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The Afghan doll-makers of Delhi’s Khirki

Silaiwali, a Delhi-based enterprise, works with Afghan refugees to create handmade dolls from cotton scrap

Most of the members of the Silaiwali group belong to Afghanistan's persecuted Hazara community 
Most of the members of the Silaiwali group belong to Afghanistan's persecuted Hazara community 

Delhi’s Khirki Extension is one of those neighbourhoods that is often described in clichés like “vibrant” and “a melting pot”. An old village that got absorbed into the always-mutating urban mass of south Delhi, Khirki Village and Khirki Extension are a mishmash of historical ruins, unplastered buildings, colourful graffiti and, despite the ever-looming threat of gentrification, still home to many communities that would find it difficult to rent homes and shops elsewhere. Among these are refugee families from Afghanistan.

It was a natural choice for Iris Strill and Bishwadeep Moitra when they were looking for a location for Silaiwali, the social enterprise they set up in January 2019. Silaiwali employs Afghan refugee women—many of them members of the Hazara tribe, who have been persecuted in their home country for decades—to make dolls from cotton scrap. These are mostly rag dolls in a variety of skin colours, dressed in hand-stitched, traditional outfits. “The idea was to set up somewhere that would be easy for the women to access from their homes, and Khirki is where many of them live,” explains Moitra. Strill and Moitra were inspired by Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach studies from the 1990s, which take worker well-being into consideration and are an important guide for social enterprises like theirs.

Why dolls? It made sense from a design perspective, says Strill, given that most of the waste fabric she was sourcing from garment manufacturers was in the form of smaller “cuttings” and scraps. She was also a bit tired of the same-old patchwork quilts, cushion covers and bags, and remembered the rag dolls French grandmothers often make for children to play with—“dolls tell a woman’s story,” felt Strill.

Iris Strill and Bishwadeep Moitra
Iris Strill and Bishwadeep Moitra

The location-based approach worked especially well during the pandemic. Despite lockdowns, many of the women could still walk to the workshop, where the bulk of the work is done, and didn’t necessarily suffer the losses in income that often supports their entire families—they earn 15,000-35,000 per month.

Having a fair number of dolls to display also allowed the organisation to participate in the Maison&Objet trade fair, a twice-yearly affair that brings together product designers and professionals working in the decor and lifestyle market across the world, held in Paris last month. It helped Silaiwali, a self-funded enterprise, bag orders from the French high-street store Merci.

It was by no means their first international order—the brand has made its mark in the international design community through collaborations with brands that manufacture in India. Silaiwali picks up scrap material from their factories and fashions them into dolls and other small decor objects, which are then retailed at the brands’ stores worldwide. Its distinctive dolls are available at many stores in the US, like the Cost Plus World Market, an American chain of import retail stores, and New York-based boutique Banjanan; in France, they are already at stores like Scarlette Ateliers and Emile et Ida.

Sales in the Indian market, though, continue to be low—barely 5% of their total revenue. “Our dolls are not cheap by Indian standards (starting at 1,866) and while we have stocked at lifestyle stores in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, sales have been limited. It would be difficult to break into the Indian market without spending on advertising,” believes Moitra.

The Nargis Mom and Mini dolls 
The Nargis Mom and Mini dolls 

Although Silaiwali is just over two years old, the seeds were sown when Strill, an art and design student from France, came to India in the 1990s to study Indian design and block printing. She slowly got immersed in the craft sector, working with women-led organisations and helping them contemporise designs, and eventually became a design consultant with international clothing brands that were getting garments manufactured in India. That’s when she became aware of the large amounts of fabric going waste. “I felt a certain amount of disgust with fast fashion and I wanted to do something more meaningful,” says Strill.

“I used to travel to Rajasthan often to work with certain crafts clusters (commissioning work for the brands) but this one time, I couldn’t travel, and the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) put me in touch with this group of Afghan refugee women living in Delhi who were also artisans. I really liked the vibe of the workshop I attended with them, and the refugee issue has also been close to my heart,” explains Strill.

Something clicked. Her husband, Bishwadeep, who has a background in graphic design and was working in journalism at the time, quit his job and they set up Silaiwali. It helped that they almost immediately became part of UNHCR’s MADE51 programme, which takes refugee-made products to the global market by working with local social enterprises to provide livelihoods and keep craft traditions alive.

Though not many of the Afghan women were trained in the kind of needlework that goes into making the dolls, they picked up the craft pretty quickly. In fact, they provide design inputs as well. “When we started, one of the women made a doll and dressed it in the traditional Hazara costume. We called it the Nargis doll and it is still in our catalogue,” says Strill.

Starting with 10 women, the organisation supports over 70 Afghan refugee women today. “They are completely self-motivated and they take a lot of initiative in running the studio, like deciding who will come in when, dividing the work, etc. When they are here, there’s a lot of laughter and chatter—they put on some music, they talk while they work,” says Strill. “The studio is a space that they can call their own.”

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