India’s Rug Saint
Nand Kishore Chaudhary built Jaipur Rugs into a runaway success by working closely with India’s poorest citizens, and by developing an apprenticeship system around India’s chronic battles with child labor. How do such difficult pieces fit into India’s social and economic puzzle?
By CATHRYN JAKOBSON RAMIN
He is a quiet man, and slight, wearing a well-worn white dress shirt with the collar buttoned all the way up to the neck. On a Sunday night in January, the two of us are sitting at a battered conference table at his company’s head office, in Jaipur, India, in what is rapidly becoming an unnerving silence. Nand Kishore Chaudhary’s limited English leaves him reluctant to speak, which makes me all the more curious about him and his work. From what I’ve been able to learn thus far, for the last four decades this man has built a big, highly successful company—essentially, by listening to his heart.
Back in 1978, long before terms like “corporate social responsibility,” “fair trade,” and “sustainability” became part of the popular conversation, Chaudhary set out to improve the lives of rural artisans—and, in particular, to empower large numbers of disenfranchised women of rural India. The enterprise he built, Jaipur Rugs Company (JRC), now dominates the hand-knotted carpet manufacturing and exporting business across the continent’s broad belly and well into the north.
Chaudhary’s success is legendary. He established 6,000 handlooms in 600 villages that lie in some of the most impoverished regions of India. His rugs are sold in 45 countries; just in the U.S., JRC has 5,000 retail clients—a customer base that has resulted in a fast growth-curve, with sales of $20 million in 2017. Over the course of a year, his company engages approximately 40,000 people, more than 80 percent of whom are female.
“Although many companies do not recognize this, sustainability is not only about protecting the environment, and economic stability,” Chaudhary says. “It’s about bringing dignity into the lives of people.”
But the most astounding part of Chaudhary’s formula may be how closely he has worked with India’s lowest class of citizens. To Chaudhary, this was simply common sense—and the only way to honor the true meaning of sustainability. “Although many companies do not recognize this, sustainability is not only about protecting the environment, and economic stability,” he says. “It’s about bringing dignity into the lives of people.”
In building this third leg of sustainability, Chaudhary found a deep source of inspiration. “I think the most perfect place for me is in the villages,” he says. “I enjoy very much working with those people. I learned the wisdom from them. The more connected we are with them, then things get much easier.”
But how could it be easy, in a country famously structured around a strict caste system, to build a business with society’s least educated class? To do so, Chaudhary also has had to work in an industry dogged by child labor issues. I wanted to know how he had managed to navigate these dark waters.
The Dalit, formerly called “Untouchables,” are considered “impure and polluting” and are therefore excluded, and isolated. In one case, an educated Dalit who grew a mustache and fashioned it like Dali was beaten up. In Gujarat, a young man who fancied a horse was brutally murdered.
As a young man in his hometown of Churu, deep in the desert region of Rajasthan, Chaudhary worked as a salesman in his family’s shoe shop, but hated it. Then, to his family’s dismay, he turned down a job at a bank.
One day, in 1975, a young British art historian named Ilay Cooper, who was traveling across India on a second-hand bicycle, wandered into the shoe shop. He and Chaudhary struck up what would become an enduring friendship. Cooper had cycled through the most inaccessible parts of northwestern India, encountering a tribal population that faced rampant discrimination and deep, generational poverty. While traveling through a series of “painted towns”—merchants’ houses with wall after wall of meticulously painted patterns—Cooper recognized that the region’s once-robust design tradition had been largely abandoned. Pained by this loss, Cooper encouraged Chaudhary to think about making his future in handmade carpets—and to do so in a place where there were few options for employment beyond seasonal farming and breaking rocks for construction.
When Chaudhary presented the idea to his family (who were firmly entrenched in the merchant caste), they were furious; they wanted nothing to do with handwork, which was generally done by those at the bottom of India’s social ladder. But Chaudhary felt he had nothing to lose. “My whole family was very different from me,” he says. “They were not so innocent, or honest. I thought they were hypocrites, and most of them didn’t like me.”
