Bringing the Indian art of traditional hand embroidery into the mainstream has been no easy feat for Shikha on her journey with Noor Tara Creations, which produces garment products with traditional Aligarhi embroidery also known as the ‘phool-patti’ work.
The challenges for keeping local handicrafts alive are many. On the one hand is the competition from new styles of design from all across the world and on the other hand is ensuring enough number of artisans to work on products. Usually, either social bounds prevent them from taking it up as a full time profession or newer forms of employment lure them away from the traditional crafts.
But that has not deterred Shikha from taking on the challenge, and today Noor Tara boasts of a solid customer base, a dedicated set of artisans and garment products that reach across the country through their tie-ups with major Indian retailers. She has been able to bring premier Indian institutes like NIFT to Aligarh to create awareness of this beautiful Indian art, and she believes that the journey still has a very long way to go.
Key to growth
“Maintaining and nurturing relationships is at the core of Noor Tara’s sustenance and growth,” says Shikha, who joined the fledgling business of traditional Indian embroidery when it was just breaking out around 10 years ago. Started by Renuka Bajaj, who is originally from Aligarh, in the early 2000s, the motivation behind the Noor Tara brand of clothing was to create a bigger market for traditional Aligarhi embroidery.
Having passion for your work is another facet, which is required to fuel growth in the business. She recalls how both Renuka and she used to work long hours every single day to give the business an initial push, driven by a desire to produce exquisite pieces of work. “It is exciting for me even today to work with both new and experienced designers, seeing new designs and patterns as well as waiting for the first sample of new works of embroidery to come in,” says Shikha.
Learning the ropes
While the business was initially restricted to making sale of ladies’ clothes at various exhibitions in Delhi, the real breakthrough came in the mid-2000s when Noor Tara ventured into supplying embroidered clothes to big retail chains. Not only did this have the impact of increasing business multi-fold but through a third party route also familiarise customers with this traditional handiwork across the country as well. One customer led to the next, developing as a separate line of business, while Noor Tara maintained its original business through exhibitions as well.
While growth was an exhilarating process for newbie Shikha in the business at the time, it came with its own challenges as well. As Shikha took over the reins of the business, she got a major order to be provided in limited time. Getting more work out with the same quality in a short duration of time was a major challenge, recalls Shikha as she worked around the clock to ensure that the work was done and was up to the mark. “It was a major learning experience for me as an entrepreneur,” she says.
Taking on bigger projects
That experience grew her as an entrepreneur, and gave her the confidence to embark on bigger projects. And like in every business, there were some ups and downs when new experiments took place. While her mentor Renuka had a hands on knowledge of traditional embroidery, Shikha of the younger generation had other ideas – to merge the traditional styles with new ones. Initially, there was a period of rejection, as some of the new-fangled design ideas were perhaps not in line with what the customer base had come to expect of them and some of these fell completely flat.
Determined to grow her business, however, Shikha changed tactics. She embarked on a collaborative process to undertake designs, taking into account what artisans in Aligarh told her as well enlisting professional designers for their recommendations. And soon the period of rejection was history, which she ascribes most to keeping an open mind and a constant willingness to evolve and grow in an ever developing business environment.
Empowering the artisans
She considers not just her employees but her support system as well, who have stood with her during difficult times. Mostly Muslim women who work on a part-time basis, she now employs over 200 of them. Ensuring that they receive proper compensation for their work, she has encouraged some women among this pool itself to also take on a managerial role and impart their mutual skills to each other as well, as compared with the traditional system where a formal ‘thekedar’ ensures delivery of work. This, she believes is one of the reasons for their commitment to Noor Tara. Women who become managers feel particularly empowered and see a rise in their level of confidence after taking on that responsibility.
Artisan at work on the traditional phool-patti work in Aligarh
Shikha applauds the spirit of the ladies who work with her. For a majority of them, this work is not the main income for their household with the men being the traditional breadwinners, yet they feel committed to the work they take up. Further, there are some of those who are asked not to work at all by their families, but still continue to do so, thus fulfilling a piece of their own individual purpose along with maintaining their family obligations.
Strong support systems and early lessons
While this is empowering for the women themselves, it gives Shikha a boost as well looking at these ladies work. Her designers are also a strong support to her, and they have a very collaborative process of working, where they are less like her employees and more like her partners.
At a personal level her biggest support has come from the family itself, along with her biggest life learnings that she applies to create business success. Having been born and brought up in a joint family setup, Shikha says that she always saw everyone’s tide moving together. She carries this attitude with her into business as well. If she earns well, then everyone grows with her. She feels that it has been inculcated in her from the beginning. This attitude helps in developing relationships and allows people to be honest and transparent with her.
Encouraging women to get into business
Having been an entrepreneur for a while now, Shikha now feels that there are many more women who can get into business. “There is no dearth of opportunity for business,” she says, adding, “Make your mistakes and just do it. Once you decide, don’t let things stop you.” She points to the fact that a lot of women who have been home-makers feel a void once the children are grown up, and these ladies are then in the right place and time to potentially start out on their own.
For Noor Tara, going forward, Shikha sees potential in experimenting with more kinds of garments to cater to various sections of demand and maybe even opening up a showroom of her own. To encourage the artisans and keep alive the vanishing art of ‘phool-patti’ embroidery, she intends not just to keep providing encouragement to the women who work with her, but also encourage men to join the craft, which has traditionally been seen as a women’s domain only.
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