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On our recent trip to India, we had the privilege and honour of meeting an amazing artisan and advocate in the city of Mysore. Nishhat Afza is an interior designer, educator, artist, and community advocate. In 1989, Nishhat faced a personal financial crisis, and turned her hobbies of interior design and handicraft-work into a profession.

However, Nishhat has been using her artisanal talents to help others for much longer then she has used it as a source of income herself. Citing her mother as her role model, Nishhat was influenced to help those more impoverished then herself at a very young age. Her mother, Vahida, runs the Fathima Women and Child Welfare Department, which helps conduct free classes for impoverished primary school children.

This influence led Nishhat to start training maids in the art of handicraft-making. She noted that it was very difficult for elderly maids to work as they became increasingly physically weak due to age, and realized that handicraft-work would be a less-physically strenuous way for them to live a reasonably good life. Moreover, realizing that handicraft work could be a way to ensure a better future for impoverished children, Nishhat focused on training children in the arts, as well. At the age of 49, Nishhat has trained more than 1,000 poor people in Mysore, particularly those in rural areas, for free. Through this selfless work, she has created a platform to improve their economic and social status, in addition to their self-confidence. Besides, running free training programs through her own institute, she collaborates with local non-profits, women’s associations and schools to run free workshops in tailoring, textile design, and other arts.

A particularly interesting example of the work she does is the exhibition and sales stalls that she has created to provide employment to the women that have helped manufacture handicraft products (thanks to Nishhat’s training). A portion of the sales proceeds go to providing services to the disadvantaged, more technical training, and maintenance of her organization. The other portion goes to the artisans who created the products.

Through her business venture in interior design Nishhat’s financial status has improved, however, she still faces many hurdles. Yet despite these obstacles, she never forgets her goal to help poor students with books and clothes, and improve the lives of those in her community (particularly women).

Nishhat has received over 30 awards in different competitions and events for various artistic works. Though she has a university degree that could have enabled her to lead a comfortable middle class life, she has chosen to use the arts as a medium to help the poor for over 2 decades. For her dedication to enabling down-trodden women and children to rise above their poverty through the arts, this year she has received the Bharat Ratan Vikas Award, India’s highest civilian award.

A testament to humility and passion, the award sits in a corner of her classroom, in the shadows of her overwhelming desire to change lives, one lesson at a time.