‘If you are working on something exciting that you really care about, you don’t have to be pushed. The vision pulls you’ – Steve Jobs
Zainab Limbdiwala has always been passionate about the Indian handicraft and handloom industry. Armed with her love for textiles, she pursued her Masters in Fashion Management from NIFT and went on to work for a private label for a while. However, she felt the need to do ‘something substantial’ and joined a NGO in Kolkata where she got the opportunity ‘to work with several self-help groups and artisans’. Up until here her journey seems pretty straight forward. Yet, where many others would have settled at this juncture, Zainab’s vision pulled her to explore further avenues and ventures.
She decided to take the ‘passion for the craft a step-higher and that’s how AsalKaar was born’. AsalKaar founded by Zainab works closely with the local artisans of West Bengal to create handmade and handcrafted products. AsalKaar’s wide range of products includes tote bags, leather purses, notebook covers, jewelry boxes and much more. Each of the products, carefully handcrafted are embroidered, embossed, painted etc.
Yet, the idea that stands out the most behind this young entrepreneur’s story so far is her ‘initiative to showcase to the rest of the country, what kind of talent lies in our rural communities’. Unlike a lot of others from her generation, Zainab chose to partner with the true local heroes, bringing their skills to the forefront and taking the bold step of moving beyond the comfortable space of a home start-up.
Karigar which translates to an artisan is the true soul of AsalKaar and though a vision that might be in its ‘very nascent stage’, the initiative has definitely huge potential. In conversation with Zainab Limbdiwala who talks about her love for textiles, handicrafts, her association with the artisans and the future of AsalKaar.
Q. What were the challenges that you faced while trying to establish Asalkaar?
A: All my efforts, be it visiting new groups and artisans, sourcing, new development, photographing, marketing and logistics, are aimed at one thing alone – to provide maximum sales through value addition to these hardworking artisans.
With the oversaturated online craft market, our products often get hidden and camouflaged. Still, I believe there is a cluster of audience who are particularly inclined towards hand made products and hold great appreciation for the same. Therefore, reaching the correct audience was important. But once you’ve accomplished that and are sincere in what you’re offering, in terms of quality, aesthetics and functionality one is bound for an uphill journey, and thankfully for me the ride has been slow, steady with a lot of learning yet completely fulfilling.
Q. The crux of Asalkaar is all things handmade. How did you discover the artisans that you work with?
A: Most of the artisans I am working with now have been introduced to me through my travels over time to the local clusters in Bengal. Most artisans are not shy of sharing information about their craft and some would even go out of their way to make the concepts clear in your head by doing a little demonstration on the spot. Sometimes, striking a conversation to learn about their story and where they come from when visiting their tiny stalls in a government funded fair or mela would surprise you how much they can offer to your vision.
Q. Thankfully there is a lot of buzz around supporting local artisans. Yet, this is far from ideal. What are your thoughts generally about the role local artisans play in businesses.
A: There are a lot of businesses and organizations that solely promote artisanal and handmade products, and are doing it commendably so. However, there is still a gap present between an artisan at the grass root level and the end consumer. What is needed is to reduce as many middle men as possible in the chain or to at least ensure that the karigar is getting their fair wage and at the right time, and not after a period of 2 months. We need more stores and shops offering handcrafted merchandise but at an affordable price. I can vouch on the fact that if people are educated about the processes and the hard work that goes into making each piece, they would definitely want to go home with something.
Q. What are the different traditional and local arts that you explore in your products? For example kantha is one. Which are the others?
A: Besides kantha, I also work a lot on hand embossed and painted, tanned leather products. It is said that it was Rabindra Nath Tagore’s daughter in law who first introduced this process of embossing on leather in West Bengal from Java in the year 1940. There are still few extremely skilled artisans who are practicing this art form with immense dexterity. I love combining the leather with a variety of hand block, vegetable dye printed/embroidered or quilted fabrics to create bags, personal and travel accessories for the modern day users. I also work with certain self-help groups who are good with their handwork, and develop textile jewelry and soft toy textile products. Another pride of Bengal is its handloom textile and saree heritage. Even though the main focus of AsalKaar is on handicraft, I try not to restrict my work to just that. My love for weaving also has brought me to work closely with some weavers who work on traditional pit looms and create beautiful motifs in Jamdani and jacquard techniques.
Q. Coming from a city how easy or difficult was it for you to work with the local artisans. How accepting or skeptical were they of your idea?
A: It all depends on your outlook towards them. One needs to work hand in hand with them. There needs to be an unspoken understanding that we are working with them as partners and not means to get job or work done. Another thing that is really helpful is to be able to communicate in their local language. They really appreciate it when someone from the city can speak explicitly in the tongue they are comfortable with. I wouldn’t say it is an easy job, skepticism does exist, but it can be ruled out with time and by gaining their confidence.
Q. What are your thoughts around the demand or market of handmade products versus cheaper machine made goods. Do you think more consumers are open to purchasing authentic local products now than before?
A: When we purchase any product, we buy it for its value. Here the value lies in it being created through a series of processes involving skill, time and effort. Each product is created by hand with great attention to detail right from tracing the designs on fabrics to assembling and finishing all the parts together in making the final product. Any person who values and appreciates this creative process would feel proud to own an AsalKaar product. And thanks to such patrons, our brand is being accepted and liked so much in today’s market.
Q: You are working with artisans from West Bengal, but India is a treasure of many such local arts and handicrafts. Which are your personal favorites and why?
A: I am huge a fan of all kinds of block printing practiced in India, such as Bagh, Bagroo, Sanganeri and Dabu. However, Ajrakh has always been my personal favorite, mainly because of the multiple stages involved, using vegetable and mineral dyes and the unique design characteristics of the blocks. It is an eco-friendly and sustainable craft passed down for generations and exists in harmony with nature.
Q: What are your future plans in terms of marketing, expansion of Asalkaar? Also, where would you ideally want Asalkaar to reach?
A: Thanks to global connectivity and new age technology, it has become a lot easier for us to get in touch with consumers all over the world. It is incredible to learn how many people and places your products can reach without having to step out or having a physical store. I would love to be able to travel more and work with many more artisans from other states, outside of Bengal. More importantly, I hope to continue creating more unique products and that we get a greater/wider audience that loves and appreciates our work.