Good Businesses 2014

Romancing the wood

Varnam is reinventing Channapatna’s lacquerware to keep the craft contemporary

Overhead speakers belt out Kannada film songs loudly and enthusiastically, almost drowning out the cheerful conversation and quiet hum of power lathes. A large, sparse room carpeted in wood shavings, piles of small blocks of wood lying haphazardly all over, several windows letting in air and the bright afternoon sunlight and a bunch of young women wearing dark cotton uniform jackets over their colourful clothes — it’s not quite the bustling industrial scene one imagined. This is a cottage enterprise. Quite literally.

We’re in a largish village in Channapatna, some 60-odd km outside Bengaluru on the Mysore highway. The workshop comprises the entire ground floor of the artisan-manager’s two-storey house in a cul-de-sac that ends abruptly where a massive tree grows over the narrow street. Inside the house, seven craftswomen, all in their 20s, feed blocks of wood into rapidly-turning lathes and effortlessly wield heavy, lethal-looking chisels and blades to shape the wood. The wood is soft, so even the slightest extra pressure is enough for it to shatter at the lathe. Once it’s smoothened, the artisan touches a block of coloured lac to the still-rotating wood.

The friction melts the lac and deposits it evenly over the piece, which she then buffs to a mirror-like gloss with a long, sharp-edged strip of screw pine leaf, locally called talegiri. “I’ve made so many paper towel holders for Varnam that I can now make them with my eyes closed. For newer designs, we need to refer to the drawings and take measurements,” explains 29-year-old Lalitha, gesturing to the Vernier callipers lying in front.

Measuring instruments and detailed drawings were alien concepts for Lalitha and her co-workers until about three years ago, when Karthik Vaidyanathan first started commissioning work at this unit. Now, his start-up, Varnam, accounts for more than 80% of the work done here and the workers are getting used to a set-up where they make multiple rounds of prototypes for each new design, follow measurements for each little piece of wood and use predetermined colour combinations, rather than making them up on the fly. “I am trying to professionalise this traditional craft and keep it contemporary, so that it will keep going for a longer time,” says the 40-year-old. “My aim is to ensure a sustainable livelihood for these artisans and encourage them to think beyond their boundaries.”

The craft Vaidyanathan is supporting has faltered and been resuscitated several times in its 200-year history. Channapatna lac-turnery is believed to trace its origins to Persia — Tipu Sultan is said to have been so fascinated by the toys he saw there that he brought over Persian artisans to his kingdom to recreate their work here. The wood used then included fragrant sandal and rosewood, and toys were crafted on hand-cranked lathes. The current use of the milky haale mara (Wrightia tinctoria) is a relatively recent development, the result of a 1950s’ effort by the Karnataka government to encourage use of the local, fast-growing tree. By the 1980s, though, the craft had almost died out and Channapatna, which had come to be known as gombegala ooru (‘toy town’ in Kannada), was fading.

Around that time, the Karnataka State Handicrafts Development Corporation stepped up its purchase of Channapatna toys for sale through its Cauvery emporia and some years later, organisations such as Fabindia as well as exporters came here with bulk orders of napkin rings and the occasional candle sticks. Bengaluru-based NGO Maya Organic did seminal work with Channapatna artisans at the turn of the millennium, encouraging women to join the traditionally male-dominated craft, teaching them to operate power lathes and creating new designs, which have since been rampantly copied by almost every cottage factory in the region (there are hundreds).

Now, Vaidyanathan wants to turn the wheel, reinterpreting and reinventing lacquerware by creating home décor and lifestyle products, jewellery and accessories, using natural, non-toxic vegetable colours, and introducing the craft to a wider audience through his retail and online stores. “I do not, for one minute, think I can single-handedly prevent Channapatna lac-turnery from dying out; that may still happen. But, at least for now, more people are entering the craft — artisans and designers — and that is a positive development,” he says. 

The accidental entrepreneur

Vaidyanathan didn’t set out wanting to be a craft revivalist, or even a businessman. A computer engineer and management graduate from Mumbai, he spent nearly 15 years in the music and radio industry, working with companies such as Sony Music and WorldSpace Satellite Radio. Moving to Bengaluru in 2003, though, he was able to give free rein to a childhood interest in design and craft, taking full advantage of the Garden City’s passion for hosting exhibitions and crafts melas, visiting as many as he could in his spare time. “There would be hardly any south Indian crafts represented at these exhibitions, barring a token Kalamkari stall,” he says. 

Then, he bought his first house and in decorating it, spent much time exploring different traditional crafts, both from his native Chettinad region in Tamil Nadu as well as those from his new state. “Karnataka has so many beautiful handicraft traditions — Channapatna, of course, but also Bidriware, Ganjafa cards, Kasuti embroidery. But very few people are aware of them.” Wanting to promote regional crafts, he offered his design consulting services pro bono to Fabindia, which put him in touch with some artisans from Channapatna. Ultimately, that project fizzled out but Vaidyanathan’s interest in the craft — and his determination to do something for the artisans — was kindled.

Easier said than done, though. The artisans, used to churning out napkin rings and copies of Maya Organic’s toys, were in no mood to experiment with a newcomer, especially one with no background in the business. “I would drive over almost every weekend and speak with group after group of artisans. They would nod their heads, I would go back and mail them sketches and then, nothing,” Vaidynathan says ruefully. 

It took nearly six months before the first prototype, of a wooden vilakku, was made. And that too, after Vaidyanathan placed an order for 50 pieces. “I had no idea what I was going to do with those 50 pieces but it was the only way to get the artisans to work for me.”

Once the prototype was tweaked to his satisfaction, Vaidyanathan took delivery of the vilakkus and held an exhibition in Bengaluru. The response was overwhelming, convincing him this was an opportunity worth exploring. For the next six months, he continued his full-time job with ACT Television, working with the artisans over weekends. In 2012, Varnam came into being as a for-profit social enterprise with an investment of ₹2 lakh, with Vaidyanathan moving to a part-time role at ACT. “I couldn’t have afforded this venture otherwise, he says. What little money I make here goes back into Varnam,” he says.

Last year, Varnam broke even with revenue of ₹18 lakh, a significant jump over the first year, when it was in the red with a loss of ₹2 lakh on revenue of ₹10 lakh. Varnam initially sold through a combination of e-retail stores and some 10-12 upscale lifestyle stores in Bengaluru, Goa, Hyderabad, Puducherry, Kolkata, Chennai and Mumbai, in addition to orders from the company’s Facebook page and online enquiries. With repeated issues on payments with e-tailers, the company launched its own website last October. Currently, Vaidyanathan says the site gets around 60 unique visitors and four or five orders every week.

In July, he opened a brick-and-mortar outlet, renting a store in Bengaluru’s popular Indiranagar area. That, with the upcoming festival season as well as Varnam’s participation in various lifestyle and crafts exhibitions, makes Vaidyanathan confident of closing FY15 with ₹30 lakh in revenue; the company has already earned ₹15 lakh in the first quarter, thanks to a large institutional order. “Karthik has taken a bold step, developing his own range and putting his own stamp on Channapatna products. Opening his own store is a positive step since it will mean more products and, therefore, more consistent employment for the people there,” says Muralidhar, director, Maya Organic. 

Staying the course

Varnam currently has a portfolio of 80-90 products in the ₹150-9,000 range, with another 10 in the pipeline, all designed by Vaidyanathan, who has no formal training. “I just follow my heart and eyes,” he says. Around 20 artisans across two units together work on orders of ₹1 lakh a month — and unlike others, he pays 100% advance on all orders. “In the past two and a half years, there hasn’t been a single week without an order from Varnam,” says the manager of the first unit we visit. The unit earns 80% of its ₹2-lakh monthly revenue from the company. “Their [Varnam’s] orders fetch me 30% margin, as compared with 15% on other orders,” he adds.

At the second unit, which came on board earlier this year, Vaidyanathan is paying stipends for two women trainees. He has also involved the extended families of his artisans in the business, giving them tailoring assignments such as making cushion covers and lampshades using khanaa, a traditional north Karnataka/Maharashtra fabric. “I am doing my bit for women empowerment,” he says. “All my artisans are women and my store assistant is also a woman.”

The company also works only with natural, vegetable colours. That means mixing ingredients such as indigo (for black), turmeric (yellow), kumkum (red) and ratanjot (brown) with lac, which itself is a naturally-produced resin. Persuading artisans to make the change, though, took quite some effort. They had become used to chemicals, where ensuring exact proportions to get the right shade wasn’t an issue. Even where the group manager was willing to switch, they would often find they hadn’t been given truly natural dyes. Vaidyanathan then undertook the research himself and identified suitable suppliers so the artisans could “clean up their act”.

However, there is a big challenge that the units face: despite, or because of, its proximity to Bengaluru, Channapatna has an enormous power shortage problem. Outages of several hours a day are common — Vaidyanathan says there have been days when the lights have come on for just two hours. For these small cottage industries, installing generators is too big an investment. While Varnam’s first unit manager asks his artisans to do hand-assembly work during power cuts, the other, smaller unit sends its craftswomen home, asking them to return when the power comes back. “All of my artisans stay close by, so I can do this,” explains the manager, whose family has been in the lac-turnery business for over 25 years.

Stubborn craftspeople, unbridled design theft and power cuts playing havoc with delivery schedules haven’t dampened Vaidyanathan’s enthusiasm. As Varnam now looks to sell Channapatna’s lacquerware overseas, Vaidyanathan is already thinking of reviving other Karnataka crafts. “There is so much to be done. So many crafts are simply dying for lack of interest and encouragement,” he says. Perhaps he should think of changing his store’s tagline to “Varnam sharanam gachhami”.