By Manvi Pant
Travelling can stoke new experiences and strengthen one’s perception of diversity in the world. Unfamiliar terrains, colourful city landscapes, thriving cultures and their native languages make one richer in terms of perspective. For Tholi Sandhya, an avid traveller and the co-founder of Hyderabad-based startup Inde’ Loom, every voyage has been a learning, an opportunity to have a wider world view.
It was during one such expedition a few years ago that she discovered the grinding realities of the life of Indian artisans and, since then, made it her mission to empower them.
Artisans are major contributors in India’s non-farm rural economy. While the global market for art and craft is expanding, India’s rich cultural heritage and its enormous potential in this sector have remained largely untapped. The reasons are several – from illiteracy to declining skills and exploitation by middlemen to difficulty in catering to new markets.
Talking of her experience, Sandhya says, “I met with different artisans and weavers in the interiors of Northeast India, Kashmir, West Bengal, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, saw their craft, and the effort they put into it. But I was appalled when I saw their living conditions.”
She goes on: “I spoke with them and realised that they were paid 50 per cent lesser than the standard wages. For instance, in Kashmir, for a unique embroidery work in a pashmina shawl that requires woven expertise and precision, they were not even getting Rs 200 as wages per day. And many of them were exploited by middlemen who bought the products at a cheap rate but sold them for a bomb. For these artisans, their art is their sole source of livelihood. That’s when the thought of establishing a Maker-to-Market Fair Trade handloom collective crossed my mind and I discussed the idea with my business partner, Suren Chowdhary.”
Sandhya admits that several of these indigenous artisans have won awards and yet they struggle to make ends meet. Inde’ Loom’s intent is to uplift and upskill them at the grassroot level, and ensure they get due recognition for their art and labour.
Founded in 2018, the startup primarily manufactures and retails apparel online and offline through rack spaces in boutiques, display pop-ups at trunk shows, and leveraging a network of 40 resellers in India and USA. The USP of Inde’ Loom is its eco-conscious approach. The organisation follows an indigenous method of blending colours. Their fabrics are pure handloom, handcrafted out of sustainable substances.
As co-founders, both Sandhya and Suren believe in keeping their relationship with clients personal and not merely transactional, which is why they select their weavers after a detailed market study. “We do a background check of all the artisans we work with. Our team meets them to understand their art and craft. We shortlist them on the basis of their expertise, products and designs. As of now, we have 120 weavers pan-India.”
Many of these weavers operate out of craft clusters. Elaborating the process, Sandhya says, “For instance, weavers who specialise in Kantha work, a popular style of embroidery that comes from West Bengal, work from their own place to minimise cost. We give them our designs and they deliver the end product to us. But in case of cotton or Jamdani saris, we manufacture them in our own looms.”
Dealing with the unorganised sector has its own set of roadblocks. According to Sandhya, identifying the award-winning artisans and weavers and then taking the proposition forward is a major hiccup.
“We don’t have any primary data that we can rely on like their phone numbers or permanent addresses. Also, if a team member from Hyderabad reaches out to an artisan in Kutch, they face language barriers. Another issue is lack of information; they are unaware of government policies, and don’t know much about technology. Due to unstable and irregular employment, they are also marked by low income,” explains Sandhya.
Despite all these roadblocks, the 12-member team has forged ahead, committed to its cause.
First published in eShe’s January 2020 issue.
Syndicated to CNBCTV18