As the winter sun started to set over a jungle in central India, I watched my white sneakers slowly turn a shade of dusty red. Walking down the path to Dhonk’s open air workshop, I am heading to my next artisan partner in the heartland of the mighty Bengal tiger. I am here to create the next JULAHAS collection which reflects everything we stand for -- natural, sizeless, timeless and handcrafted.

Famed for its Project Tiger Reserve Forest, UNESCO-listed Ranthambore is especially busy. Every day cantas (open air cars) make their way into the jungles before the crack of dawn for a Safari and glimpse of the majestic tiger. But over the recent years, as boundaries between man and animal blurred, tigers needed protection. With poaching and overgrazing decimating Ranthambore’s tiger population.

The only way to conserve the tiger’s habitat and reduce poaching was to offer economic alternatives to the indigenous communities living around the forest. And that mammoth task was taken up by sustainable social enterprise Dhonk, an arm of Tiger Watch. Training and empowering the tigers’ neighbours; showing them that it was possible to earn a living while respecting our eco-system. A majority of the women whom they train are the wives of former poachers and belong to the local Moghiya community.   

What had excited me most about Dhonk was the lofty challenge it had set for itself. What convinced me to get on a plane in Amsterdam and make the 6,500 km journey to Sawai Madhopur, was the promise to be a part of this commendable effort to make a real difference.

Divya, the founder of Dhonk, had warned me when we first spoke, “Kanak, what I do isn’t easy. A majority of my team belong to families of reformed poachers. We have trained them in the art of kashida embroidery and block printing, so that the products they create can give them an alternative livelihood. But for many tribal communities, poaching is still a way of life and that’s the mindset we are trying to change here.”

That evening as I walked down the dusty path to their workshop, in the middle of the forest, I was greeted with colourful cloth streamers decorated with tiger prints gently blowing in the wind, with intricate patterns on the ground and a distinct whirring of a sewing machine. In another corner, I heard that ‘thap, thap, thap’ of blockprints being fixed on cloth, with a thumping of a steady fist. A middle-aged lady, head covered with her saree, comes to me and asks, “didi, chai?” (sister, will you have a cup of tea?). I knew instantly, I was at the right place.