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Adding colour to artisans' lives

Sriranjitha Jeurkar, Aug 11, 2012, DHNS : 18:42 IST
FROM IT TO ART: Aishwarya Suresh.
When we pick up a handcrafted traditional Indian product — whether a piece of cloth, furniture or decorative piece — we don’t know the story behind it.

Where does the piece come from? Who created it? What does it mean for its creator? What are the effort and skills that have gone into making the piece?

It was this realisation that prompted Aishwarya Suresh to leave her career in IT to set up Banna creations (‘banna’ in Kannada means ‘colour’) about a year ago. Banna is a for-profit social enterprise that seeks to create a market for handicraft products, create a platform for the artists, and help the customers learn about the products they were buying.

“I felt that the story of the one who created it was getting lost,” says Aishwarya. “What does the art mean to the creator? Many of the products are created using skills that have been handed over generations, and in some cases, the skilled artisans belong to just one family.”

This lack of knowledge, she says, is what makes us take a casual attitude towards handicrafts: that if we buy a hand-crafted product, it has to be cheap. To make the customers understand the amount of skill, effort and hard work that goes into each product, the organisation also conducts workshops where skilled artists offer the public an opportunity to see how the products are made.

“A small phad painting costs about Rs 8000, and people normally ask why such a small painting is so expensive. So we had a workshop featuring an artist who told people about the tradition, how the colours are mixed and how the paintings are made. Every participant made a small phad painting, and this made then realise what the true value of the painting is,” she says.

On the one hand, there is this underestimation of the amount of work that goes into such a product. On the other is the marketing of similar products for exorbitant prices. “I want to be in between these two extremes; give the artisans their due while still not overcharging the customers.

I’m able to do this because I am a one-woman show. I source the products myself and organise exhibitions. There is no middleman, and I have no overheads,” she says. The bulk of the money paid for the products goes to the artists. The products are also sold online.

In addition to helping market the artists’ products, Banna Creations tries to make the art more relevant to current lifestyle. Ilkal style of embroidery and weaving, for instance, were earlier done only on saris; Aishwarya has roped in some weavers to produce the same quality and designs on stoles and dupattas.

Similarly other work like kantha and kasuti are made on bags, clutches and home linen to make them more marketable. “While using the same skills, these artists can modify their end products to reach a larger consumer base,” she explains.

From IT to handicrafts

Letting go of a career in IT and working with folk artists seemed like a natural choice for Aishwarya, who is interested in the arts herself: she paints, sketches and has even dabbled in pottery. “I would say that I’ve always been interested in the arts and crafts, and this obviously was one of the factors for my decision,” she explains.

“I was working in the IT sector, but I always had a desire to branch out. I thought of how we don’t know much about the products we buy, and started doing some research. I travelled, spoke to people, and got very involved in this, and it just seemed like the right time to set up Banna.”

Setting up the business was not all that difficult, she says, but the process took some time and demanded patience. “When you deal with government offices, things take time to move.

There’s also a hesitation in dealing with women. There’s a lot of red tape, and these challenges teach you a lot,” she says. Family support helped her get through such teething troubles — her father-in-law, who runs a business of his own, was able to help her with business advice. “If not for his guidance, I’d have a huge problem. I was lucky to get my family’s support,” she recalls.

Once the business was established, she found that it was challenging to run: “When I started off, I thought I’d be the master of my own time. In my salaried jobs, I had put in more than 12 hours of work, but was able to switch off when I left office. In your own business, that’s just impossible.”

But the rewards outweigh everything else, she adds: “My biggest motivation comes when I interact with the artisans. I know this is what I want to do. So when I get up in the mornings, I am raring to go, and a whole day is just not enough for me to do everything I want to.”

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