Of course, I was eager to ask about the meaning of Maa:Yu’s distinctive logo, the bright red circle split top to bottom by a curious, curvaceous black line.
“The logo embodies our two mothers,” Samasty explains. “The plain red bindi symbolizes my birth mother, whereas the black design is a special, really artistic bindi which another mother-figure in my life applies to her forehead every day.”
She went on to relate how, although she was born and raised in Kathmandu—right there in Tahachal—as a student, she and her friends would always socialize in neighbouring Patan. It was there that the owner of Café Aamu, Archana Tamang Lama, became a second mother-figure in her life as well as an advisor and mentor.
“She is also a women’s activist,” Samasty explains, “and somehow there was a connection between us right away. We picture her as a mother as she is very caring. Just like family. Even now she always gets enthusiastic and encourages us when we show her some new idea or design.”
The reference to women’s rights brought me back to my initial impression of women’s power as represented in the three-generational grouping in front of me. Maa:Yu was nothing if not a women’s—indeed mothers’—empowerment enterprise, so I questioned how that fitted into Nepal’s male-dominated society, in which men go out to work and socialize while women stay home.
“My scenario was a little different,” Samasty states. “I was raised by a single mom after my father left when I was three. So she has been everything to me… my mother, my father, and my friend.”
She went on to explain that she only realised the truth of Nepal’s male-dominated image when went to work in social development. “In one village in Rasuwa, there were almost no men. The men lived either out of the village or even out of Nepal. I was so shocked to see that. The women had three or four kids and then did everything at home. The few men that were there could be seen playing cards or carom board.
“Women in Nepal do not have their own identity,” Samasty goes on to say. “Before marriage, they are bound to their father and mother, after marriage to their husband and kids. They do not have friends or have opportunities to attend friends’ gatherings.
“Maa:Yu is actually continuing [my social development work] on a different basis. Many of the women who work with us do leave the house. But they just go from home to office, then from office to home. They do not have another life. The scenario is changing gradually, but it will take time,” she adds.
“Since we shifted our base to here in Kathmandu the women who used to come to work for us in Patan don’t come any more. It is only a half-hour walk away, ten minutes by vehicle, but they prevaricate. It is outside their area, their comfort zone, so they discontinued working. It isn’t that their husbands don’t allow them, the problem is their own mental block. I was stunned when I learnt this. They are still young, not even forty, but they imagine themselves getting lost in faraway Kathmandu! Even at that age, they are still rooted in the past. I actually pity them and do my best to encourage them.”
It seemed the right moment to drop the name of Samasty’s husband, Siddhartha Shakya, who was my original point of contact at Maa:Yu on my first visit to their former premises in Patan, just a stone’s throw away from Durbar Square. He is primarily responsible for the day-to-day running of Maa:Yu, especially since the birth of their daughter.
“When I first met Siddhartha, who was working for Samsung, I did not tell him about my close connection with the traditional art of woodblocks and printing or about my dreams. Even though I was a community development worker with. NGOs and INGOs, I always wanted to continue mamma’s legacy. However, one day Siddhartha came across some of my notebooks and read all about this. His reaction was, ‘What a super plan! Let’s do this!’”
Maa:Yu Creative Creation was formally registered in 2018 but at first operated on an extremely small scale. Then, slowly but surely, as COVID came then faded, the owners decided to devote more time to developing the fledgling company.
Samasty is totally realistic about why the women work for them. “Women are focused on their family. Nobody is working here because it is their passion, or they want to work. They work because they have some financial difficulties at home. Or they are bored and want to get out,” adding with more than a touch of pride, “Nobody is like mamma. Her work is her passion. She never says, ‘I have to do it’. She loves to do it!’
Maa:Yu’s products almost all depend on the use of woodblocks, the creation of which is outsourced to tried and trusted artisans. Contrary to my preconception, the mother and daughter team explained that no special kind of wood is used for the blocks: it is the woodcarver who makes the choice, dependent on the size and the design. Maa:Yu has a collection of hundreds of blocks, mostly traditional designs, some older than Samasty herself but still in use, with a few customized blocks made in accordance with the client’s specifications. The woodblocks are handled with care: a block can break if it is dropped and strikes the concrete floor with force, but that is seldom allowed to happen. The cost of creating a woodblock varies according to size, detail and so on, starting from around 2000nrp for a small, basic block. But as Maa:Yu’s collection proves, a beautiful block is forever!
“In my childhood I always had block-printed bed-sheets, curtain and so on. It was my world! In Pashupati there used to be so many block printers,” Samasty recalls. “I remember seeing them when I was a child. They were super-fast! They did not have to measure or anything. I was really fascinated by them. It was only afterwards that I fully understood that what they were doing and what mamma was doing was the same thing.”
The ‘partners’ of the woodblocks are the colours which are used to print the design onto the fabric—or indeed natural lokta paper, handmade from the bark of the shrub Daphne.
