This artist brings the susegad of the Konkan region to her sculptures and figurines
A dainty handcrafted Konkan house, complete with a cobbled roof, an attic, and colourful walls; a dipping bowl with a little winged visitor perched on the edge, and a mother with her son, seemingly dropping him to school – these are just some of the everyday vignettes that don Olee Maatee’s Instagram page.
is the design brainchild of Pune-based papier mâché artist Bharati Pitre, whose portrayal of everyday life through her little collectables remind us of simpler times, and life’s little joys that often go unnoticed.
Bharati’s craft studio originated in Devrukh, a tiny hamlet in Ratnagiri district, the heart of the Konkan region. It started as an initiative by CREDAR (Centre for Rural Entrepreneurship, Development and Research), a trust started by Bharati’s in-laws, Vasant and Vimal Pitre.
“Olee Maatee means wet soil, something that the Konkan region and its artisans are famous for,” says Bharati in a chat with HerStory. She feels as an artist, being true to one’s surroundings, research, and one’s calling brings the best of artistic talent to the forefront, and enables artists to give something new to the audience.
The artist and her muse
For Bharati, being true to her surrounding led to her finding inspiration in the flora and fauna around her.
“There is this Kingfisher bird that we find everywhere on our farm. And maybe he knows that we've celebrated him, because he now comes very close to us, perches on the chair outside, or on the lawn. It’s gorgeous,” she remarks, explaining the idea behind her signature ceramic dipping bowl that features a Kingfisher perched on its edge, almost like it’s ready to dip in. The product is hand-glazed and wheel-thrown by artisans in Bharati’s craft unit in Devrukh.
Varun Pitre, Bharati’s son and CEO of Cufuka Craftworks, the parent company of Olee Maatee, says, “An unfortunate aspect of our country is that a lot of people from small towns start migrating to the cities due to lack of opportunities. This changes the complete fabric of a town, leaving very little incentive for people to stay back. When my grandfather started the Pitre Foundation, he was clear that the focus will be creating gainful and sustainable occupational employment of the local people.”
The Foundation runs the Devrukh College of Art and Design, and also conducts handcrafted artisanal workshops in the town.
“The original idea behind these workshops was to create infrastructure for artisans," Varun says.
He adds that the artisans’ skill notwithstanding, there was still a huge gap in their understanding of the market needs, and the costs, effort and exposure needed to reach that commercial market.
The birth of Olee Maatee
Although artistically inclined from childhood, Bharati’s early years of marriage went into helping in her husband Ajay Pitre’s orthopaedic implants business.
“By the time I started pursuing my own career in commercial art, everything was happening on computers. The world had moved forward and I had no connection to technology. That’s when I realised that I was more of a craftsperson than a commercial artist.”
She admits her confidence was low when she signed up for a week’s course in the papier mâché art form from Sharad Kumar, the grandson of the famous artist Ganga Devi.
“He was a wonderful teacher who introduced us to paper pulp and the organic way of handling paper pulp as they do in the Mathura Brindavan region, where they use fenugreek seed powder or hing (asafoetida) as binders,” she recalls, adding that the simplicity, naivety, and unassuming format of his artwork left a huge impression on her.
Bharati’s Konkan personas and figurines on Olee Maatee are notably unpretentious, whether it is Pammi Aunty or the traffic cop Mama with his potbelly.
“I created them with smaller heads and larger bodies because these are ordinary people. I want to celebrate their lives as simple ordinary people leading their extraordinary lives.”
After spending nearly two years developing and curating products for Olee Maatee, Bharati decided to take tentative steps into the commercial market through exhibitions in Mumbai in late 2018-2019.
Varun says, “We realised there was a demand and acceptance of our designs. The exhibitions showed we could recover the expenditure towards the artisans and the materials. While we had the proof of concept, my mother’s primary interest lay in papier mâché and sculpturing. That is when I told her that I will help her in commercialising this.”
He adds that in order to have a clean transition from a foundation to commercial business, the Pitres set up an independent entity called Cufuka Craftworks. “We want to grow organically and we want to grow along with the artisans that we have with us. So we give full-fledged employment to all the 16 artisans who work across four mediums - ceramic, terracotta, papier mâché, and bamboo,” Varun says.
“We are comfortably funded by ourselves and do not wish to seek external funding just to show geometric growth. We have been a little cautious about showcasing on the 100 different marketplaces that are available today,” says Varun, adding that the company was able to make between Rs 15-20 lakh in 2018-19 through exhibition sales alone.
In the last year, since the company started its social media, website, and B2B sales, it has managed to clock Rs 50-60 lakh, according to Varun.
In the B2B segment, Olee Maatee has dived into differentiated gifting like bespoke murals, installations, and commissioned artworks. It is now getting into more universal product lines like dinnerware and serveware to tap into the hospitality segment.
Despite the growth, the artist in Bharati has these concluding words, “We would love to be a global brand one day, but also be very relatable at the same time. Our next project is going to be on our rescue dog Gopi, who is always covered in red soil due to his antics.”
For a brand that literally means ‘wet soil’, maybe Olee Maatee has also found its mascot in Gopi.
Edited by Teja Lele