Struck by polio at 1.5 years, this Sivakasi-based woman entrepreneur fought the odds to start Guna’s Quilling and achieve success
Gunavathy Chandrasekharan was just one-and-half-years old when she was stricken by polio. She lost most of the movement in her legs, and today, cannot move more than 20 feet without anyone’s help.
While the disability may have affected her physically, Gunavathy’s determination and innate confidence shone through. Her enterprise, Guna’s Quilling, which she founded in 2013, showcases the finest products, handcrafted by her along with four other women, at exhibitions throughout India and earns around Rs 80,000 at a single stall.
The 42-year-old is visibly excited on the call. She became a grandmother earlier that morning and is over the moon.
“Despite my disability, I wanted to do something so that my two daughters would be proud of me,” she tells me. “Now I also have a son-in-law who is proud of my efforts,” she adds.
A meaningful purpose
Gunavathy was raised in a family of doctors but could not continue her education after Class 10 because of her disability. When a relative approached the family with an alliance for her, she was married at the age of 16.
“My mother was very worried about what I would do with my life. She used to keep motivating me by telling me others’ stories so that I could also do something meaningful with my life,” she says.
In 2003, a friend’s daughter presented her with earrings made from quilling. She was surprised to hear that there was not much involved, except paper. So on a lark, she decided to learn quilling from lessons available on the internet. Gunavathy experimented with wall art, miniature pieces, and jewellery, only considering it as a hobby at that time.
When her brother saw her efforts, he got her an order from one of his friends for 40 pieces of wall art.
“I worked day and night to finish the order. My husband has his own printing and binding unit and he printed stickers with my name, phone number, and email address, and stuck them on the packaging of all the pieces. He gave the name, Guna’s Quilling, and it has literally stuck on.”
The pieces were giveaways and those who received it promptly called Gunavathy on the number printed on the sticker and applauded her for her art and her efforts.
Quilling a career
She was delighted by the response and decided to put up a stall at a jute fair in Madurai. This was the turning point for Guna’s Quilling.
Says Gunavathy of the experience,
“I was wearing handmade paper quilling jewellery at that time, and many people inquired about them. Another stall owner suggested that I meet an official from the handicrafts department and ask for an artisan ID. Among the many women who gave a demo to the official, I was the only one to receive an artisan ID on the spot.”
From 2014 onwards, Gunavathy started quilling in earnest and participating in different exhibitions. She also invested Rs 50,000 in the venture. Her husband remains her strongest pillar of support, driving her everywhere, to exhibitions across Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala so that she can showcase her products.
In the meanwhile, she also employed a couple of women from her husband’s unit and trained them in the art of quilling. Soon, she was quilling for almost 18 hours in a day, making a variety of products from miniature art, jewellery, paintings, fridge magnets, etc, over 600 products so far. The products are priced from Rs 100 to Rs 50,000 depending upon the intricacies of the work. She attends eight to 10 exhibitions in a year.
“My main source of income is from the stalls where I exhibit my work. I get orders from there. At each stall, I earn around Rs 60,000–80,000. I buy the raw material from Bengaluru and some online stores,” she says.
Happy to have come this far
Gunavathy has won District and State Awards in the Art & Craft Category.
Despite these successes, she admits that marketing her products remains the biggest challenge.
“I have to explain at length to people to convince them about the product, which is time consuming. A lot of people have told me to market my products online but I haven’t been able to do it yet,” she says.
Despite quilling being an intricate work of art, Gunavathy does not feel tired at all. “For me, it’s a stress-buster, and it has changed my life.”
She also visits schools and colleges in Tamil Nadu to motivate students to work hard towards what they are passionate about.
“When I started my business, I asked a few women from my native village in Dindigul district whether they would like to join me. I was met with cold and disapproving stares. They felt that the women worked only if the men of the house were not able to bring home a sufficient salary. This mindset has to change,” she says.
“Women should understand that even with Rs 10, they can start a business. The most important thing is to stand on one’s own feet and be financially independent.”
In the future, Gunavathy would like to open a store in a big city to promote different types of handicrafts made by women.
“I’m glad that I understood disability should not be in the mind. With the support of my family, I’m happy to have come this far,” Gunavathy says.
(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)