About 400 workers walk on muddy tracks sandwiched between railway tracks and multiple cow sheds to reach the Gandhiji Prem Nivas Leprosy Centre every day, except Sunday. Here, workers, once leprosy patients who got healed, produce distinctive blue-and-white border saris — they are worn exclusively by Missionaries of Charity (MoC) nuns across 749 centres over 120 countries, including the Vatican City. A five-minute walk from Titagarh Railway Station in North 24 Parganas district, this centre is the only place in the world — run by MoC Sisters and maintained by MoC Brothers, where these unique saris are produced.
Recently, the-blue-and-white sari, first worn by Saint Teresa (known as Mother Teresa before her canonisation last September), has been recognised as the Intellectual Property of the Missionaries of Charity, which was founded by her. The unique pattern is now a registered trademark with the government of India’s Trade Marks Registry and no one can use that border design without the permission of the MoC.
According to the official website of Mother Teresa of Calcutta Centre, the Mother used to buy these saris from Harrison Road (now known as Mahatma Gandhi Road) in Kolkata in 1948. The three blue borders of the sari signify the vows that the nuns at MoC take. “The first band represents poverty, the second obedience, and, the third broad band represents the vows of chastity and wholehearted service to the poorest of the poor,” says Brother Harry D’Souza, in-charge of the handloom at the Centre. Saint Teresa and the MoC nuns continued wearing the saris till it became very difficult to get them in large numbers.
Workers at the loom. (Express photo by Subham Dutta)
Eventually, the MoC, which had set up Gandhiji Prem Nivas Leprosy Centre in 1979 for leprosy patients, decided to give these patients the work of weaving this particular saris for its nuns. “Since then, these patients weave the saris. But they are not sold to outsiders. Only MoC nuns get to wear them once they take their first vow after five years of training. This is the only place in the world which produces this sari,” says the director of the Centre, Brother Marianus.
The workers get Rs 6,000 per month, and, sometimes, a bonus if they produce more saris. “We also provide food, clothing and medical care. We have set up three nivas (quarter) for them. Those who have settled outside the centre come regularly to work here,” says Marianus.
Out of 50 looms at the Centre, only seven are used for weaving the saris, which are called Sister Saris. “Besides Sister Saris, workers here produce bedsheets, bandages and uniforms for leprosy patients at various centres,” says D’Souza.
Mithun Haldar, 26, who has worked at the Centre for the last 10 years, was happy to learn that the border of the Sisters Saris has been recognised as the intellectual property of MoC. “It is good to know that no one except us can make these saris now,” he says.
“I had come here as a patient in 1978. When the centre was set up, I was given a job. Since then I have been working here,” says Shefali Roy who has been associated with the centre for the last 40 years.
After the completion of the weaving processes, the saris are sent for packaging. The packed saris are then sent to Nirmala Shishu Bhavan at Lower Circular Road in Kolkata from where the saris are distributed to the centres of MoC across the world.