How a visit to the Rann of Kutch prompted this woman entrepreneur to work with weaver clusters all over India
After completing her MBA in marketing, following a BTech in electronics and communication, Avipsha Thakur worked at Hewlett-Packard and Honeywell Venturebefore she decided to change the course of her career.
Avipsha Thakur - Founder of Bunavat
She joined Roshni, a non-profit working with underprivileged adolescent girls, in 2017, before venturing out on her own with Bunavat – a for-profit social enterprise that works directly with weavers to make traditional, sustainable, and forgotten weaves more accessible, aspirational, and relevant for the urban woman.
Stories and weaves
The idea for Bunavat came from her love for sarees, and a serendipitous visit to the Rann of Kutch on a holiday in January 2018. While she had been always curious about the story behind each weave, Avipsha had researched different textiles and art forms, and a trip to Ajrakhpur – a village famous for Ajrakh hand block printing – in Kutch, Gujarat, further piqued her interest.
“Although I did not know anyone in the cluster, I received a warm welcome and met Ismail Anwar Khatri, a young artisan from Kutch who shared his story. After visiting his workshop and listening to his family’s journey, I was left teary-eyed knowing that the artisan received meagre amounts for hand printing the sarees,” she recalls.
That made her realise the repercussions of the long supply chains involved between the weaver or artisan, and the end-consumer.
The following month, Avipsha travelled to three more weaver-clusters in Bengal and came across more such stories.
“The living conditions I witnessed in these clusters were perturbing. With the thought of cutting down the long supply chain, providing fair prices to weavers and artisans, and upholding their stories to end consumers, Bunavat was started,” she says.
By cutting long supply chains, Avipsha also ensured that the sarees were now more affordable to customers, therefore, making the switch to handloom a more lucrative option.
For the betterment of weaving communities
The bigger purpose, the 38-year-old entrepreneur based in Gurugram says, is to work for the development of the weaving communities, while providing them with a steady stream of income by selling their products. Thus, Bunavat bridges the gap between a weaver’s story and his or her craft, and the end consumer.
Her resolve bolstered by a sales background, Avipsha set out to research the products and how they could be sold. The idea was also to revive handloom through sustained efforts of developing weaving communities, and sourcing products directly from last-mile weavers.
Bunavat, today, works with 950 weavers across 30 weaving clusters, spread over 11 states in the country. The products are made available through a well-managed ecommerce setup.
“The goal of Bunavat is the empowerment of the weavers while ensuring a sustained stream of income for them through product sales. We travel to these weaving clusters to ensure the authenticity of the weave, and capture the story behind it,” she says.
Its website (www.bunavat.com), in addition to ecommerce, has two sections – a travelogue on the weaving clusters — ‘Kathik’ — which helps customers understand the source of the final product, and make more informed purchase decisions —, and ‘Tantukatha’ — a one-of-its-kind digital repository with user-generated researched content on the different weaves of India.
The product line primarily includes hand-woven sarees, but the company is adding more clothing items such as dupattas, stoles, and unstitched fabrics, by June-end.
The company, through its various developmental programmes designed for the weaver-clusters, has been helping the artisan community upskill. It concluded several such programmes in Madhya Pradesh earlier this year, focussed on colour theory, social media, and communication skills. It also conducted a winter-supply distribution workshop for ancillary workers in West Bengal in 2019, and has been supporting weaving families during the coronavirus pandemic by providing them essentials, and encouraging customers to pre-order products.
In addition to adding to the incomes of the weavers, Bunavat has been proactively sharing their stories on its social media handles, so that their unheard voices and unseen faces have a platform.
Impacting the lives of women
A few of Bunavat’s weaver-clusters include women, while some clusters – such as those in Assam and Kota – are all-women groups.
“In North Karnataka, Padma Tai weaves Ilkal sarees for us, in Andhra Pradesh, Laxmi Amma hands paints Kalamkari on our sarees, and in West Bengal, Maya Di hand spins the yarns, to name a few,” Avipsha says.
“We have been able to give constant work to them in the last one-and-a-half years, and therefore, contributed to an incremental increase in their income. For example, Gudiya Didi, who does our Sujani hand embroidery, makes about Rs 7,000 for a saree that she completes in one to one-and-a-half-months.”
The sarees sold are either made by the weavers using their own design sensibilities, or custom-made using Bunavat’s design blueprints. The latter employs cross-cluster intervention to come up with new, never-before-seen design styles such as Advika – Bunavat’s exclusive range.
Craftsmen of several states make this range together and every warp, weft, brushstroke, and print is done by hand. A single saree may have travelled to three different states before it is presented to the audience – it could have been handwoven in Bengal, hand-embroidered Sujani in Bihar, and then hand-painted Gond in Madhya Pradesh, taking a total of over three months to finish.
“When we curate our products, our focus is on rare, lesser-known, or revival weaves. Some really need more support because not many people know about them, hence the demand is less and weavers are leaving the craft,” says Avipsha.
“From Gollabhamas of Telangana to Mishing weave of Assam to Patteda Anchus of Karnataka, we are constantly on the lookout for the not-so-common weaves, which is an important USP of Bunavat. Further, the wide variety of products that we offer is also a differentiator for Bunavat,” she adds.
Handmade and sustainable
A Bunavat weaver
All Bunavat products, Avipsha says, are handwoven and handmade. There’s no intervention of machines in the production process.
“Some of our clusters work with hand-spun yarns, some use organic cotton and some use eco-friendly and natural vegetable dyes, which are both skin-friendly and environment friendly,” she says.
“In our own production, we try to use hand-spun cotton and natural dyes to ensure more sustainable clothing. We also work in a cluster that makes upcycled sarees called Khesh. We are just the opposite of fast fashion. The beauty of sarees is that they are fluid and can be reused and upcycled into dresses, bags, furnishings, and accessories too.”
Bunavat’s target audience are women between 23-65 years age, living in metros, Tier-I and II cities.
Its products are priced between Rs 980 for a simple Bengal Dhonekhali tant, and Rs 25,000 for some sarees, as it covers a wide variety of weaves with different levels of intricacies and craftsmanship.
Bunavat was incubated at IIM Bangalore under the Women Startup Programme 2018 for a year, after selection through a couple of rounds. It included mentoring support and a monthly stipend funded by the Department of Science and Technology. Recently, it received the Bumble Community Grant for small businesses that has helped it step up production in two of its clusters in West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh, especially at a time when they need more support.
“Our biggest milestone has been successfully conducting our first skill upgradation programme in Maheshwar with 20 weavers. It was a pilot roll-out just before the lockdown in February 2020, and its success gives us the confidence to now replicate this model across our other clusters,” Avipsha says, adding, that the constant challenge that any handloom brand faces is fighting for a share of the customer’s wallet, and grabbing a slice from the more economical power-loom industry.
With exhibitions cancelled and stocks piling up after the lockdown was announced, Bunavat has tried different things to keep itself afloat, including discounts and offers, customer engagement through online sessions on relevant topics, and taking pre-orders.
It was able to raise Rs 1.5 lakh via crowdfunding to provide monthly and weekly rations to 192 weaver families. Bunavat, additionally, gave a salary advance of a total of Rs 1.15 lakh to five weaving clusters against products that were not even ready, to support the artisans’ families.
Avipsha is optimistic about onboarding another 20 clusters next year, and offering customers a wider variety of weaves to choose from.
“This will help us empower more weaving communities in the process. This year’s immediate plan is to focus on increasing our own production process, meaning more Advikas, expanding the product line, and conducting more developmental programmes in the communities, particularly focussed on health and skill upgradation,” she says.