A galaxy of 'gourd'ians

Krishikala trains enthusiasts in crafting products out of bottle gourds; the vegetables, unpopular due to size, have found a new life in art. PHOTO COURTESY: KRISHIKALA

Bottle gourd is not just a vegetable for farmer Murugesh anymore. He knows how the underrated gourds from his farm are transformed into elegant utility items like bowls and lampshades.

This enterprising farmer from Mayasandra in Anekal taluk is among 20 farmers across the state who supply gourds as a raw material for handicrafts.

These farmers are custodians of seed diversity and grow gourds for varietal conservation. And this cause connects them and Krishikala, a handicrafts venture launched in Mysuru by grassroots entrepreneur Seema Prasad. 

For a cause

Krishikala, launched in 2017, attempts to preserve indigenous gourd varieties by turning them into aesthetic artefacts. While the smaller gourd varieties get converted into pen stands, door hangings and planters, bigger ones are shaped into lampshades and designer vases.   

Seema had seen gourds losing their significance in local cultures and traditions and as a result, vanishing from their landscape. They were not popular as vegetables due to their size.

“There is a great diversity of gourds which come in different sizes and shapes. Some of them weigh over
8 kg and some are more than two-feet long. People can’t consume one whole piece and we hesitate to buy cut vegetable for obvious reasons,” she says.

She and her fellow volunteers felt that creating a suitable market would help preserve the gourd diversity. Seema and her husband G Krishna Prasad, during their visits to Kenya and Tanzania, had seen how these soft vegetables were converted into durable decoratives.

“Indigenous communities in Africa are well-versed with this craft and have standardised the process. Once we gained knowledge about the process and tools, I saw the possibility of using art to save the vegetable varieties,” Seema says. Apart from learning the technique, she exchanged seeds with them. 

Sahaja Samrudha, a farmers network spearheading heritage seed conservation initiatives in the state, of which she is a founder member, supported the plan and helped in collecting the vegetable through their network of farmers.

Krishikala also gets wild gourds from shepherds and cattle herders. 

They identified seed-conservation enthusiasts and distributed the seeds for on-farm conservation. Initially, Murugesh had only one variety of gourd, which was grown for the family’s consumption. When he came to know that the vegetable had better prospects when used for artwork, he decided to try his luck.

In 2017, he collected two varieties, tamboora (the type traditionally used to make tambooras) and hamsa, from Seema and grew them along with other vegetables. That year, he harvested around 50 gourds. As promised, Krishikala bought the yield at a competitive price.

After two seasons, he now grows 18 varieties and this year he has supplied 1,000 pieces to Krishikala. 

This surge in numbers and varieties is also indicative of Krishikala’s growth in the last two years. “I started it as a hobby, to make good use of the vegetable, which is not sought after despite its high nutritional value. I had seen musical instruments and decoratives carved out of this vegetable across India and even abroad,” Seema says. And she thought beyond showpieces and decided to make utility items that could replace plastic products. 

The beginning was small and difficult. “I had ideas, but I am not an artist.” She tried to collaborate with professionals but it didn’t work as the urban artists she approached ended up making expensive products.

Affordability

“We didn’t want the products to just decorate the drawing rooms of affluent families. Our objective was to make the products useful and affordable to common people.” These trials with artists had given Seema a fair idea of the basics of designing handicrafts. 

She, along with a team of three rural women, started making simple designs and over time, graduated to complex, artistic products. 

To begin with, they created only a few products and the range was also limited. However, each object was appealing with unique drawings and designs. Seema had no clue about marketing the products. 

The turning point came in November 2017 when Krishikala got an opportunity to decorate the stage at the Organic World Congress held in Delhi. The delegates not just appreciated these distinctive items but expressed a desire to own them.

“We hadn’t even priced them. Like a novice, we calculated the production cost and kept a slightly high margin. Still, all the products were sold out.”

The word spread through friends and like-minded people and they started getting bulk orders. As the demand grew, the team started experimenting with designs and now they make 36 types of products. 

Sowmya Sugandh, who came to know about this venture through a common friend, explains the variety of articles with a sense of wonder. What makes her stick to these products, however, is the eco-friendly tag they carry.

“Initially, we bought a wall hanging and a vase for our house. Every guest would appreciate these items. It didn’t take long for us to consider them while presenting gifts. Moreover, these products are reasonably priced,” Sowmya shares.

She has bought almost all available gourd products and is now planning to replace the plastic containers in her kitchen shelves with airtight gourd containers and cutlery. Seema admits that gourd container happened by accident. The team is constantly developing new products, and they recently designed tissue-paper holder, which is much in demand.

Diversify, grow

Similarly, they had made around 200 small containers to share ellu and bella (sesame and jaggery mixture) on Sankranthi. The concept caught the attention of people and the team got orders for 300 more such containers. “Motivated by this, we have developed gourd lamps for Deepavali and are now making Christmas decoratives. All our products are customised and market-driven,” Seema says. 

While their products are mostly marketed through word of mouth, of late they are sold through social media. However, considering the growing demand, they ensure sufficient stock before posting product details. Even as their production and market were being stabilised, Seema and her team started organising workshops to train rural people in the craft. So far, they have trained nearly 70 women across the state and most of them have taken it up as a subsidiary activity. They also train corporate employees.

The team supports everyone who wishes to take up this as a hobby. They even sell processed plain gourds to enthusiasts. 

“Now I don’t have to bother about marketing the gourds I grow. If not as a vegetable, it has value as an artefact,” says Kavitha, who got training from Krishikala last year.

Now she and her neighbours in Mysuru taluk grow over 20 varieties of gourds and a major share of the yield is used to make handicrafts. She either sells products on her own or gives it to Krishikala to sell.

Currently, over 16,000 pieces of 48 bottle gourd varieties wait to be converted into elegant pieces of art at Krishikala’s storeroom. Well aware of the odds and economics stacked against them, the team is making strides with two objectives in mind, creating a ‘Sore Studio’ (bottle gourd is called sorekai in Kannada) in Mysuru and taking up projects to make ceremonies plastic-free using gourd decoratives, gifts and cutlery. 

For details, visit Krishikala.in.

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