One of the most treasured pieces in my closet is a cholo made for me by my grandmother. Hand sewn despite her failing eyesight, it was the last thing she ever gave me. My grandmother did not like staying idle and neither do many older people who, despite their aging bodies and the general social perception that they need to stop working, like to be useful, like to be productive. Aji’s Products, which literally translates to grandmother’s products, brings the creations of many, many ajis (grandmothers) and bajyas (grandfathers) to our shopping carts and our homes.
Founded by Lorina Sthapit, Irina Sthapit and Pursarth Tuladhar, Aji’s Products is a social enterprise that aims to empower the elderly community by creating a platform where they can utilize their knowledge and craftsmanship to create products and earn not just some money, but also dignity and a sense of purpose. “We want to share with the world that the elderly are an empowered group and not a dependent group,” says co-founder Lorina Sthapit. “We want to show that their skills and knowledge are still relevant in this day and age and that the younger generation can get so much inspiration from them.”
Aji’s Products has three primary goals: the first is to economically empower the elderly generation by selling their products. Currently there are 22 makers associated with Aji’s Products. They are all over 60, with the oldest being 86 years old. “We had a maker who was 92 years old but they recently passed away,” says Lorina.
Secondly, they aim to strengthen the bond between the younger and older generation and aid in the transfer of skills from the elderly to the younger generation through various events where the aji’s and bajya’s teach young people their skills. To this end Aji’s has also started a campaign called #AskanAji where the ajis and bajyas can answer questions from the younger generation.
And lastly, Aji’s has been preserving and documenting the experiences and knowledge of ajis and bajyas. Young people can share their experiences with their grandparents and pay tribute to them through the Aji’s blog and the older people can share their perspectives, articles, old songs etc.
There’s also an Aji’s podcast where the ajis and bajyas can share their experiences. Four episodes of the podcast where four different elderly people share their life stories have been uploaded on their website, www.ajisproducts.org. “The first episode by my grandfather where he shares his experiences of traveling to Lhasa as a trader and the difficulties of the journey back in those days. The second episode is of a bajya who was the first person to start an audio company in Nepal. These kinds of experiences are not something that the younger generation will get to hear again,” says Lorina. “The current generation now has many platforms and ways to document their lives. They did not have that in their time. So all their stories are in their heads. We wanted to bring that out so that their stories can also live on,” adds Pursarth.
Aji’s Products started with Lorina’s own grandmother. “My aji used to knit woolen socks for all of us and distribute them to all her friends and family. So what I thought was, instead of giving them away I could sell them for her and she could earn some money, get recognition and people would value her skills more than if she just gave it away for free. At first she was hesitant, firstly of what people would say about her selling socks at her age and secondly of whether or not people would like her designs.” Lorina’s grandmother had been a homemaker all her life. Belonging to a typical Newar family she did not speak good Nepali and had never had much interaction with the outer world. But Lorina encouraged her and when the first lot of socks sold out, her grandmother got excited and could not believe it.
“I though there must be other ajis and bajyas like my grandmother and I wanted to give this platform to them as well.” Says Lorina. She started canvassing through her friends and family network and soon had a community of elderly makers.
Those who are a part of the Aji’s Products community each have a unique product. “We encourage them to make things that they have been making for years and are reviving their traditional skills at the same time. They’re all home based. So we go to their homes and collect their products as well.” The products sold by Aji’s Products range from home goods, clothes and souvenirs, and many of the items showcase traditional Nepali crafts, such as clothes made from Dhaka fabric, coin purses called mheecha, old-style puja sets for religious rituals and straw mats and stools, etc
Sharing their knowledge and crafts, whether through products, blogs or teaching has brought about a remarkable change in the lives of the ajis and bajyas of Aji’s community. “My grandmother herself has changed so much. She now calls me to ask how many of her socks were sold each month. She used to be very nervous talking to strangers and needed my grandfather present during her first interview, but she can now give TV interviews independently without any help.”
Of the 22 makers of Aji’s products, we had the chance to talk to two of the makers themselves to get their stories and perspectives.
Pragya Shakya always wanted more for herself than society at the time deemed necessary for a girl like her. This 71 year old maker makes Dhaka clothes sets for children and took up sewing as a young girl because she wanted to ensure that she would always be able to stand on her own two feet.
