Threading the needle: How a differently abled Dalit man from Belgaum mastered stitching, creating art from scrap

Sunil Shastri, a self-taught tailor from the Karadaga village in Belgaum, suffers from Usher Syndrome, which affects one's vision and hearing. He has stunned the people of his community with his ability to stitch perfect hand-bags and work with dangerous materials

Sanket Jain April 24, 2019 13:51:53 IST
  • Sunil Shastri, a self-taught tailor from the Karadaga village in Belgaum, suffers from Usher Syndrome, which affects one's vision and hearing.

  • People who visit the Shastri family are stunned by self-taught tailor Sunil's ability to thread a needle with precision and stitch perfect hand-bags.

  • Sunil works and innovates constantly, often turning scrap material into decorative items.

“When people hear about my son, the first thought that comes to their minds is 'How does he thread a needle?'” says Sindhutai Shastri, a 72-year-old retired school teacher. Sindhutai believes that her 42-year-old son Sunil — the youngest of her children — is capable of inspiring everyone who meets him. From his early days, Sunil has been deaf, mute and suffering from night blindness. Twelve years ago, he completely lost his eyesight. But these life changes have not taken away his passion for art or his empathy. “Today, he stitches hand-made bags and crafts brooms, all without being able to see,” exclaims Sindhutai.

From learning to achieving excellence

A Dalit from the Karadaga village in the Chikodi taluka of Belgaum, Karnataka, Sunil has Usher Syndrome, which affects one's hearing and vision. He couldn’t study after Class V because of the lack of schools for children with special needs. A self-taught tailor, he has a lot of tailor friends in the village. “Previously, he used to spend a lot of time with them, and that’s how he picked up the skills,” says Sindhutai. In the beginning, he would also practise with his mother.

Threading the needle How a differently abled Dalit man from Belgaum mastered stitching creating art from scrap

Sunil Shastri. All photographs by the author

He stitches handbags, blankets, small bags which can be used to carry lunch boxes, and even his own clothes on a sewing machine. For every handbag, he charges Rs 250. “People negotiate the price and buy them for as less as Rs 150,” says Sindhutai, “He is very particular about the quality... He always tells me that people shouldn’t complain about the quality and stitching just because I can’t see!”

In 2018, he received bag orders worth roughly Rs 5000. To stitch each bag, it takes Sunil eight hours spread across one day. “Sometimes, if he can’t sleep at night, he wakes up and begins working. He doesn’t need any light to work,” she explains. He gets a monthly pension of Rs 1400, which isn’t adequate to meet even the basic needs of the family.

Threading the needle How a differently abled Dalit man from Belgaum mastered stitching creating art from scrap

Everyone is curious to know about Sunil's tailoring skills, his family members assert. “A lot of villagers visit to see how he threads the needle, and they are always left awestruck,” says Sindhutai. Sunil uses an electric wire to thread a needle. He bends the wire, which helps him to achieve this task with precision. He uses his hands and fingers for calculations and marks a few equidistant cuts on the cloth. This technique helps him design a handbag perfectly. He detests seeking help from others when it comes to tailoring or any other of his crafts.

If there are special orders, he asks his family members to get the required material. Sindhutai taught him how to read and write and ensured that he picked up these skills too. “If I have to explain something to him, I write it on his hands,” she says.

On one side of his sewing machine table, Sunil has attached a powerful magnet which holds together all the nails, pins, and other metallic materials required for tailoring. “He is very organised and knows his work through and through,” says his elder brother Shekhar, 53, who is the headmaster of a school in the nearby Boragaon village.

Threading the needle How a differently abled Dalit man from Belgaum mastered stitching creating art from scrap

Making the most of limited resources

Sunil loves converting scrap into decorative items. “He never sits idle. He finds something or the other to experiment with,” his mother says. Recently, he crafted a pen stand using waste bamboo sticks that he had found. Sunil is a big believer in the idea of using science to organise life better. A few years ago, he attached a powerful magnet to his walking stick. “This magnet attracts the waste nails and metal objects lying around and protects him from possible injury. He collects the waste nails and then uses them in the machines or experiments,” says Sindhutai proudly.

He once made a manual drilling machine using waste metals and wood. He also made a few carpentry tools, like the randa machine. After losing his eyesight, he crafted a bat for his son using the
leftover wood. Six months ago, Sunil designed a 3D structure of a house using cardboard boxes and waste paper. “We couldn’t believe that he could design it so perfectly, showcasing even the stairs,” said Suresh, 48, one of his elder brothers.

Threading the needle How a differently abled Dalit man from Belgaum mastered stitching creating art from scrap

Expanding his repertoire

Before Sunil lost his eyesight completely, he was a prolific painter and a sketch artist. At the age of six, he drew a sketch of his father dropping his mother to school on a cycle, on a blackboard. “That’s when we discovered his love for drawing,” says Sindhutai.

Threading the needle How a differently abled Dalit man from Belgaum mastered stitching creating art from scrap

He would paint landscapes in colour and portraits in monochrome. “He would use the soot left behind after preparing food using firewood and paint pictures,” says Suresh. Some of the subjects of his portraits have been social reformers like Babasaheb Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi, Bhagat Singh, and Jyotirao Phule.

He has also expanded his repertoire to several other art forms like designing rangolis and manually printing T-shirts. He has developed a special art form wherein he creates creases on card sheets using nails. The outcome is wonderful designs and paintings. He has made 40 such postcards-sized paintings on white card sheets.

Threading the needle How a differently abled Dalit man from Belgaum mastered stitching creating art from scrap

Threading the needle How a differently abled Dalit man from Belgaum mastered stitching creating art from scrap

Sunil risks his life every day by crafting brooms using a sharp knife. He uses dried coconut tree leaves from his garden and can craft a single broom in 45 minutes. These brooms fetch a price of Rs 30 in the village.

A tale of inspiration and thanksgiving

A few years ago, Sindhutai’s phone cracked because it fell to the ground. When Sunil heard about the damage, he immediately started stitching a pouch with a handle for her. “He asked me to keep the phone in this pouch and always tie the pouch to my hand." Sunil’s wife Sarita, who is in her late 30s, is also a tailor. Despite his ability to innovate and work with a number of materials and techniques, Sindhutai often finds Sunil asking her about what he will do with his life, comparing himself to his brothers, who are all teachers. In response, she smiles at him and reminds him of his art and talents.

Threading the needle How a differently abled Dalit man from Belgaum mastered stitching creating art from scrap

As I begin to leave, Sunil uses sign language to ask his mother if I watched him stitch, and if I had a good time. Sindhutai makes hand signals and twirls her fingers to say yes. With a smile, Sunil returns to working on his next handbag. “He has no guru [teacher]. He is his own guru,” says Sindhutai proudly.

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