“In the past we used kerosene-based paint,” Meera reminisces. “Bad smell and bad for health!” she states categorically. “I used to have severe headaches at that time.”
“Actually I used to like that smell,” Samasty admits, “because of its association with mamma and childhood.”
The change to acid-free pigments that could be mixed with water was made about fifteen years ago when health-conscious Meera was looking for an eco-friendly option.
As with other jobs, the task of woodblock printing was traditionally allocated to a particular caste or ethnic group. In the context of the Newari caste system, it was the Ranjitkar (aka Ranjit or Chhipaa) caste that was assigned to the dying of cloth or other colour-related activities, including woodblock printing. Was that still the case, I wondered?
“A little,” Meera responds, “but many have moved on. Indian people have migrated to Nepal and they do anything and everything so the once restricted legacy of traditional work has become more open.”
Traditionally woodblock printing was done in dark colours. “Red was a dark red, crimson. Blue had to be navy blue. Then of course there was black,” Samasty explains. “But we started to innovate, to create new colours, like light pink and so on. At first, we got very negative comments about this. But there is a need for change.”
Today woodblock printed fabrics and goods are increasingly rare. It is a painstaking process and, if the block slips, then that whole piece has to be discarded. All too often screen-printed fabrics are now being passed off to the undiscerning customer as block-printed.
This made me curious about Maa:Yu’s own customer-base.
“It consists mainly of foreigners, both ex-pats living in Nepal and those overseas,” Samasty explains. “Our products are a little bit costly because, as a handicraft, there are so many time-consuming and intricate steps involved. As a result, the cost automatically becomes high. On average, one of our block-printed bed-sheets costs 2500nrp. In the market you can get a bed-sheet of the same size for as cheap as 500nrp. Sadly, Nepalese do not look for quality. They look for a low cost. This means that it is difficult for us to expand.”
Do Nepalis not appreciate the art, the quality, I wondered?
Meera believes that the cost versus quality equation is starting to shift in Nepal. “Some Nepalis like natural products, handmade items, handicrafts,” she maintains.
To create a Nepali client-base involves not only a swing from cheap ‘Made in China’ products to those which are high in terms of both quality and price: it also involves overcoming a serious block in the Nepali psyche which equates imperfections or flaws with ‘damage’.
“When you visited Maa:Yu for the first time and ordered some bed-linen, we told you that it was hand-printed and there would be flaws,” Samasty recalls, rather to my amazement. “To this day I remember your response: ‘That’s the beauty of handiwork.’ But many Nepalese don’t understand that. They will reject it as ‘damaged’.
“I think we can gradually overcome this,” she continues. “In fact, I am very positive, as people here in Nepal are gradually coming to appreciate the imperfections of handmade products.”
I wondered if Samasty and Siddhartha had any regrets about giving up their previous jobs in order to first establish and then expand Maa:Yu.
“Not at all,” Samasty replies. “When we used to work for others technically it was a nine-to-five job but often phone calls would come at all hours and there was no satisfaction. Right now, we do not have so many customers but we are satisfied. We have time for family and friends. We have flexibility and freedom. I am grateful for the support and encouragement of Siddhartha, without which I don’t think I could possibly have quit my ‘normal’ job.” She goes on to add, “I am proud of what we are doing. So many people who see the importance of handicrafts, even Nepalis, say that we have to continue, that we must not stop. And this keeps our hopes alive.”
I wondered how Samasty saw the future of Maa:Yu and if she had any ambitions for the enterprise.
“What I see is that we can have so many women working with—not for—us. They also have their vision which we can help them to achieve. That will mean that they are not totally dependent on their spouse, or their family, for income. They can earn on their own. And what I dream of is to take Maa:Yu to the level so that all Nepalese will know of us. I do not dream of international fame, simply that everyone in Nepal will be aware of us and equate the name of Maa:Yu Creative Creation with woodblock printing.”
As for who was going to continue with the creative lineage established by Meera, Samasty explains with a smile, “I am lucky that I met Siddhartha. He is equally creative. Often the three of us combine our ideas and something emerges. So maybe it will be us… and next the baby!” she adds, bouncing Smitasya Meera on her knee.
Samasty’s final words were, interestingly, not about Maa:Yu but the role of women in Nepal. “We have to bring women to the forefront. I feel so sad to hear a woman say that something is not suitable for her when they have restricted comfort zones. There should not be any such boundaries. And men have a part to play in this. Increasing awareness of this issue by men would result in greater support for and encouragement of their wives and partners’ wishes to be more independent. I hope that more husbands can take a pro-active role in this, just like Siddhartha.”
I made my farewells and left the house in Tahachal very much aware that we had been discussing issues that are crucial to the future of Nepal: the need for traditional handicrafts to be preserved and made accessible to new generations; for Nepalis themselves to more fully appreciate their value and beauty; and, perhaps most important of all, for a basic change not only in the role of women in Nepali society but in women’s own perceptions of themselves and their potential.
Visit Maa:Yu Creative Creation’s website to learn more about their products.