Bridging the gap between creativity and business
Start-ups today are going beyond just finding a way to make money. TGS features five such ventures from the city that have stretched past the money game to help rural artisans reach urban markets
A beautiful warli painting on the wall or a soft silk sari that you own, each has a story to tell. If you listen carefully, you’d hear of rural artisans sweating it out in their houses to produce some of the best possible work. Haggling with a shopkeeper to make him give you a heavy discount is something that we all do, not realising that the only one getting affected by it is the poor artisan bent over his work desk for hours. Attempting to get rid of the innumerable middle men that are a part of the chain, entrepreneurs from the city took it upon themselves to build a business that ensured that what you pay for the products directly reaches artisans. TGS talks to some of them to find out what challenges they face along the way and what inspired their ventures.
She was a nutrition graduate who later began working as an ad-maker and he a theatre personality from Chandigarh. It was their work that inspired Maya Rao and her husband Narendra to think about the various art forms that exist in the country. While working on a documentary that showcased artisans from across India they realised the kind of labour that went into creating the handicrafts and this pushed them to start Art Etc.
“We realised that a lot of us take the artisans, who create the artefacts, for granted. We wanted to do something to preserve the dying art forms in our own small way and give the artisans a place in the contemporary market,” tells us Maya. Part of their research came from the making of the documentary and the rest was done during their travels. They met a lot of people during their travels from different regions and talking to them, understanding the history behind their art was what most of their work was all about before starting the venture, she added. They currently have more than 20 artisans on board from Rajasthan, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jammu & Kashmir, Orissa and West Bengal.
Since they were setting up a business for the first time and were not too well versed with the modalities of running it, the challenges were humungous. “It was a huge risk to shift out of our comfort zone and set up a venture in a new city. We did have some hurdles along the way, but our passion for the art forms kept us going,” says Narendra. Meeting with talented artisans who have exquisite skills, spending days with them to evolve a product and then the joy of showcasing them in the store is what they consider as the best part of their job.
Running her venture for just about three months now, Akanksha Shukla loves every moment of doing what she does. It took her quite some time to actually implement her plan, but now that she has, she could not be happier about how smoothly everything is working out. She worked non-stop for days as she did everything from setting up the website, to finding artisans and collaborating with designers, among other things. Through Beautitude, she believes she has found a way to do something that satisfies her creative and business side, along with being able to help the artisans.
“There is a lot of talent in the interiors of the country that is waiting to be explored. Someone needs to bring it all to the masses, without exploiting the artisans and I am more than happy to do so,” she tells us. Her main motive behind this venture was not to make money out of it but to find a way to help the craftsmen. She currently has about five of them on board and they come from all over India. She is also in talks with several others to increase the number of art forms that she can present.
Her biggest challenge running Beatitude is raising enough capital to continue to get more artisans on board. Currently, she does everything from sourcing the material to packing and delivering it. Hiring help would mean either raising the end-cost to the consumer or lowering the cut that goes to the artisans. Teaching Mathematics to international students online she finds a way to manage her expenses and so her share from the venture is almost negligible at the moment. “I have grown up in tough situations, where we had one earning member, my grandfather Gopal Singh Kanwal, who fed 12 mouths. I relate to the artisans and their struggle which is why this is so much more closer to my heart,” she explains. This, to a large extent, keeps her motivated and pushes her to deliver her very best.
Fabrics of India
Coming from a completely different background that had nothing to do with fabrics or textiles, it was a challenging task for Shipra Alam to identify authentic producers. Fabrics have always been something that caught her attention and travelling to explore for her start-up kept her motivated through all the hurdles she faced along the way.
Before starting the venture, she looked through a lot of different NGOs and SHGs who work with these weavers to give them a sustainable livelihood. She also interacted with weavers and artisans themselves to understand more about their craft and the challenges they face. “The biggest challenge I faced was to make people understand that handlooms are expensive because they are made by hand. Also, people have to look beyond the discount culture when they are buying these products,” she shares. The handloom industry is still very unorganized and operates through traders and middlemen. Identifying and segregating weavers from traders was another daunting task. To get in touch with weavers and artisans was difficult, especially while she was in Pune, she tells us.
Shipra currently has about 50 weavers working with her. All of them are primarily from Bhuj, Mundhra, Ajrakhpur in Gujarat and from Udaipur, Barmer, Sanganer, Akola and Jaipur in Rajasthan, Kalamkari painters from Srikalahasti in Andhra Pradesh, Telia Rumaal weavers from Puttapaka in Chitoor district, weavers from Sambalpur and Naupatna in Odisha, Kantha work embroiderers from Burdwan and Bolpur in Kolkata, Linen, Muslin Khadi and Khadi weavers from Murshidabad in Bengal.
“Ours is not just a store. It is a concept to promote handlooms and handicraft that originate from different states of India. It is an experiential store where the aim is to make people aware of the rich heritage that we have through a display of select fabrics,” she says. Prior to this venture, Shipra has worked as a corporate communication professional for nearly 16 years.
She left her IT job when her passion of painting murals started calling out to her. Growing up along the tribal belt in Madhya Pradhesh, Shweta Menon knew of a lot of rural artisans but she did not value them much. She has grown up seeing them work endless hours to create beautiful handicrafts and later also saw them being exploited when it came to selling their products. This somehow stuck with her and so when she was thinking of an alternate venture, it was not too difficult.
“My agenda with Truly Tribal was two-fold. Not only did I want to create a space where all art forms would be available under one roof but I also wanted to protect the rural artisans. They deserve much more than what they actually get and its affordable to us too since most of us don’t mind paying for it when it has a big brand name on it,” says Shweta. Truly Tribal currently collaborates with about 45 artisans from all over the country and promotes about nine art forms.
Just like every other venture of this nature, the problems were a part of the journey right from the beginning. Apart from reaching out to artisans who live in the interiors of the villages, even reaching out to the urban crowd and making them aware of her brand and what they did was quite the task for her. “I had to unlearn everything from my time in the corporate world to work with artisans. It has been a great journey so far and has helped me grow too,” she says. All her artisans have complete freedom in the kind of handicrafts that they wish to create. Increasing awareness about lesser known art forms and giving artisans the right platform is all Truly Tribal aims at, she adds.
From helping out his father in their transport business to reading entrepreneurship books, this young boy did all he could to find his true calling. Harshwardhan Patwardhan was absolutely in love with Kolhapuri chappals since his college days and wore them to parties and even to his lectures when he was in the UK. It was when he was reading the books that he realised of his inclination towards a business that was deeply rooted in the Indian culture and started exploring the idea of making Kolhapuris. He wanted to change the roadside image that they had and trade them around the world with a brand name.
When he visited Kolhapur, he saw that all the shops showcased the exact same chappals and this is the first thing he wanted to change. “I remember waking up at 4.30 am and catching the first state transport bus to Kolhapur to meet the manufactures there and bring back samples. I then found a way to make them more comfortable and colourful, and honestly my research is still not complete,” he tells us. He currently has seven artisans from Kolhapur and their well-being is his priority. He pays them double of what they would make otherwise and thereby ensures a safe and secure future for their family.
One of the most challenging aspects of started Chappers was to convince people around him that just because he came from a reasonably well-off family and was selling chappals did not mean that he was conning them. He also had zero background in the footwear industry and so failed numerous times before he could figure out even basic things.
“At Chappers, we are improving the life of our craftsmen, earning respect for Indian products in the international market and building an Indian fashion brand that promotes the local art of shoe-making all at the same time. It’s an India-centric business and it will always work towards changing the perception of people around the world regarding Indian products,” tells us the young boy.
Originally published on The Golden Sparrow