Not a lot of women venture into entrepreneurship in India even now, whether due to financial constraints, family responsibilities, security of corporate jobs, or just the fear of risks. But when Chitralekha Das started up three years ago, she was 60 years old and a grandmother of two.
A flair for art, a lifetime exploring the country, and the allure of the colourful world of painting inspired her journey as a sari designer. Born in Agartala and married to ex-Defence officer Biman Kumar Das, Chitralekha has lived in different cities in India and is now settled in Pune.
Like most women of her generation, Chitralekha loved wearing different saris at every party in the Defence department where her husband worked. “But I did not have many saris at the time, so I would cut up saris and mix and match to make new ones. I used to make some for friends, and bought a sewing machine for Rs 700 30 years ago,” she reminisces.
Chitralekha has a master’s degree in music from Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata, and learnt Rabindra Sangeet from eminent gurus like Suchitra Mitra, Maya Sen, and Subinaya Ray, to name a few. Bengali by origin, she still performs during Durga Pooja every year. She has also taught music at Army Public schools, Kendriya Vidalayas, and Delhi Children’s Theatre.
The journey through the heartland of the country gave her a taste for ethnic designs and colours. Making saris began as a hobby for Chitralekha. Her friends who appreciated the saris she made for herself were her first customers. Chitralekha started off with her housemaids’ assistance.
“I play with colours and motifs — I create the design and our tailor takes care of the rest. I had hired a fashion design graduate earlier, but she did not even know the length of a sari,” she says.
Chitralekha has a favourite designer, though — a village artist whom she met at a handicrafts fair.
“His designs are beautiful. At our request, he sells his designs to us now which we use on our saris. He was shocked at the first payment; he was seeing Rs 20,000 for the first time in his life,” she smiles.
Having an eye for detail, the use of intricate work — whether it’s in chanderi, silk, cotton, chiffon, or georgette — Chitralekha plays with contrasting shades to augment the modern look.
She experiments with sheer and translucent materials, tie-and-dye fabrics in bold hues, and silk and khadi with quirky prints.
It took her more than 30 years to grow a dream. Life in many cities, music classes, bringing up children, and later grandchildren, and other duties at home had kept her busy. But three years ago, Chitralekha started designing saris and selling to friends and family again.
It was her son Bedprakash and wife Sujata, both IIMC graduates, who requested her to take it more seriously. Thus Chitralekha conducted her first sari exhibition at WTC Bombay, where she received a great response. “Immediately after that, I had to go to the US for a few months to visit my older son Budhaditya and wife Sushmita’s first child. So sari design took a break again,” she recollects. But then came 2015, and the business started formally. Chitralekha joined her name with those of her daughters-in-law to form the name ‘Sujatra’.
At first, Chitralekha sold only on a Facebook page, with her products’ pictures taken on phones, without any professional models. Sujatra’s first photo shoot happened in May 2015.
Chitralekha’s two BHK house doubles up as her office, with the veranda and a messy almirah together functioning as a storeroom. Listing her brand on the likes of Flipkart and Craftsvilla has not really boosted sales, but she has sold 400 designs and more than 2,000 pieces since the launch of her website in September 2015. Sujatra saris range from Rs 3000–9000, averaging at Rs 4500.
Chitralekha is strongly supported by her husband and son Bedprakash who worked with Raymond for five years. Bedprakash helps with sourcing materials — Kalamkaari from Tirupati Kalahasti, Madhubani from Bihar, Ajrakh from Gujarat, and so on. “When I left a corporate job to help my mother a few months ago, many were sceptical. But once they saw our growth, everyone was appreciative,” says Bedprakash. “Dad handles the administration — he does couriers, he is our warehouse in-charge, and sometimes investor too,” he adds with a smile.
Chitralekha’s motto is to make more, sell more. A maximum of four pieces are made on the same design, with about 60-80 designs per month including single pieces. There is no bandwidth for customisation though. “We already have customers from the US, Canada, Singapore, Kuwait, Malaysia, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. We also conduct exhibitions every two months in Bengaluru, Kolkata, Pune, and Mumbai,” she says.
Sujatra today caters to clients ranging from 25 to 65 years old, from metros as well as tier 2 and tier 3 cities. Currently they have a Rs 8 lakh monthly turnover, with an average of 150 saris sold in a month.They have plans for products like hand painted frames, ethnic bags, home décor, table lamps, and bed sheets too.
They say it’s never too late to live a dream, and Sujatra is a testimony to that.