With Jullaaha, Jaya Devi Cholayil empowers poor families with skill training, employment and educationRekha Balakrishnan
Jullaaha empowers women’s lives by training them in batik and kalamkari work, mural painting and block printing.
At the age of 19, Jaya Devi married into the renowned Cholayil family (well-known for its Medimix range of bath and skincare products).
Not content with just being part of the family business, Jaya Devi chose to utilise her creativity and training (she is an alumnus of NIFT) and start her own venture, Jullaaha (which means ‘weaver’ in Urdu), which combined her passion for Indian textiles with her desire to protect and preserve local artistic traditions.
“I was very young when I got married into the Cholayil family and moved from Coimbatore to Chennai. Everyone would go to work every day and I would be at home. My husband suggested that I learn batik. I took to it quickly and soon my friends were complimenting me on what I was wearing,” Jaya Devi says.
In 1993, a woman with limited means came to her for work. Jayadevi decided to teach her batik, and this laid the foundation of a small enterprise that was set up on the rooftop of her house that would soon touch the lives of more than 45 families and would eventually involve them in block printing, kalamkari art, mural painting, embroidery and tailoring.
“The women who work with me are the breadwinners of their families. They have been with me for more than 20 years and are like my extended family. They have become part of my life, and I try to take care of their basic needs,” she says.
Jaya Devi and Jullaaha are also involved with The Banyan, an institute for intellectually challenged women based in Chennai. Jullaaha trains women from The Banyan through a special unit set up for this purpose.
Along with Jullaaha, Jaya Devi would also attend board meetings of the Cholayil Group. “One day, my husband and father-in-law asked me to take care of the R&D department. When I asked them what I was expected to do, they asked me to figure it out myself. I was open to learn everything from scratch and this started my journey with the Cholayil Group. As I belonged to a ‘soap-making’ family, I started with the Jullaaha range of exotic Ayurvedic products that now includes a range of 12 products - soaps, gels and personal care products,” Jaya Devi says.
Jullaaha is also a destination boutique in Chennai, well-known for its original handcrafted sarees using ancient decorative techniques. Jullaaha products are also available online through its portal and major ecommerce websites like Amazon.
Does Jaya Devi feel that as a woman entering the family business, it was a challenge to meet expectations? She emphasises that she is lucky to be part of the Cholayil family. “Even though I am the daughter-in-law, I was given the responsibility to head things. My family had the confidence in my abilities and was sure that I would do well in anything I chose to do,” she quips.
Only after her children grew up did Jaya Devi move her manufacturing unit from the rooftop of her house to a space outside. “Though initially, managing my time between my passion and my family took some getting used to, I made sure my children were my priority,” she says.
Today, she is ably assisted by her son, Lasakan, who is taking a break from his studies to help rebrand and repackage many of the products. Jaya Devi is also planning on opening an Ayurvedic resort that will offer alternative healing systems on the family’s farm on the outskirts of Chennai. When she enquired from neighbouring villages how she could help them, children expressed a desire to be coached in Maths and English. So Jaya Devi ensured that tutors visited these villages regularly and helped the children with their lessons. This has ensured a renewed interest in these subjects and overall education among the villagers.
Jaya Devi’s business philosophy is simple. “Profit has never been a motive for me to do business. Money is not the criterion for everything. As long as I can help a person live a better life, I will continue to do what I am doing,” she adds.