How Roots Studio Began

From education to art

As some of you might know, Roots Studio did not start out in our current iteration — an e-commerce website where we sell limited-edition art prints featuring traditional Indian art by rural artisans.

Our collection for this season featuring Gond art

Two years ago, Roots Studio was in fact a punched out 50-seater Mahindra bus that turned into a moving school-on-wheels dressed as an owl. It serviced four villages in the interior villages of West Bengal. The original idea for the bus was to create a flexible school that addressed education inaccessibility in areas lacking school infrastructure.

The owl bus, a beacon of learning (and also a handy changing room when needed)

When we asked the village teachers what the should be teaching, it was English. So we began teaching English out of the bus. But over the months, we realized that there was a discontinuity between what the teachers and government school system thought should be taught, and what the villages actually needed.

Our co-founder Rebecca painting the first designs for the bus

If you were born in the village, the chances of attending school beyond the 8th standard grade was less than 5%. When we asked villagers why they dropped out of school after that, overwhelmingly the response was: “The government stops subsidizing for education after 8th standard. We don’t see the value in paying for an education. My time was much better spent becoming an artisan.”

Development often takes prescriptive diagnosis such as “education”. But there is a large disconnect between education and opportunity. We’ve surveyed dozens of villagers and at the question of, “Where do most college-graduates from this village go after college?” 95% will return to the village, because they cannot compete with urban folks or mentalities. Moreover, the idea of a 10 year education trajectory which most of us have been brought up with is irrelevant in these villages. When you are earning less than $600 per year, you don’t study. You can’t afford to study. You have to make money. And you have to do it now.

Surrounded by schoolchildren

Our theory of change shifted from education to the sake of education to instead: How do we formalize the skills and assets of villagers and connect them sustainably to opportunities and markets who are willing to pay for them?

The opportunity lies at their roots. We want to do justice to these rapidly vanishing stories without deducing their culture to just another organic hippie label. Hundreds of years in the making, craft tradition runs through every state in India and sustains the livelihoods of millions. Craft skills are passed down from generation to generation, carrying the stories of every artisan who has devoted their entire life to the perfection of their trade. At Roots Studio, we seek to create the infrastructure to bring the talents of these communities directly to you.

We’re using this space to share the stories of our artists, our journeys through India (and beyond!) and our adventures building an e-commerce business. We hope you’ll follow along!

Roots Studio is changing the way that traditional art is distributed. We offer limited-edition art prints in partnership with traditional artisans from rural India. Follow our journey on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook!