By Shweta Bhandral
Even before Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged Indians to get ‘vocal for local toys’, several social startups – from Tamil Nadu to Himachal Pradesh – had begun efforts to help traditional toy-making stay alive. Kodaikanal-based Smriti Lamech is one such social entrepreneur.
A captivating storyteller, the 41-year-old mother of two is popular on social media for her aesthetic sensibilities, love of textiles and her personal stories. Keen to work for the revival of traditional weaves and crafts, the former journalist launched Smritsonian during the lockdown, making bommai (dolls) with a feminist twist and torans (doorway decorations) with a message of peace.
Smriti and her husband moved over a year ago from Gurugram to Kodaikanal after their two children joined boarding school in the hilly Tamil Nadu town. Though the couple had planned to move out again earlier this year, the lockdown disrupted their relocation plans.
It also put an end to Smriti’s anti-CAA activism that had given her a sense of purpose since December last year. Smriti went into a funk. “I thought, here is something that I am doing for my children and for my nation. When the lockdown happened, all our planned protests also got cancelled,” she says.
Around that time, Smriti came across a women’s self-help group Prowess. Many of its members were the sole breadwinners for the families. To encourage them, Smriti designed and gave them orders of masks with slogans and torans with spiritual messages.
India’s growing divisiveness based on religion troubled Smriti so the products she made centred on religious harmony and need for a revolution. Soon, she realised that the womenfolk could also make small toys, but “there was nothing exceptional about them for someone to buy them.”
Seeking a novel idea, Smriti thought back to the ragdolls of her childhood, which were in sharp contrast to the superheroes and plastic Barbie dolls that are mostly sold in the market today. “It took just about 30 seconds for the idea to flash in my head. I decided to make handcrafted feminist ragdolls,” says Smriti. Though her investment banker husband did not buy into the idea, he supported her nevertheless.
Smriti’s first set of feminist dolls were superheroes who broke conventional boundaries and stereotypes. To begin with, she designed Savitribai Phule, Kalpana Chawla, Maya Angelou and Frida Kahlo. Once enough pieces were ready, she promoted them on social media. The response was tremendous. She got orders not only from cities across India but also US and Europe.
A solo-preneur, Smriti manages the entire show herself, though her family does chip in whenever possible. She admits there are limitations. “Starting a business with my savings during Covid times was not such a good idea. The local women are also not used to this kind of work, so they take time to make the dolls,” she says of her challenges, hastening to add that these are small issues, and that she has invested herself in this project in a way she has never done before for anything else.
“Smritsonian embodies every belief of mine. I did not have to compromise or bend. It was how I wanted it,” says Smriti, who is unabashed about the political message in her creations.
“I am a political person; I believe everybody is political. Everything you do – from what you eat to the clothing you wear – is what your government allows you. Every time you comply, you make a political choice and these are things that matter to me. And that is why everything that I have created conveys a political point of view,” she asserts.
Each bommai goes out with a story in first person introducing the doll. She is also keen to limit her carbon footprint and generate employment and revenue for local craftspersons, so she uses upcycled fabric and sources everything locally. “If I am living in this hamlet, I need to serve this hamlet.”
First published in eShe’s November 2020 issue
Syndicated to Money Control