Ratna Krishna Kumar, wife of former Tata Sons director RK Krishna Kumar, is determined to make a difference in the lives of plantation workers in Munnar, Kerala. Her journey is a right mix of poise, success, compassion and giving back to society,
DARE School, nestled in the Kanan Devan hills, amid the lush tea gardens of Munnar in Kerala, is home to some 65 specially abled children, handpicked from the surrounding areas. Run by Srishti Trust, the school has so far empowered 204 specially abled children with the skills necessary to lead a comfortable life. The school is run under the careful watch of Ratna Krishna Kumar, the trustee of Srishti Trust, and wife of former Tata Sons director R.K. Krishna Kumar. When this reporter met her recently at the school, she exuded a charm and vivacity all her own. Dressed in a maroon kurta with a batik print shawl thrown over it, her salt and pepper hair curled up over the shoulders, she chatted freely about her life, values, work, passion, her journey so far.
Hailing from Gods’s own country Kerala, Ratna grew up in a traditional set-up: Her father was a practicing doctor and mother a homemaker. As a youngster, Ratna showed a keenness to learn. But before that could take a tangible shape, like most girls of her age then, she was snatched away from it all by matrimony, as early marriage was the norm those days. Her husband, Krishna Kumar, had just joined the Tata Group then.
Though Ratna was a graduate, she always followed her creative instincts in choosing what she wanted to do. Soon after marriage, the couple relocated from Thallasery, a small town in Kerala, to Bombay. For two years, Mr Kumar went on to work for Tata Industries, before being shifted to Tata Global Beverages, which back then went by the name of Tata Finlay. In 1982, Mr Kumar was rewarded for his hard work and contribution by being elevated to the rank of Vice President, South India Plantations. Later, he was promoted as Managing Director. During Mr Kumar’s stint in the south, Ratna Krishna Kumar came in touch with the plantation workers.
Under Mr Kumar's leadership, Tata Tea formed a jointed venture with Tetley of the UK in 1992. It later went on to acquire the British company for £271 million to become the second largest tea company in the world. Tetley's acquisition was the largest overseas by an Indian company then. The publicity around the acquisition brought the couple into the limelight as well.
Mr. Kumar's job at Tatas took the couple to Cochin and Kolkata besides Mumbai. They now live at their Mumbai home with their son Ajit, his wife and their little daughter.
The couple has made a mark for themselves in their respective vocations. Mr Kumar is known as a confidante of philanthropist and former Tata Sons chairman Ratan Tata. Ratna Krishna Kumar, on the other hand, has enriched the lives of plantation workers with her love for textiles.
When Mr. Kumar was leading the transformation of an India-focused Tata Group into a $100-billion global conglomerate, Ratna was discovering her love for textiles and colours. In 1991, she joined DARE (Developmental Activities in Rehabilitative Education) School in Munnar which was already engaged in rehabilitating the specially abled children of plantation workers.
She, along with Dolly Lai, wife of a then Tata Tea manager, took a keen interest in bringing a holistic approach to the lives of these children. DARE, which started in a small room with only five children, has so far touched the lives of more than 205 children of plantation workers. Speaking at the recently concluded silver jubilee celebrations of DARE, Ratna Krishna Kumar said:
When I was introduced to DARE, I wanted to contribute more. It was then that we established the Srishti Trust, to bring a developmental package which involves both education and employment for the specially abled children at Munnar.
Ratna Krishna Kumar has this uncanny ability of influencing people and making them see things the way she does. According to her, when dealing with children who are specially abled, one needs to have compassion and patience in equal measure.
If you cannot be compassionate then this industry is not for you. Specially abled have their own apprehensions. They are not like us but most of the times, they are better than us and one has to reciprocate and respect that quality of theirs.
With a view to make a difference to the lives of specially abled children, Ratna Krishna Kumar introduced the concept of natural dyeing at DARE, which today goes by the brand name ARANYA. Using recyclable products such as flower waste, animal dung and leaves grown at the plantation as raw materials, the children are taught to dye fabric materials which are later used for making shawls, strolls, saris and other dresses.
