In a small impoverished village in the Indian countryside, the ladies are wrapping themselves in blankets to keep out the evening chill. The village, in the eastern state of Odisha, is home to a community of Dalits, or to give them their less savory name, Untouchables, on the lowest rung of the caste ladder.
The straw-roofed mud houses of the village feel like a million miles away from the cabin of a Finnair aircraft, but there is a connection and it has to do with those blankets. Occasionally Finnair renews its cabin fittings and accessories, and it has found various ways of recycling or putting to good use the items it replaces. So the blue and red blankets that once tucked up Finnair passengers are now being used to keep poor Indian villagers warm.
This particular village has another Finnish connection because it’s the target of the NGO and charity Tikau Share, linked to the stylish design shop Tikau in Helsinki where the villagers’ handicrafts are sold. I have visited the village several times and I can vouch for the fact that the incredibly welcoming villagers are truly grateful for the blankets as well as the donated clothes, shoes and toys that Finnair has helped to transport to Delhi, from where the donations are forwarded to Odisha. Tikau Share is also planning and raising funds for a Village House, an all-round community centre for the village.
Visiting the families in their simple and fragile homes, where the roofs need to be replaced after each heavy monsoon rain and where daily staples such as rice are in short supply, is a humbling experience. On the one hand, I am exhilarated as a photographer by the extraordinarily honest and open faces of the villagers and the photographic stories offered by their rustic homes. On the other hand, I am intensely aware of how my expensive 21st century photographic digital toys are so far removed from their primitive yet uncomplicated existence. It’s a slightly confusing and humbling but ultimately inspiring experience. It’s also touching to register the delight of ten year old kids who have never touched a laptop or Play Station when presented with a teeshirt, pair of trousers or shoes from a Finnish donor many thousands of miles away.
There are millions of Indians living in poverty across India, and in a sense these are among the lucky ones. The idea of Tikau Share is not to preach to the villagers about their lifestyles or to drag them kicking and screaming into the 21st century. It’s to support the transition to a degree of sustainable self-sufficiency, providing a level of human dignity that people of their caste are often denied. To achieve this aim, they deserve Finnair’s support, and they’ve certainly got mine.