Pondicherry is best known for its colonial buildings, churches, temples, and statues which, combined with the systematic town planning and French style streets, preserve much of the colonial ambiance. This union territory is giving wings to many women entrepreneurs.
Kasha Vande, a Franco-American, was born in a small town in Upstate New York. She spent her childhood helping her parents renovate an old brick house, raising goats, riding horses, and practicing violin.
“When I had free time, it was usually spent in my treehouse or next to the woodstove reading any book I could find. One can go anywhere with a book and I suppose that was the first sign of my wanderlust. When I got older, I turned to sailing and spent my afternoons on the nearby lake.”
She pursued her masters in Architecture at Tulane University in New Orleans. Following her father’s footsteps, who is an architect, she was the first female at the school who worked in construction as a part of her training. She was fascinated by the dialogue between the architect (designer) and the contractor (maker) and how building a house is just a series of simple, repetitive actions.
Kasha came to India in 1992 because her French husband got a contract to teach in Pondicherry’s Lycee Francais. She had never been to India before, nor thought about coming.
“I got off the plane in Chennai, and that was it. I was crazy in love with India. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. Colour, tradition, values, people and the chaos and cacophony – I just love all of it.”
She started with exporting Indian products to the USA because many people in Upstate New York weren’t familiar with the handmade products and textiles.
“Of course, I had never worked in a shop, much less run one. One day I drove past Kasha Ki Aasha. I knew the building, which had been a small boutique before, was no longer in use. I stopped my scooter, backed up and thought, I am going to open a shop! It was completely random, but after that I never looked back and six months later we opened. I never looked at any other property, it was this or nothing.”
She sources products from around Pondicherry as well as across India which are extraordinary but not necessarily expensive. While choosing products, she gives priority to the ones made by women. Being diverse in her approach, she designs products such as leather handbags, garments, and jewellery. The team comprises local women: Elisa, Vanaja, Sumathi, Madelaine, and Sophia.
Adding a new dimension to the art boutique is the garden cafe under the roof pandal for organic coffees, homemade cake, European Thali, and a traditional dosa with fresh coconut chutney. The urge to have a place where one could just sit, relax, enjoy reading a book over a cup of coffee made Kasha open a café two years after starting Kasha Ki Aasha. She wanted to create a quiet escape with all the best of Pondicherry – friendly faces, comfortable chairs, a shady roof, beautiful flowers for the customers.
Breaking the back of the beast
Apart from Kasha ki Aasha, her other endeavours include PondyArt, an initiative which she started in 2013
that uses art in public space to build awareness of the issues challenging India today. Owing to the support she has got from the local population, “I definitely landed in the right spot that day back in 1992,” she says.
“My biggest challenge continues to be the short tourist season and the change in clientele from the European tourist to the Indian tourist. Business is very challenging when the city is only busy for about four months a year and on weekends. But, we continue to adapt, try new products, create special events, etc., and no matter what, Kasha Ki Aasha is here to stay.”
It has been over a decade since Kasha Ki Aasha’s inception and the customers often come every day of their stay in Pondicherry, and come year after year to stay in touch.
“I think that one of my greatest joys is watching how my staff seems to feel Kasha Ki Aasha is theirs to take care of and to share with our guests and how our guests react to that so positively and seem so happy and comfortable while they are with us. This is the reason why I could never give it up.”