14 December, 2020

Handcrafting a digital journey

Antaran, a Tata Trusts’ initiative, helps traditional artisans like Das to turn entrepreneur and sustain their craft

Sudanshu – with his creations
Sudanshu – with his creations
Sudanshu – with his creations
Sudanshu – with his creations

Sudhanshu Mohan Das, born into a family of weavers from Nuapatna, Odisha, knew well how to weave exquisite silk Ikat sarees in the famous Maniabandha weft technique. His sarees were beautiful but did not bring in enough earnings to sustain his family. Sudhanshu was forced to leave his loom to seek alternate sources of income. It was 12 years before he could return to his village and to his traditional occupation. Starting with a single loom, today Sudhanshu has grown to become an artisan entrepreneur…..and it’s been quite a journey.

Opportunity knocks

Sudhanshu has a family of 8 and has been weaving for years. His expertise lies in intricate bandha designs in the single weft Ikat technique using cotton & silk yarns. In 2019, Sudhanshu became aware of Antaran, the Tata Trusts’ Transforming Crafts initiative.

The Trusts’ Antaran initiative started in 2018 with the overarching objective to create 300 entrepreneur-led enterprises in six handloom clusters across India. Antaran’s goal is to directly benefit 3,000 individuals in the weaving community involved in pre-loom, on-loom and post-loom processes. This unique initiative also brings in textile and fashion designers and presents opportunities for creative collaboration with India’s talented weavers in remote clusters. The connection is a win-win for both the sides.

Antaran’s goal is to retain and mobilise young talent in the artisan communities, through design and business education which would enable them to build sustainable micro enterprises and ensure higher incomes for themselves and associated artisans.

As part of the initiative, the Antaran educational intervention for artisans runs batches for a period of 4-6 months. This was initiated to facilitate the artisans to learn about design and business, and are empowered to become self-employed, and even entrepreneurs. The idea was that grooming artisans as individual entrepreneurs and helping them connect directly to markets would eliminate middlemen, thus making the craft remunerative across the value chain.

Charting unexplored territories

When Sudhanshu joined the programme in 2019, he did not foresee the new opportunities that would come knocking. He was mulling over the idea of venturing into a micro-enterprise when Covid-19 struck. India went into lockdown mode in March 2020 and artisans, including Sudhanshu, faced the prospect of economic ruin. If they were to survive, they had to find a way to show and sell their wares. But how?

‘Digital marketplaces’ could be the answer. India is home to several e-commerce platforms that could help artisans showcase their products even during the pandemic. But that meant that artisans had to venture into hitherto unexplored territory – such as digital profiles and social media.

Weaves, especially handloom weaves, have a visual appeal. Exhibiting the beauty of the handwoven sarees and stoles is an essential aid to sales. However, with the lockdown shutting down markets, artisans had to overcome their inhibitions of social media and learn to discover its benefits of e-marketing.

Sudhanshu is one of the many artisans associated with the Antaran Education Programme who began to believe in the power of social media. He was also part of the educational sessions on design, communication, business and marketing. The programme taught him to overcome his fear of a new medium and set him off on his Instagram journey in July 2020.

Through trial and error, he explored new ways to give his growing number of Instagram followers a peak into his handcrafted world of traditional Maniabandha weft ikat silk sarees. “The Antaran sessions taught me to photograph my products in different ways, using different angles and shots which would make the sarees really stand out,” says Sudhanshu.

“He has started discovering the value of the beautiful, handcrafted work done by him in the form of customers who have reached out to him through Instagram and placed orders,” says Pallavi Gaur, Cluster Programme Lead, Maniabandha, Odisha.

A story of his own

Initially, Sudhanshu was a little hesitant and irregular in posting online, but he was assisted by the Antaran team, who engaged him in a curriculum focused on the basics of social media marketing. The video call sessions spread across weeks. Sudhanshu soon learnt the advantages of daily posting. He learnt about hashtags, tagging, updating stories and then moved on to more technical aspects such as profile visits and engagement.

Slowly and steadily, inquiries started to pour in. In the last two months, Sudhanshu has been able to fulfil 4 - 5 orders through Instagram. He also fields an average of two inquiries a day.

In the process, the cordial and ever polite Sudhanshu has made some meaningful connections. His customers have shared their feedback and posted gorgeous pictures of themselves wearing his creations. Sudhanshu shares these photographs on his platform as customer testimonials, a savvy marketing strategy that brands apply to increase interest in their product. It adds value to the brand’s image, making it real and more approachable.

Weaving dreams – in silk

For Sudhanshu, social media has been a boon in helping to connect to real customers. The validation through social media is soul satisfying and motivates an increased sense of pride in his craft. Overjoyed with this newfound opportunity, Sudhanshu is now actively seeking methods to create more engaging content – not just sharing product images but also what goes into making them, as well as an occasional peak into the cultural sights of the region.

Social media makes human connect possible. “A customer from Pune, who had purchased not one but two beautiful sarees from me, was so happy with the purchase that she sent me a handwritten note complimenting my work, along with a box of chocolates for my little son for Diwali,” says a visibly elated Sudhanshu.

In his way, Sudhanshu is preparing a very strong base of brand content – images that portray his aesthetics through the handcrafted sarees as well as his inspirations for creating those unique designs.

“Sudhanshu is in the truest sense an embodiment of the progression from an artisan to artisan entrepreneur that Antaran works to prepare in six handloom clusters of India,” says Ms Gaur.

Today, Sudhanshu is more than an independent artisan entrepreneur weaving gorgeous Ikat dreams in silk. He has learnt how to build a business and a brand.