Determined to start a business of his own, Chaudhary coaxed his father into giving him a $200 loan, which he used to buy two handlooms and a motor scooter. But when he set nine male weavers to work inside the courtyard of his home, the objections were loud and immediate. “My own family, my friends, my neighbors tried to stop me,” Chaudhary says. “They told me that I could not work with the untouchable people, but this did not make sense to me. The people I was working with, they had been rejected by society. Nobody was taking care of them.”
The week before I visited one of the villages of weavers who work with Jaipur Rugs, I was asked by Meghna Jain, head of research and corporate communication for the company at the time, if I would eat lunch prepared by the weavers. This puzzled me—why would I refuse a delicious, homemade meal?
I soon learned that, like 90 percent of JRC’s rug-makers, the residents of this village (Aaspura) are Dalit—the name now used to describe India’s poorest and most marginalized class of citizens, a group long called “Untouchables.” Although the government banned this pejorative classification in 1947, it has stubbornly stuck.
In Sanskrit, Dalit means “broken, ground-down, downtrodden, or oppressed.” One out of every six Indians is Dalit, and thereby relegated to the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system (which is led by the Brahmins, then followed by the Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra, and finally Dalit).
According to the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, throughout much of Indian society, Dalit are traditionally considered “impure and polluting and are therefore physically and socially excluded and isolated.” And it can be worse. “They are murdered for wearing a watch or footwear,” says Sujatha Gidla, author of “Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India”. In an email, Gidla offered the following examples: “There is a case of an educated, untouchable man who grew his mustache and fashioned it like Dali. He was beaten up. A young man who fancied owning a horse was brutally murdered in Gujarat.”
Typically, Dalit may not enter non-Dalit homes, eat with members of higher castes, enter temples, or sit in proximity to those above them. Most Indians from the higher castes would not accept food from a Dalit kitchen.
Once deductions were made for food and water, medicine, and errors in their work, children were paid about 11 cents an hour.
The traditional reason for this restriction, which usually goes unmentioned, is that in India, where every second person relieves himself outdoors, “manual scavenging”—removing untreated human excreta from bucket toilets and tin plates, and transferring to baskets that are carried to disposal locations—is the traditional occupation of the Dalit (and one of the few jobs available to them). There are standard toilet rooms, of course, often installed with government funds—but in many Indian communities, both urban and rural, indoor toilets are considered unpleasant and unhealthy.
After we had visited some of the homes in Aaspura, when it was time to have lunch Meghna Jain and I peeked into the village’s communal kitchen—a space about 5-by-6 feet in dimension, and equipped with a large tank of propane that fueled a shiny, two-burner gas range. Several women squatted close to the floor, frying the crispy, crunchy shakarpara, which are made from milk, sugar, flour, and ghee in the hottest oil. As I gobbled my curry, followed by the shakarpara, the women watched me through their scarves, from around the edges of a doorway, apparently amazed at my willingness to take food from their hands.
Soon after Chaudhary had launched his business, his friend Ilay Cooper offered another suggestion: Chaudhary should train and employ women and girls, who were not permitted to attend school, make household decisions, or move about without being supervised by a male relative. Chaudhary thought of his wife, Sulochana. His Churu relatives treated her poorly, and given the status quo, his daughters would not fare much better.
By 1986, Chaudhary’s weavers were producing enough rugs to allow him to start an export business (and to take on his younger brother as an assistant). To expand further, Chaudhary and his family left Churu for Gujarat, one of the poorest regions in India.
When Chaudhary arrived in Gujarat, the villagers, not understanding his intentions, greeted him by brandishing weapons and threatening his family. To convince them that he meant no harm, on his subsequent visits Chaudhary brought his young daughters with him, fording rivers and barely passable dirt roads to reach inaccessible villages. Slowly, word spread that Chaudhary came in peace—and with employment opportunities. After 3 years, he had done more than gain people’s trust; he had trained 3,000 weavers, increasing his production more than ten-fold—enough to warrant another move, this time to Jaipur, a more cosmopolitan hub.
Traditionally—because of the complexity of the global rug supply chain, and the vast distances involved—Indian carpet exporters doled out each stage of production to contractors and subcontractors. This created a parade of middlemen who managed the intricacies of acquiring raw materials, spinning, dyeing, weaving, finishing, and finally, distribution. [For a glimpse of each step in this process, see our photo gallery, “The Art and Craft of a Hand-Knotted Rug”.] Meanwhile, the artisans who actually made the rugs were treated like faceless weaving machines, receiving miniscule and unpredictable wages that left them constantly on the verge of ruin.
