Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Six entrepreneurs keeping art of weaving & embroidering alive in Bengal

Six entrepreneurs keeping art of weaving & embroidering alive in Bengal
In Pic: Bappaditya Biswas, Rumi Biswas and Malavika Banerjee
In Pic: Bappaditya Biswas, Rumi Biswas and Malavika Banerjee

VidyaBalan wore a typical Bengal handloom sari, a red-bordered gorod silk, in the climax of Kahaani. It turned the spotlight on Bengal's handloom saris, which have been seeing a revival lately, thanks to the efforts of a small group of entrepreneurs from Kolkata. West Bengal has a rich handloom tradition and is home to some 750,000 weavers. 

Handlooms occupy second place to agriculture in providing livelihood to the people of the state. The late Meera Basu started working with weavers from the handloom hubs in Bengal over 40 years ago and produced one of the first exclusive brands of Bengal saris, while Darshan Shah set up Weavers Studio in 1993 not just as a business venture but also as an effort to build an educational centre and archives for Bengal handlooms. Now Fabindia, arguably the largest private handicrafts company in India, is supporting the revival of interest in Bengal handloom.

"The popularity of Bengal handlooms as a product line over the last few years has brought a special focus to saris, dupattas and stoles from classic loom clusters like Shantipur, Phulia and Murshidabad where some of the finest khadi is woven," says Anuradha Kumra, buying head of women's business at Fabindia Overseas.

She sees Bengal as a strong market for hand-based loom products. Popular fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee, who is from Kolkata, believes that the revival of interest in Bengal handloom is a social phenomenon and is happening because, over the last couple of years, tastes have become more refined. "Bengal saris are simple and sophisticated. I have been using saris from Phulia and Kalna and the luxurious fabric Jamdani. Actors Vidya Balan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan have been wearing these saris to spread the message of the handwoven fabric," says Mukherjee.

ET Magazine profiles six handloom ventures that are keeping the art of weaving and embroidering alive and introducing it to a new generation.

Change Looks Pretty Good 

The Firm: Nextiles

The Hand Behind It: Suchismita Dasgupta, who set it up in 2005

Money Matters: Rs 18-20 lakh was the turnover in fiscal 2012

Business Model: Focuses on niche products through innovation. Uses only natural fibres. Experiments with new fabrics and textures such as noil silk.

What's on the Shelf: Saris, dresses, menswear

Famous Clients: Sujoy Ghosh, Raima Sen and some of Bengal's top actors.

What Next: Style costumes for films and television, strengthen presence in social media, build a strong network among NRIs, diversify into art objects and home furnishing.

Risk Factor: Infrastructural problems in scaling up, can't yet think of getting into exports.

Give it a Spin, Sell it to Youth

The Firm: Bailou & Byloom

The Hand Behind It: Bailou was set up by designer duo Bappaditya Biswas and Rumi Biswas in 2002. Their retail venture Byloom was launched in 2011 in partnership with Malavika Banerjee & Jeet Banerjee.

Money Matters: Rs 13 crore was the turnover in fiscal 2012 (Bailou)

Business Model: Create products with arresting colours and eye-catching textures from Bengal. They have a network of 1,300 weavers. The retail outlets are being positioned as trendy destinations for handloom products and are targeted at youngsters. Brand-building is done through events and a strong social network presence.

What's on the Shelf: Saris, home accessories, furnishings and ready-to-wear garments for men and women in cotton, silk and wool. Also, sequinned matka silks, mixed jamdanis with embroidered pallu and fabric jewellery.

Famous Clients: Priyanka Gandhi, Aparna Sen, Hillary Clinton, Meira Kumar and Sunanda Tharoor.

What Next: Expand the Byloom retail chain and take it to other states by the second half of 2014. Traditional bridal product line and expansion into office wear and party wear are on the cards. Overseas exhibitions too are planned.

Risk Factor: Inventory and stock management issues and long turnaround time for new product lines to hit the market.

Threading all the Way to Japan

The Firm: Weavers Studio

The Hand Behind It: Darshan Shah, started in 1993

Money Matters: Rs 7.5 crore was the turnover in fiscal 2012

Business Model: Work directly with a large number of people in handloom and handcrafts, such as weavers, block printers and embroiderers. The retail store in south Kolkata, which has a library and textile archive, also serves as an educational centre on Bengal handlooms. Khadi, jamdani and simple, minimalistic, natural-dyed and woven scarves are the USP of Weavers Studio's export arm Veda Commercial. Japan is the largest export market.

What's on the Shelf: Scarves, stoles, shawls, scrolls, saris, tunics, shirts, salwar kurtas, jackets, sarongs and dupattas

Famous Clients: Deepa Dasmunshi, Kirron Kher, Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das

What Next: Consolidate and build the brand

Risk Factor: Infringement of intellectual property rights

Shelf Sufficient

The Firm: Kanishka's

The Hand Behind It: Nandita & Dilip Raja, who started it 45 years back; now run by son Prateek and daughter-in-law Priyanka

Money Matters: Turnover in fiscal 2012 was under Rs 10 crore

Business Model: The company sustains an indigenous self-sufficient funding model where weavers are co-owners of the product. Brand-building activities are below the line and based on word of mouth. The company runs a high-end boutique in New York called Juli Raja Hand Built

What's on the Shelf: Handwoven and handblock-printed silk and cotton saris and textiles from Bengal and other weaving centres in India; women's Indo-western pret line

Famous Clients: Sonia GandhiJaya BachchanNelson Mandela and Usha Uthup

What Next: Will remain a boutique, family-run business but export niche products to Europe and Japan. Expand the brand with store-in-stores

Risk Factor: Availability of fewer skilled labour in handloom and block-printing. Sustaining quality and training labour are big challenges. Crafts face stiff competition in a free market economy. Without a rethink on handloom, it will not be long before the sector falls apart

Weave Will Rock You

The Firm: Meera Basu

The Hand Behind It: The late Meera Basu, who set it up 40 years back. Now run by her son Chinmoy Basu and his wife Swati Basu

Money Matters: Rs 1.25 crore was the turnover in fiscal 2012

Business Model: Build a strong network of skilled weavers in West Bengal and Bangladesh. Invest in product design and innovate with different fabrics. Have an affordable line of products with prices ranging between Rs 330 and Rs 40,000

What's on the Shelf: Saris and fabric in handwoven silk and cotton from West Bengal and Bangladesh

Famous Clients: Vidya Balan, Lata Mangeshkar and Dimple Kapadia

What Next: Revamp the original Meera Basu retail outlet. Create a pool of weavers and train younger ones. Launch a pension fund for weavers in their network

Risk Factor: Lack of skilled weavers, with the new generation unwilling to take up weaving. Infrastructural issues in Bengal make it difficult for small entrepreneurs to scale up business

Kantha Stitch Moves With the Times

The Firm: Malika's Kantha Collection and Trading

The Hand Behind It: Shamlu Dudeja and daughter Malika, who started it in 1993

Money Matters: Rs 50 lakh was the turnover in fiscal 2012

Business Model: Market embroidered handloom created by the NGO Self Help Enterprise Foundation. Sales volumes are going up with the growing popularity of kantha. The profit goes into the welfare of artisans.

What's on the Shelf: Saris, shawls, salwar-kurtas, scarves, home products

Famous Clients: Waheeda Rehman & Anil Kapoor

What Next: Celebrities as brand ambassadors to make kantha a must-have. Involve more women in rural areas to work with kantha and generate additional income for the family

Risk Factor: More government jobs in rural areas are drawing skilled artisans away from kantha work. Machines may soon be used to copy the kantha stitch which will be a threat to the sector.

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