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Sisters Ramya Rangacharya and Malyada Goverdhan’s apparel brand, Hands Of India is all about keeping alive the handmade weaving and embroidery traditions of India.
‘Handmade’ is not just about what is ‘in’ right now, or about making a product that is one of its kind. In a country like India, handmade is also about living history – about forms that have been passed down from one generation to another; and of course, handmade is also work for many hands, about people finding work where they live, than needing to migrate for employment.
One such brand that wants to live and breathe Handmade is Hands Of India. 10 years old, today, Hands Of India has 35 people working at their office in Vrindavan, some of whom were school dropouts who started as tailors and have since, gone on to handle larger roles in the company. Besides, they work with artisan groups (mostly women) and designers from around the country.
In this interview, Malyada Goverdhan, Co-Founder of Hands Of India, talks to me about what handmade means to them, and what they enjoy most about bringing us hand woven and hand embroidered garments.
You started your career in advertising, and Ramya was with the Indian Air Force. With both of you in very different jobs, how did something like Hands Of India come about?
Malyada Goverdhan: We have both always been interested in clothes and craft; our family is originally from the South, but we manage the 200 year old Rangji Mandir in Vrindavan; Ramya used to take care of the vastra kotri where we have a collection of many simple but intricately woven garments – later on, we realized that many of those weaves are simply not available anymore. So, craft happens to be something we always knew about.
I remember, when we were growing up, Ramya and I used to sit and look at the clothes of all the visitors to the temple – it was one of our favourite pastimes, seeing clothes from different parts of the country.
Like a typical IAF person, Ramya was travelling a lot and used to interact with artisans. We realized that a lot of government money was being poured into this sector, but something was wrong. Many of the designs being made by NGOs or by fashion institute students who went to work with self-help groups were just not saleable.
So, Ramya started off in the field in 2004, and by then, I had moved to working in the Software industry and was supporting her with the funding she needed. It was while working with Ebay that I realized that online could be a good route for us. I quit my job in 2008 and joined her full-time, and we launched our website in 2009. Initially, the online response was poor, but today it has really taken off, and we do around 50% of our sales online (with the rest coming from exhibitions).
In terms of your design and product range, do you have a philosophy that you work by?
Malyada Goverdhan: Did you know that there are 40 different embroidery forms in India? But increasingly, it is hard to find hand embroidery. Most of these have now become machine-made. For example, chikan has 37 different kinds of stitches, but the most common one is the batti, which is largely done now on powerloom. We work with 8 embroidery forms, especially lesser-known chikan stitches and the Sozni from Kashmir which are hard to move to machine.
Our philosophy is that every product from us will have something handmade. At the same time, we don’t want to become very expensive, and elitist.
Almost all the fabric we use is hand woven, and if we use embroidery, it is done by hand too – the advantage is that 2 different sets of artisans benefit, and from a business perspective, we offer something that is not easily available in the market. Only in the case of block prints, we do use power loom fabric, but even there, the block printing is done by hand.
To us, the craft is important, but even more important is the employment we generate. We want to retain the cottage nature of the industry, where the employment barrier for an artisan is very low – for hand embroidery, all you need is a needle and thread. We work mostly with women artisans – we find that they make great use of the money; it goes directly into the health and education of their children. They tell us, “It’s ok if you pay us less, but pay us regularly.” The assurance of a regular income is very important to them.
To us, the craft is important, but even more important is the employment we generate. We want to retain the cottage nature of the industry, where the employment barrier for an artisan is very low…
Tell me more about the experience of working with these artisans.
Malyada Goverdhan: Over the years, we have learnt a lot from them. We realized that we don’t need to teach them anything about their work – they are experts. All we need to tell them is what is contemporary and what works in the market. What they really lack, is what we provide – we take on the inventory, so the onus of selling is not on them.
Given the growing competition in the handmade sector, what keeps customers interested in your brand?
Malyada Goverdhan: Competition is welcome. In fact, I would love to create an open source database of artisans around the country, that anyone can work with. There are hundreds of such groups that can work sitting in their own homes.
People buy from us not just because we are handmade but because of our fit. When we go for exhibitions, we carry along a portable changing room and an alterations kit and tailor. We use that alterations data to make the changes to our own sizes. For example, in the early days, we realized that the hips for our kurtas were very narrow, since they were based on Western sizes – Indian women are better endowed!
What’s it like working as a team of two sisters? Do you fight?
Malyada Goverdhan: A lot! Both of us are very close, and we fight like cats and dogs. While Ramya takes care of production and design (she has always been the creative one!), I handle marketing, processes and systems. Sometimes, she drives me and the team crazy with her attention to fit and the changes she demands in designs and processes. I shuttle between Bangalore and Vrindavan (where our office is), while Ramya works from Chandigarh. Designers and artisans are based all around the country.
But – we have a larger vision that this place is more important than us. It is also easier working as a team, and gives both a little breathing space.
Singly, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.
You can also check out Hands Of India’s products over at their Facebook page.
All images courtesy Hands Of India.
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