To survive in such a system, the artisans took loans from the middlemen at unspecified interest rates, which were repaid from their wages, further diminishing their income. It was only a matter of time before a family needed another advance; if someone died or left the village, the debt was transferred from one generation to the next. In many cases, parents had to send their children to work in a carpet factory (after accepting a small advance payment from a persuasive but often dishonest recruiter who worked for a factory owner). Once deductions were made for food and water, medicine, and errors in their work, children were paid about 11 cents an hour. [For a summary of rug-making’s long and fascinating history in India, see our sidebar, “The Circuitous History of India’s Handmade Carpets”.]
Finding this system abhorrent, Chaudhary adopted a policy of no loans, and no middlemen. And he wanted the women he worked with to take charge of their own futures. These ambitions meant having to create his own extended supply chain, and manage it step by step. It took Chaudhary years to accomplish this, but once his system was in place, with no middlemen to take their cut, Jaipur Rugs became more profitable.
This allowed Chaudhary to raise his weavers’ wages, JRC says, to double what others paid, and still remain competitive in the upper range of the hand-knotted rug market. At retail, most of JRC’s top-of-the-line wool and silk rugs cost about the same as comparable high-end, hand-knotted rugs from other companies, between $5-$8,000 for a rug that measures 8 by 10 feet. JRC is less forthcoming about its weavers’ wages, so the best information I could find was in a 10-year-old study, by C.K. Prahalad, the late Professor of Corporate Strategy at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. In 2008, Prahalad reported, JRC weavers were paid between 1,300 and 3,000 Rupees, which at that time equated to $28 to $65 a month. While these wages seem meager, Prahalad found they were roughly twice what other handcrafts paid, and up to 10 times what could be earned in agriculture.
To pull all this off, Chaudhary made contact, in 2005, with Harold Rosen, who directs a highly-regarded social enterprise called Grassroots Business Fund. Having spent two decades as director of emerging markets investments for the International Finance Corporation (a member of the World Bank Group), Rosen had been a pioneer in the field of microfinance for social enterprises.
In Jaipur Rugs, Rosen believed he’d spotted a strategy that had staying power—and that could be applied to other businesses. “No one could question Chaudhary’s bona fides—his values, vision, and social impact,” Rosen says, “but running a company requires more than that; there’s a certain amount of blocking and tackling involved.” For a year and a half, Rosen’s firm helped Chaudhary navigate the complexities of what he called “triple bottom-line accounting,” in which financial, environmental, and social impact all play a part. Then, in 2008, Rosen invested in JRC. The amount is undisclosed, but it was enough to make Jaipur Rugs the largest in GBF’s portfolio today, a position that Rosen expects JRC to maintain.
Just as Rosen’s firm was helping Chaudhary move into his next phase of business development, JRC fell on some tough times. Around the world, wholesale customers were tuning into the issues surrounding child labor, suddenly boycotting handmade rugs in favor of cheap, machine-made carpets. “Profit margins were slipping,” Chaudhary says, “and we no longer understood what the customer wanted. We wondered if we were going to survive.”
In 2010, Chaudhary made a fortunate connection. Bain & Company, a Boston-based global consulting firm, had organized a meeting in Rajasthan with social, religious, government, and business leaders, to help them cope with a fast-changing global economy. While attending the meeting, Chaudhary and his daughter, Kavita, hit it off with Bain’s partners; they invited the Bain team to visit JRC headquarters, and to then take a field trip to a weaving village. Impressed by how closely Chaudhary had preserved his original intent, the consultants asked him to teach other big-company executives how to clarify a company’s mission, and stick with it. In exchange, Bain provided services to JRC pro bono.
At Bain’s suggestion, Chaudhary set up a social enterprise, the Jaipur Rugs Foundation, to expand JRC’s work in labor rights, human rights, sustainable development, and the elimination of corruption in business. Bain also helped Chaudhary lay down an unusual mission statement, making it clear that the weavers’ welfare came before profit, and before growth, and that this was non-negotiable. “I had no confidence in what I was doing,” Chaudhary says, “until the Bain people tell me that I am doing it right. It made a big difference for me.”
Despite Chaudhary’s efforts, over the next few years the child labor stigma that surrounded India’s hand-knotted rugs continued to grow. This was partly spurred by Harvard University’s Siddharth Kara, an international expert on human trafficking and modern slavery, who released a report in 2014 entitled “Tainted Carpets: Slavery and Child Labor in India’s Hand-Made Carpet Sector”. The report stated that 28 million carpet slaves were working under conditions that “were nothing short of sub-human.”
When Kara traced carpets from factories that use bonded and child labor to big box stores and other large retailers, those retailers cancelled their orders. Then, instead of mending their ways, some of the carpet exporters quickly changed their names and were back in business.
Even before Kara published his findings, carpet exporters had joined organizations that purported to scrutinize their supply chains. Those that did not show evidence of child slavery could be certified accordingly, and their carpets labeled as clean. Through advertising campaigns, consumers were encouraged to check for these labels, but the system was far from foolproof. The certifying organizations collected fees from both carpet exporters and retailers, creating what some—including Chaudhary—thought was a perverse incentive to turn a blind eye. It would be impossible, explained Yash Ranga, JRC’s “director of stakeholder engagement,” for any certifying body to effectively inspect a disparate supply chain stretching across tens of thousands of miles, incorporating artisans and handlooms in hundreds of villages.
Our trip from Jaipur to Aaspura took a little over an hour. At one point, we joined a few artisans at a loom that already held several feet of knotting—the beginning of an abstract design suggesting a clearing sky after a heavy rain. I was still admiring the complexity of the pattern when the women invited me to try making my own knots at the loom.
Even the eldest of them could pretzel themselves onto the plank with ease, their buttocks nearly grazing the ground; my fruitless efforts to approximate this position provided considerable entertainment. Eventually, I was close enough to the loom to attempt a knot, with fingers that felt as nimble as sausages. An experienced weaver can tie six or more complex knots a minute. When I finally got one awkward slipknot tied, everyone cheered.
As the women worked, a little girl sat between her mother and her aunt—seemingly content but perilously close to a flying, scythe-shaped knife that the weavers use to clip the tail off every knot. Quickly, Jain shooed the child away. “There was a time,” she said, “when children were forced to be part of this trade. But today, this is no longer the case. Now, there are random checks by the government, and if child labor is seen, the carpet distributor can be blacklisted.”
I would soon learn that things weren’t quite that simple. For starters, defining what is—and what is not —child labor is a troublesome matter in India.
By Indian law, children who are 14 and over are permitted to work. And in most communities, they must contribute substantially to the family’s income to assure a degree of financial stability. This is one reason why Chaudhary could not endorse the basic premise of the carpet-certifying organizations—that children, guided by their relatives, should be prohibited from apprenticing at the looms. In economically advantaged societies, where higher education is available, this might make sense. But in remote areas, where jobs for women are unavailable, and educational opportunities sparse, a young girl’s best opportunity to develop employable skills is often alongside her mother.
Granted, there is self-interest involved; by training young weavers, Jaipur Rugs maintains an enduring labor pool. Still, Chaudhary firmly believes that when children know that paying work awaits, they are more likely to remain in their rural villages, rather than emigrating to the cities, where conditions for the barely educated rural poor are invariably worse. [For a complete discussion of the situation, please see our sidebar, “The Child Labor Dilemma”.]
In the midst of these child-labor squabbles, Bain’s consultants suggested that, instead of mimicking his competitors’ duck-and-cover approach, Chaudhary treat the situation as a marketing opportunity: Why not emphasize the ways that his company was helping families?
After my lunch in Aaspura, I’d barely licked the shakarpara’s sweetness from my lips when two small girls rushed over to place a bindi on my forehead, the colored dot that married women wear to fend off bad luck. Three toddlers promptly crawled into my lap. “Kushi kushi,” the women said. “Happy, happy,” Jain translated. “They say, ‘now you have some grandchildren.’”
Insignificant as it may sound to Westerners, it’s a big deal here that this woman can make decisions about how her household runs, and travel for work on her own. Her mother was not permitted to “step out” of her home—literally, to cross its threshold.
