This Assamese startup is giving a lifeline to northeast Indian handicrafts by taking them global
Assamese startup Brahmaputra Fables came about in 2017 when Founder Dhruba Jyoti Deka realised all the resources, talent, and beauty of Northeast India - his home - were not getting the attention they deserved.
India’s northeast region has been blessed with an abundance of natural resources despite the small corner of India it occupies. The region, which comprises eight states – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, and Tripura - possesses almost 40 percent of India’s hydropower potential, according to a PwC report.
However, its natural wealth has not translated into the economic and social development that the region deserves. While the Indian government has prioritised infrastructure projects in the region to connect the Northeast to the rest of the country, a disconnect still remains, with the states hanging on by a thin strip of land, colloquially called the ‘chicken’s neck’.
This tenuous connection with the rest of the land has resulted in the obscurity of the Northeast’s rich cultural diversity, which has gone unnoticed by the rest of the country. Northeastern India is a melting pot of tribal handicraft and artisan-centric industry that stretches back well before modern India was established.
The area is famous for its silks, weaving, bamboo craft and metal work. Assam is a leading producer of silk, and holds a virtual monopoly over the famous golden-hued Muga silk, according to the State government website.
And in order to drum up enough awareness and business activity for handicrafts from the Assamese region, 26-year-old Dhruba decided to simplify and organise the highly fragmented artisan industry through Brahmaputra Fables. An ecommerce platform, it enables people to choose from a range of authentic handicrafts carefully sourced from artisans in the region.
In 2014, Dhruba was in Pondicherry, pursuing a Master’s degree in Chemistry. While there, he, along with other Northeast students, would put up fests and shows that highlighted the culture of the area through song, dance, and theatre. His classmates, who took in this culture that was completely new to them, were awestruck at the novel art forms.
“They had no idea the kind of rich cultural diversity in the Northeast, and that’s when I got the idea to introduce Northeastern culture and handicrafts to the rest of India. Till then, there was not much affordability or availability,” Dhruba notes.
However, at that time, the idea of creating a startup in Assam was the preserve of programmers and tech professionals. When Dhruba graduated from Pondicherry University in 2016, he returned home to his village, Sarthebari -- famous for its brass and bell metal work -- in Assam. Records for Sarthebari’s bell metal industry date back to the seventh century AD, and indicate that the craft was popular among commoners and royal families alike.
There are still plenty of skilled bell metal artisans in Sarthebari, but now they usually sell their products to shopkeepers and merchants in cities such as Guwahati. As a result, most artisans lose out on a significant cut of their profits to middlemen.
“While middlemen got rich, my friends were still the same,” notes Dhruba, who then vowed to start a website to sell their products. A junior from college agreed to build the website, and Brahmaputra Fables officially launched in June 2017, with 30 artisans on board selling 100 products.
The products were mostly brass and metalwork from Dhruba’s village, along with silk apparel from Sualkuchi, dubbed the ‘Manchester of Assam’.
From the banks of the Brahmaputra to the world
The first ever artisan who came on board knew Dhruba from childhood, and he told others about the idea. At present, Brahmaputra Fables has 3,000 artisans. The startup keeps only 10-20 percent of the sales, with the artisans pocketing the rest.
Seeing its marketing campaign on Facebook, a man from Assam became very curious about Brahmaputra Fables’ products and insisted that he be the first customer, Dhruba says. The man ordered two sarais - a type of ornate brass tray - the very first day their site went live. On the same day, an Assamese girl in Bengaluru ordered jewellery.
Brahmaputra Fables relies on a client base of Assamese diaspora but is also seeing growing interest from others as well. The company has generated Rs 25 lakh in revenue in just 18 months, and has shipped its products within India as well as to the US, the UK, and Italy.
The Guwahati-based company’s unique name was inspired by ecommerce giant Amazon, which took its name after the eponymous river, the largest in the world.
“Brahmaputra is the largest river in Assam. It is a lifeline- I always wanted it to be in the name. As for fables, my startup will tell the stories from the banks of the Brahmaputra to the whole world,” Dhruba says.
Reviving the Northeast tradition
When Dhruba started Brahmaputra Fables, he borrowed money from family and friends - roughly Rs 25,000 - to pay for the website and source some products for the platform.
“I started from scratch without any experience. The money was a challenge,” he notes.
There was the initial challenge of gaining customer trust and establishing credibility. “Brahmaputra Fables is not big - it was a lot of trust, and a lot of risk for us and for our customers.”
The company has five permanent employees and three interns - typically underprivileged kids from the neighbouring villages. Dhruba, the former chemistry grad, is currently enrolled in School for Social Entrepreneurs in Delhi to develop practical knowledge in leading a business.
And he has lofty aspirations for Brahmaputra Fables. The startup, which is part of an incubator created by the state government and IIM Calcutta Innovation Park called “Assam Startup- The Nest”, is on the lookout for funds, and aims to raise between Rs 20-25 lakh. With the money, he wants to set up physical stores in Delhi, Hyderabad, and Bengaluru.
Earlier, Dhruba dreamt of featuring artisans from all over India, but he stopped himself as the Northeast itself had so many handicrafts that were fading into oblivion. The startup is currently revamping its website, but taking orders on its social media handles. The new website will integrate stories of the crafts and artisans as well as selling their products, to educate customers.
“There are so many crafts to revive - I want to integrate 5,000 artisans by 2020.”