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Lincoln Square Holiday Tree Decorations Made by India's 'Untouchables'

By Leslie Albrecht | November 29, 2011 8:50am

UPPER WEST SIDE — Discarded candy wrappers from the streets of rural India have found new life as colorful flower-like Christmas tree ornaments in Dante Park.

Hundreds of people admired the Lincoln Square Business Improvement District's holiday tree as it was lit up during Monday's BID's annual Winter's Eve street festival. But few who looked at the tree at West 63rd Street and Broadway realized it was adorned by ornaments made by by women considered "untouchable" in India because they're members of a low caste community, the Merasi people.

Merasi children collected the discarded candy wrappers, then Merasi women washed, folded and sewed them into the flower-shaped ornaments in Jaisalmer, a remote desert region in India's northern state of Rajasthan. Smaller versions of the ornaments are for sale for $11 at the American Folk Art Museum on Columbus Avenue and West 66th Street.

Half the proceeds will go to the non-profit Folk Arts Rajasthan, whose mission is to preserve Merasi culture while empowering the community economically.

Though they're impoverished and discriminated against in India, the Merasi are the keepers of a rich musical and dance tradition that dates back at least 800 years, said Folk Arts Rajasthan founder Karen Lukas. FAR has twice arranged for Merasi musicians to tour the United States so they can bring their music, which has been described as "mystical and mesmerizing," to a wider audience.

"Because they're untouchable, the kids grow up on a local level not being given dignity and respect," Lukas said. "But on a global level, when people hear the music, they find it fabulously divine."

The ornaments are another part of Merasi culture. They're a traditional decoration called a "phul" that Merasi use to beautify their homes. With the help of FAR, Merasi women now make the ornaments as part of a free trade project that provides income.

Though the ornaments are made of trash, they're colorful and striking. Lukas says that's in keeping with Rajastani style, which values vibrant hues. Rajastani women are known for wearing shiny, colorful bangles."The Rajastanis really love color," Lukas said. "I think they may be the original bling crowd."

Lukas is hoping the ornaments will be eye-catching enough to grab the attention of charitable Upper West Siders. FAR is trying to raise $7,500 to help fund programs at a school for Merasi children.

"First and foremost I hope they'll enjoy the beauty of the tree," Lukas said. But, she added, "We're hoping people will be inspired to join us."