Tugging me to my feet, the girls led me down puddled streets, past skinny cows, rusty bicycles and motorbikes, and glossy-coated, long-eared goats, to show me the handlooms in the courtyards of their homes, all of which were swept clean. The looms were striking things—constructed from rough-hewn branches and tree trunks, their warps strung with long, thick threads of cotton. Children were everywhere—on hips, in arms, on backs. Their clothes were clean, and often neatly ironed. Unlike the kids I’d seen on India’s city streets, no one was emaciated or staring glassy-eyed.
In a rush of enthusiasm, a teenage girl proudly showed me a framed award that her mother, Sajna, had won in 2016. Jain explained that some years ago, Sajna had been diagnosed with stomach cancer. After four months of medical treatment, which left her depleted and depressed, JRC invited her to weave a rug of her own design. Her creation depicted the organs of her body, as she imagined them, set among flowers and plants.
Once the rug was completed, Françoise Aubry, the curator of the Horta Museum in Brussels, purchased the work. (The price is unknown, but tribal carpets of this kind, made from rough wool, are typically less expensive than Jaipur Rugs’ high-end carpets, costing around $4,000.) When I asked Aubry what had drawn her, she wrote: “I have no passion for rugs, but I have found in the work of Sajna a spirit and a freshness that touched my heart immediately.”
On my last morning in India, I returned to JRC’s head office for a look at its finished rugs, and for a final chat with Chaudhary. My driver turned off the main thoroughfare, into the modern neighborhood of Mansarovar, where boxy white condos and high-rise shopping malls stood between empty lots. Driving down a bumpy street and through a guard gate, we entered the driveway of the commercial and industrial complex that includes the Chaudharys’ family home.
StartiI arrived at 8:30 am, just as the first employees were starting to pass through the gate. Chaudhary’s daughter, Kavita, who is the company’s design director, started my tour in the carpet display room, where, with a grand thump and roll, several beautiful specimens from her “Kavi Collection”—joyful explosions of texture and color in wool and silk—were presented for my inspection. We sat crosslegged on a carpet that had recently returned from the finishing plant. I was hoping to stay where I was, petting the rug’s silky softness, but I instead followed Kavita into the design room, where brilliantly colored, pixelated patterns were undergoing modification on a dozen computer monitors.
Tying hundreds of thousands of tiny knots requires dexterity and rigorous focus. The work is exacting, but mechanical, and spending months knotting hundreds of yards of yarn can feel both soulless and endless. To facilitate the work, JRC employs huge printers, which spew out rainbow-colored paper maps that weavers use to guide them, pixel by pixel, stitch by stitch. Each square of the map represents an inch of knotting, and the color key tells the weaver which hank of wool or silk is up next. The system reminded me of the paint-by-number kits of my youth. [To watch this process unfold, please watch our mini-documentary, “India’s New Carpet Weavers”.]
Starting in 2010, JRC decided to give a group of artisans, selected from a special training session, a chance to weave carpets of their own design, without guidance from the colored maps. This, too, was a big first. A weaver named Mamtra said that when she faced the empty strings on the loom, she experienced an overwhelming sense of anxiety, and stopped eating and sleeping. “But when I finally got started,” she said, “it seemed like bliss to me.” Rugs made by these weavers were then marketed under a separate line, called Artisan Originals.
In jewel tones, with rust and brown, the artisans made rugs that reflected the particulars of their lives: hills, roses, lotus flowers, goats, cows, dogs, cooking vessels and utensils, even the ever-present shakapara. The designs were perfectly imperfect, said Jain, “and they created a craze. They sold out. People saw great beauty in their authenticity.” Each rug was shipped with a personal note from the artisan who made it, and customers often wrote back, enclosing snapshots of the rugs on the floors of their homes.
The Artisan Originals program, which began as way to take the edge off the tedium of hand-knotting, soon became a centerpiece of JRC’s marketing campaigns. In 2017, at the Carpet Design Awards at Domotex in Hanover, Germany, an event that is widely regarded as the Oscars of the international carpet avant garde, a collection of Kavita’s designs called “Unstring,” with nearly 200,000 asymmetric knots of hand-carded, hand-spun wool and bamboo silk in every square meter, won Best Modern Collection out of 386 entries from 21 countries. It was the first Indian collection to ever win this award. Two other rugs, which Kavita conceived of after crushing foil paper and observing how the light fell on the resulting creases and crevices, were also Domotex winners. Suddenly, JRC carpets had achieved the status of an authentic luxury brand.