When asked about one particularly interesting experience that she may have had while working with textiles, she narrated a recent episode from Auckland, New Zealand. She said she was surprised to see the response to the products made by the plantation workers in that country, which were picked up at a much higher price than they had anticipated. Not just that, most of the buyers also came back asking for more. This she said gave the workers a much needed motivation.
I once met a Shibori artist, Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada, from Japan; she is considered a grandee of the art form. We spoke to her about DARE and the work we do. She was so fascinated by our work that in spite of her busy schedule, she visited us 1.5 years after we extended her the invitation. She spent more than two weeks with our students. She absolutely loved them. Her interest in helping these children was so strong that she took one of our students Banu with her to Japan to train her in printing and design skills. We owe our journey to her, says Ratna Krishna Kumar with a smile.
Besides the work done through Srishti Trust, which has helped the plantation workers find an alternative vocation, Ratna Krishna Kumar has made it her personal mission to help revive the ancient Indian tradition of handloom weaving.
Nearly a decade ago, in collaboration with Tata Foundation and Taj Hotels & Resorts, she kick-started the Varanasi Project. Seventy-five weavers were brought on board to create uniforms for the front office and housekeeping staff at nine Taj Hotels luxury properties in India. The workers were provided medical assistance, education and mid-day meals. The project paid the weavers directly nullifying the need for middle men, and ensuring 100 percent profits to those doing the work.
The project took a revolutionary step when it introduced a payment process whereby half the wage went to the husband and the other half to the wife. The project set up bank accounts and ID cards for each of the weavers and their wives.
I believe that the state governments must do more for craftsmen, says Ratna Krishna Kumar, who has made promotion of crafts her life’s motto.
She is also involved with Paramparikariga, a society in Bombay, which brings together traditional craftsmen from the country to empower rural artisans. The society holds annual and quarterly exhibitions, which is a go-to-market for crafts from across the country.
We have become a catalyst for fetching raw materials, pricing, branding, exploring market places, growing their digital presence. Also we don’t charge craftsmen even a penny so they travel worldwide only to return back to the community. Each craftsman dedicates 10 percent of his earnings to the trust that works for the betterment of the fellow community.
A lot of these craftsman have received Padma Shri, Shilpa Guru and other national awards and we are very proud of them, informs Ratna Krishna Kumar.
Ratna and her love for Munnar dates back 25 years when she visited the city for the first time. Her face lights up everytime there is a mention of the organisation she has mentored. Recipients of several state awards and international accolades, the organisation has helped take specially abled locals to a world that accepts them for their weaknesses. Talking about one such instance, she says,
Once, one heard about a mentally challenged child being locked inside a house with a pet dog and how the child developed the habit of eating on the floor by looking at the way the dog ate food. Such instances like that convinced her that a place like Munnar needed help. Eventually, the child learnt to sit on chair and eat. The stigma attached in people’s mind was difficult to remove but when we pushed them we did get some support, recounts Ratna Krishna Kumar.
Today, the organisation clocks revenues of over Rs 3 crore. It has a strong international market, so much so that 60 percent of its customers are overseas. The organisation also receives voluntary help.
Students from NID (National Institute of Design) and IIFT (International Institute of Fashion Technology) have been interning with us, says Ratna Krishna Kumar.
Although being the wife of a celebrated personality gives her access to all the trappings of high life, but Ratna Krishna Kumar prefers to devote her energies to the welfare of the community at Munnar. So much so that every two months, she drops by for a roll call or just to bond with the community in Munnar. When asked why is the city so special for her, she says with a smile,
When you deal with people out of love and affection, the trust becomes a default trait and here at Munnar, there has never been a problem in managing people. They have never given a reason for any of us to be mad at them. When you deal with special children, patience becomes your first trait. You cannot afford to lose your patience. And it involves repetition, courage and some personal investment of care and giving.
Listening to Ratna Krishna Kumar talk about her life and selfless work fills one with a sense of awe tinged with deep respect for her. But how does one sum up the life of such a person? Words are never enough to capture the essence of the work done by such a person. Yet there are words out there that appropriately describe her. But for the moment, the adage that with great power comes great responsibility is all that fills the mind.