Born into a very conservative family, Pragya would sneak out and go to school without her family’s knowledge and managed to study this way till grade 8. “Since my childhood I wanted to study and become a nurse. My father was always away for business and my thulo bua (father’s older brother) would look after the family. So I would go to school, openly if I was staying at mamaghar (mother’s maiden home) or sneakily if I was staying with my family.” She explains. “I was also a member of the scouts. And one day during a cleaning program organized by the scouts, my thulo bua saw me and scolded me and threatened to cut off my ears. He told my father to come home and get his daughter under control.”
According to Pragya, back in those days it was believed that if a girl studied she would get out of hand and would write love letters to men and bring shame to the family. “It caused a lot of conflict in my family, but my mother took my side. So my father came back and took us all to Narayanghat.” Her schooling stopped then and with that her dream of becoming a nurse went unfulfilled. But despite that, Pragya still wanted to take up a profession and become self-reliant.
Pragya’s father used to make and sell gold items and her mother was a weaver. “I did not have the courage to do my father’s work and I did not want to weave clothes like my mother did. But I wanted to stand on my own feet. So I took up sewing. I thought, no matter where I end up, people will always need to wear clothes so I will always have work.“
At first, she would use people’s old clothes to take measurements and sew clothes. But with her brother’s encouragement she took a professional course in tailoring. “My conservative family did not want me to go out to an institute and study sewing so they hired a tutor who would come to my home and teach me.” She finished a two year professional course in six months and started sewing at 17 years old and has not stopped since.
Pragya never set up her tailoring shop. She would sew at home and her clients found her through word of mouth. But despite not having a shop, Pragya was always busy and when she was younger would often sew from early in the morning till late into the night to finish her client’s clothes. But now she likes to work at her own pace. So she no longer takes specific requests. Instead she makes children’s clothing and sells them through Aji’s Products.
“As long as I am able to, I intend to work. I am used to being financially independent. I have never had to ask my husband for money as I always paid for myself out of my own pocket. So it is difficult for me if I have to ask for money. In my old age, I like to be involved in religious activities. So if I want to go somewhere or do something I don’t have to ask my son for money. My son tells me I don’t have to work anymore. But I like working and earning my own keep,” says Pragya.
Juju Ratna Tamrakar
Juju Ratna Tamrakar was born with the heart and hands of an artist. This quiet and soft spoken 72 year old has had a very interesting career. In fact, you might even be carrying around some of his designs in your wallet. Juju worked in the Taksar office from 2030 to 2050 BS and was responsible for designing coins and bank notes. The rhino in the 100 rupee note you carry around is Juju’s own design. Many of his designs like the rhododendron and lophophorus on the one and two paisa coins are now only found in coin collections.
Juju was introduced to Aji’s through his daughter who heard about Aji Products and contacted Lorina. He now creates small souvenirs made from clay and Nepali paper for Aji’s Products, including a Dharmachakra magnet, a small replica of Swoyambhunath, a set of Pancha Buddhas and a set of Asta Mangal.
Juju has always been an artist. He was born with a passion for art and studied at Fine Art Campus and later improved his artistic skills by going to learn coin and bank note designing in India and Japan during his career in Taksar.
“After I retired in 2050, I wanted to do something, so I went back to my roots.” Juju started his post-retirement career with wax mold statues. He made numerous statues that are still standing in many places in Nepal. He now mostly works with paper and clay products that are intricately crafted and painted, and is so good at his work that he frequently gets commissioned work for export.
Although a man of few words, Juju is very dedicated to his work. “His creative energy is high and it needs an outlet. If he stops working he gets sick,” his wife says laughingly. She helps him in his work by sourcing his materials and communicating with the suppliers. “He is very easy to work with,” says Lorina. “If I come to him with a design, he immediately grasps it and makes it exactly as I envisioned it. He also comes up with new designs all the time and is always ahead of schedule—I have to ask him to slow down and not work so hard!” Juju is so dedicated to his work that Lorina and Juju’s wife had to join forces to stop him working when his prescription glasses were getting replaced so that he would not strain his eyes.
However Juju, who has recovered from partial paralysis, believes that being idle makes him sick so he is always busy. “I need work. I can’t be without work,” he says. He admits to feeling restless unless he is working on something. He believes that as long as he is able he will keep on working.
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