The awards made JRC the darling of the international design community, but Chaudhary was equally excited about the success of one Aaspura weaver (Bimla Devi), whose rug won the German Design Award, beating 5,000 applicants from 56 countries. Accompanied by Kavita, Bimla traveled from rural Rajasthan to Frankfurt to collect her prize before a cheering audience. In September of 2018, several other weavers will travel to Paris to participate in a design trade show, where JRC will set up a loom and a spinning wheel. The weavers will demonstrate how they tie knots, and visitors will be encouraged to test the dexterity of their own fingers.
Jaipur Rug Company’s marketing campaign features eye-catching photography of women in their villages, both at their looms and going about their lives. The photos are gritty and beautiful, full of texture and color. In each ad, the company’s motto, “Made with a family’s blessing,” drives the message home.
To introduce people to the scenes that make such photos possible, and to prove they are real, JRC regularly takes visitors to the company’s weaving villages, sometimes setting out on multi-day treks. “They can come for as many days as they like,” Jain explained, “and see as many villages as they wish, and question the weavers directly to understand the conditions.”
During my trip to Aaspura, Jain introduced me to a woman named Prem Devi, who at the age of 33 became the village’s bunkar sakhi, or “weaver’s friend”—JRC’ version of a quality assurance officer. (JRC employs a bunkar sakhi in all of its weaving villages.) As was common for village girls, Prem’s schooling was limited; it ended in fifth grade, before she was literate, but through the Jaipur Rug Foundation’s adult education program she had learned to read and write.
In a culture where, for a woman, such a job is an anomaly, Prem Devi holds a newfound position of respect—from both her mother-in-law and her husband. Insignificant as it may sound to Westerners, it’s a big deal here that Prem can make decisions about how her household runs, and travel for work on her own. Her mother, Prem Devi explains, was not permitted to “step out” of her home—literally, to cross its threshold.
Over the next four years, under a U.N. program called Every Woman, Every Child, JRC will provide job training to 4,000 women, functional literacy to 2,000, and access to healthcare to 12,000 women and children. JRC is also working with several other U.N.-affiliated organizations to help businesses throughout South Asia and Africa operate with a greater sense of social responsibility
When I asked Natalie Africa, the U.N. program’s senior director of global health and private sector engagement, what made JRC stand out, she said, “It’s Mr. Chaudhary, who set up a company for the specific purpose of serving people who are ignored and neglected, and have nothing.” William Kennedy, the senior program officer at the United Nations Office for Partnerships, where he is responsible for a large portfolio of global development projects, was even more expansive. “I think these guys are about as committed to an inclusive social enterprise as anybody I’ve ever met,” he said. “They’re engaging tens of thousands of marginal, rural artisans, giving them an opportunity for a decent livelihood, and focusing on the socioeconomic development of their communities. They’re allowing women to contribute to the socioeconomic welfare of their households and communities, in a very significant way. I mean, maybe there are better examples out there, but I’m not aware of any.”
At this point, I could sense I was on verge of a love fest, so I tried to take a hard look at the facts. Without a doubt, women who would have remained illiterate and restricted were getting educated and traveling to big cities in both India and Europe. They would see a much larger world, filled with riches, far removed from their own lives, and bring news of it back to their families. In the end, this was bound to be a mixed blessing. It would open their eyes, not only to what Westerners take for granted but also to what is likely to remain forever out of their reach.
Regardless of how one feels about those outcomes, a large piece of this achievement belongs to Jaipur Rugs. Through its founder’s efforts, clearly heartfelt from the beginning, the company has successfully re-conceptualized what it means for India’s underclass—including its children—to learn a craft and live a dignified life.
In our final moments together before I head for the airport, I ask Chaudhary whether the work with the U.N. organizations will be his legacy. A humble man, he shrugs. “I am not interested to talk about legacy,” he says. “That is for my children to decide.” Instead, he returns to the subject of love. “People were thinking that I was senseless and not a businessman, because I never talk about business,” he says. “The weavers gave me love, and I could give it back. That is why we can produce quality items and on-time deliveries. That is why we have we have been so successful.”