This woman entrepreneur’s master’s project culminated in a fossilised accessories line and social impact
When Amrita Giriraj decided to pursue a post-graduate course in art and design at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, her life changed, in more ways than she could image.
Amrita Giriraj, founder of Alankaara
Born and raised in Chennai, Amrita studied at a missionary school, where she was always told to conform to different rules; all this changed when she joined Srishti and discovered herself.
She shares that it was a two-year-long process of unlearning, letting go of inhibitions, and understanding that one did not need to compromise all the time.
Change for social good
It was also at Srishti that the seeds of entrepreneurship were sown, as part of her project requirements.
“Alankaara was born as my post-graduation project in 2014. It was a dream and idea that shaped itself in Kanyakumari. It required me to come up with a business model that would make an impact in terms of profit for seashell craftsmen who never fully recovered from the 2004 tsunami, which washed away their livelihoods,” she recalls.
These people in the area had resorted to importing and selling cheap plastic to tourists, and the number of seashell artisans had dwindled swiftly.
While researching, she stumbled upon a technique called fossilising that was native to Ireland. Amrita then began to fossilise small, medium and large seashells into jewellery and lifestyle objects that were well received by the market. The process was easily understood by the craftsmen and also provided them with a means of livelihood
After graduating with The Best Project Award, Amrita dreamed of starting her own line but did not want to depend on her family for funding.
“I was employed as a merchandiser for a few years and worked at night out of my father’s garage. Soon, Alankaara began to spread its wings and we got invites for shows and retail stores. I then decided it was time to take the plunge. My sister started me off with Rs 47,000. I registered it as a sole proprietorship. I later incorporated it into Alankaara Designs Private Limited, moved into a brick-and-mortar studio, and began the journey,” she says.
Amrita says while the concept of preserving organic bits in resin has been prevalent for ages across the globe, in India, Alankaara was one of the first studios to bring botanicals from all around the world and present them with an Indian twist.
Alankaara offers an entire collection of jewellery, including hairclips, earrings, nose pins, necklaces, rings, cuffs, and anklets, and other accessories like keychains, coasters, suncatchers, wall hangings, and trays. They are also moving to bespoke tiles and furniture soon.
Creativity stands out
Explaining the concept further, she asks, “Have you seen honeybees stuck in amber and preserved? Or a leaf frozen in snow? Or ancient tools preserved under volcanic rocks? What we do is almost the same. We just bring it to you in a form you can enjoy and keep close to you inside resin.”
When Amrita started the project, it was very rudimentary since the self-help groups in Kanyakumari had no structure or proper direction.
This is where Post Tsunami Sustainable Livelihood Programme (PTSLP) came in to help. “They already had women clusters formed and ready, with funding and a plan, but with not enough people to execute them. All we needed to do was create the business model, train the women, and find the right market. It seemed simple as we started, but when you work with people whose lives are not full of basic privileges, their priorities are different. They needed quick money to solve their everyday problems,” she says.
In the four years that Alankaara has existed, it has had eight women work part time and full time. These women came from under-privileged backgrounds.
Amrita says, “They come from a strata of society where what some of us consider basic is a privilege. Uniformly, all of them are victims of domestic abuse. Their husbands are sustained alcoholics and beat them up in their inebriated state. I’ve seen them cover their scars with bangles or a dupatta. These women were not ‘allowed’ to work by these men. So, the little money they brought home would be spent on alcohol.”
Her first employee, Amul, after convincing her husband to let her join the studio has become one of the most creative problem solvers for Alankaara.
At time when they were working on solving a design blip that would have needed the best minds in the industry, Amul came up with a simple solution.
“We were trying to sand out a bit of resin that was sticking out jaggedly. She simply brushed it on concrete, washed it with water, and gave it a top coat; it was as good as using different types of sandpaper.”
Another staff member, Vennila, who at one time, was afraid to do anything on her own, even catch a bus to the studio, handles all deliveries and has bloomed into a warrior of sorts.
“When we all sit down for tea or lunch together, I listen to the conversations, their bonding, and how they’re almost always smiling and laughing,” Amrita says, adding that the studio is a safe place for them, an escape from abusive husbands or in-laws.
Jewellery by Alankaara
To maintain exclusivity as an Alankaara Product, most of its limited edits are sold via its website www.alankaara.com, with products retailed at a few stores. She plays full-time employees around Rs 20,000 and for Rs 12,000 to part-time employees.
The PTSLP SHG set up under Alankaara India Private Limited is handled by a team in Ramnathapuram, with a group of young men and women to handle the digital aspect of the business.
Amrita says her biggest success has been to witness the changes a positive work environment and opportunities can bring about in people.
“Humans are layers of complexities. To manoeuvre around that and help each other realise the best of each other is the greatest challenge you’ll ever face in a journey like this. I count small successes like reaching a sales milestone, or a new breakthrough in a technique we’ve been trying.”
The company remains bootstrapped and has scaled up - from a garage to a 500 sq ft studio and then to a 1,200 sq. ft workshop. It recently also received the Bumble Community Grant, which Amrita hopes will help kickstart the projects she had shut down due to lack of funds.
The COVID-19 pandemic slashed Alankaara’s monthly revenues by 40 percent with a lot of stores it retailed at being closed permanently.
“We are now looking at other revenue streams, and hope to get the company back on its feet and impact more livelihoods,” Amrita says.
(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)