‘’We will not let you go’’: Bringing Back Traditional Indian Arts in Urban Homes
During my classes at TISS in the month of May 2018, I met Atul for the first time. Exceptionally good at general knowledge, he had so many things to share with the class right from Indian History to culture to art to technology to the modern day ‘startup’ life. On asking him about his work, he said I used to work with an ed-tech start-up for UPSC preparation product, but I am interested to learn about elementary education and maybe will do something about it in the future. He once introduced me to his start-up idea, ‘Rachnakar’, he wanted to tie up with artisans all over India to sell their products online. Since I knew that many startups wanting to work for this cause, I wondered whether it’s sustainable or not. Slowly Rachnakar started posting pictures unknown traditional art forms and then I realised that “Oh, I didn’t know this exists!” I conveyed my idea of ‘Project DreamBoard’ to Atul that I am going to write about stories of people, start-ups, social enterprises etc but including ‘emotional’ i.e. human aspects which is generally ignored by media. Asking him on if he will allow me to write about the story of ‘Rachnakar’, I got a ‘yes’ within 15 mins! What a fantastic start! Here I present, the first story of the Project DreamBoard with Rachnakar.
Itni Shiddat se banaye woh, ke mann mein ek sawaal sa aata hai,
Rachna aur rachnakar, jaane kisko kaun banata hai?
Atul started narrating the story of Rachnakar which unknowingly laid its roots right from his childhood. He used to visit his maternal grandparent's house in Banaras where he played with the wooden toys made by local artisans. They were so popular that one could find them in every other shop may it be railway station or bus stand or a shop in the city. Nowadays they can’t be seen anywhere. People don’t even know that Banaras was once famous for the wooden toys! They are on the verge of extinction. Atul is born and brought up in West Bengal near Purulia, a tribal belt near Jharkhand. He grew up seeing handicrafts and arts made by the tribal.
“Have you ever heard of ‘Raja Rani Dolls’ of Tirupati, which used to be a gift for a newlywed couple as a wish for a prosperous future? They are not just a gift but had medicinal benefits for infants. Another story says they were used as ‘wedding photographs’ when cameras and today’s filmy pre-wedding and wedding shoots were non-existent!
They were in practice since last 200–250 years.
How many artisans practice making Raja Rani Dolls now? Maybe you can count number on your fingers.
They are one of the endangered art forms of India.
Atul firmly says that the education or livelihood training must lead to financial benefits. Of what use is the education for a poor artisan if he is not able to sell the beautiful products he makes at his house or he is unable to feed his family?
Co-founder Parul comes from a defence background. She was always on the move from childhood with the feeling of having ‘no roots’, unlike Atul. She believes that the world needs more storytellers and not successful people.
Atul and Parul are looking to build a community interested to know about the culture of our country which will eventually lead to a sustainable business for the artisans. The team keeps researching about traditional and endangered art forms and narrates a story of different art forms on social media channels. They try to engage as much as possible with their followers. They list various products such as wooden toys, pottery, home décor items, accessories, kitchen and dining items on their website where one can buy them for the price as low as Rs. 95.
“Did you know that Kaavad — a Rajasthani art, used to be a hand-painted mobile temple telling picture stories from Ramayana and Mahabharata?
Dwarka Prasad, one of the last Kaavad makers in the world, whose entire life revolved around storytelling, suddenly has no one to listen to him. Rare are the times when he gets any buyer for his art. Maybe a foreign visitor would buy them occasionally.
Kaavad has survived over 400 years but 20 years of globalisation and industrialisation is slowly killing it.
But why should a ‘globalised, urban, modern’ Indian care?”
Are there any challenges?
On asking Atul how they manage to get in touch with artisans to procure the products, he narrates another story. A story which doesn’t paint a beautiful rosy picture but the one which leads him into a number of challenges.
‘Artisans work at their own pace.’ Which essentially means that they are slow. Supplies are highly dependent on the geographical area where the artisan is based. Atul mentions about the ‘Wrought Iron Craft’ of Bastar, crafted by local ironsmiths. It is extremely difficult to procure items from them as it’s one of the Naxalite areas. Handicrafts neither come with product descriptions and user manuals nor artisans maintain product catalogue. The Rachnakar team has to invest their time to get them ‘market ready’ every time a new product is included in the catalogue. Atul also mentions that a national award-winning artisan who sells his products on Amazon. Even after 1.5 months of placing an order, he couldn’t deliver samples. A famous Stone artisan has a corporate base of clients. He first agreed to collaborate with Rachnakar but later declined due to unknown reasons saying ‘hum ye nahi kar sakte’. Onboarding time for the one artisan is around 2–3 weeks which is longer than any other e-commerce seller. Even after onboarding, there’s no guarantee of receiving samples. A shipment with ‘Sikki Grass Craft’ from Madhubani, Bihar containing Rakhis was lost in the middle. No one knows where it is!
Team Rachnakar has learned it hard way, not to depend on vendors. They need a strong database now to be able to contact artisans all over the country. They have reached out to Dastakar and Crafts revival trust for the database.
Does it come with anything good?
And the answer is YES! Atul and Parul might have been facing difficulties to onboard artisans but the good news is — “It’s worth going through them”.
When Rachnakar started Social Media, it received a huge positive response from readers. They are excited to know about traditional arts. So far, they haven’t got any negative feedback from any of their followers, but few critical feedbacks are helping them to improve their content. The community is not only welcoming their content but looking forward to buying the products as well. To their surprise, the community is also demanding DIY workshops to learn traditional arts! It’s interesting to see that few Rachnakar products like Hand painted wooden lamp of Banaras, Handmade earrings and one of its kind Kaavad are ‘sold out’ in little time. The best part of handicrafts is they all are different.
In the world of branded products, isn’t it a privilege to find uniqueness? You think you are unique because you buy luxury from Paul Smith and Zara? Well, think again!
“29 states in India offer more than 35 kinds of unique handmade textile arts.” I guarantee that you will never find a piece that you buy today with anyone else.
Won’t you call it a luxury?
Rachnakar products will soon be shipped in eco-friendly packaging only with beehive bubble wrap, paper tapes and corrugated boxes.
Can we change our outlook towards handicrafts?
“Handmade products carry a distinctive beauty of their own. This includes slight variations in colour, texture and slight imperfections. If you find minor variations or imperfections in your product, congratulations, you have a genuine handmade product!”
Ironically Rachnakar website has to quote it as a ‘disclaimer’. Read between the lines to understand the message.
“Don’t just go by aesthetics. 35 art forms are declared as ‘endangered’ by the office of the Development Commissioner of Handicrafts, the government of India. They might have survived over generations but might die soon. We are trying to create awareness about them.”
A Social Impact Startup
Rachnakar is for-profit social impact start-up with a vision of creating a sustainable business. They know that this won’t help them make fast money or create a million-dollar business, but they want to be the best in providing customer experience. Currently, they are looking for incubation and a support for creating a business plan.
“Our products are not replicable. Every single handicraft tells a story!”
A story by Sharwari Kulkarni interviewed Atul Roy, Co-founder, CEO, Rachnakar
For writing your startup story, ping at firstname.lastname@example.org