From lighting up slums in Bhopal to reviving hay art, Lakshmi Menon is a designer with a difference

There are some moments that Lakshmi Menon is proud of. Like when a young boy tugged at her dress and implored, “didi mere ghar mein bhi roshini layiye” (Didi bring light even to my house). Lakshmi, 38, from Kanjiramattom, has been instrumental in electrifying slums in Bhopal.

Lighting up slums

K. S. Sudarshan, the late RSS chief, acknowledged her work, invited school and college students, neighbouring NGOs in Bhopal, and declared from the podium that the method of electrification used was known to them but it took a girl from Kerala to come all the way to Bhopal and help people there. Lakshmi says she felt extremely proud of being a Malayali that moment.

Her work received recognition from Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, who invited her for a meeting with the Bhopal Collector and other officials to carry her work forward. Later this year Lakshmi is set to go back and light up more homes.

“ A cousin of mine asked me to see this electrification process on YouTube and I was impressed by its simplicity and doability,” says Lakshmi, who is a designer, and has been instrumental in reviving Kerala’s traditional hay art. As a designer she has showcased her jewellery collection at the New York Fashion Week in 2008. But in India and in her home state

Lakshmi has taken to working at the grassroots with people and social projects that make a difference. It was in March this year that she worked in the slums bringing light using water bulbs.

The electrification process, she says, is simple. A plastic bottle is filled with water and hung half from the roof of a room with no windows. The outside light is refracted and lights up the dark room. As the sun goes down the light dims and at night this does not work. But at daytime these dark, box-like rooms are filled with light.

Lakshmi’s work as a volunteer with Vigyan Bharti, one of the most active science movements in India, took her to Madhya Pradesh. She was working for their mission NEED (National Environment Energy Development), which is where she came in close contact with slums. “Ï showed them the YouTube video and two volunteers of Vigyan Bharti offered to help.” She first got entry into just one home. But after that she was welcomed by every slum dweller. “I feel that instead of complaining about our situation one must go ahead and do the work,” says the gritty can-do girl believing strongly in the adage that if one wishes to do something then Nature conspires to fulfil that.

Lakshmi completed her studies in fashion and interior design from Chennai and Kochi and moved to the United States where she did jewellery designing from Berkeley.

Even as a young girl, Lakshmi says, she was fascinated by environment-friendly processes. She used to teach paper craft to cancer patients in the U.S. and says that hand craft is very therapeutic. She found patients happily immersed in their work away from pain and worry.

For society

Her social activism began quite by surprise. While collecting medicines from a hospital in Thiruvananthapuram, she found that syringes, ampoules, tablets, were all given without a bag. The medicines cost Rs.9, 000. She was surprised that no bag was offered with the medicines and that buyers had to collect the medicines in “duppatas and towels”. She began a campaign for a bag and soon found the authorities offering a bag, free along with medicines. She felt a small victory and realised that “if there is perseverance then something can be done. I was motivated.”

In 2011, Lakshmi started HandyCraftz where she began reviving hay art, a traditional Kerala craft. She did 10,000 book covers in hay art for writer M. Mukundan’s book Pravasam. Her affinity for work with waste paper took her to paper dealers like Valavi and Colortone, where she began collecting “cut waste”. She worked with orphaned kids with the waste material. She then started ‘akriology’ (akri is the Malayalam word for garbage) which she says is the study of upcycling and recycling. “Üpcycling is repurposing and recycling is reprocessing,” explains Lakshmi. Along the way, she help set up a craft village called, Sargaalaya, in Iringal, near Kozhikode for Kerala Tourism, which is a platform for crafters from all over Kerala. Currently, as part of Responsible Tourism, Lakshmi is a consultant with (LEDS Kochi) Kudumbashree where she is developing souvenirs from Kerala.

‘Pure Living’, a company she has floated recently, is set to produce pens made from paper instead of plastic.

Her latest work is with the elderly and the infirm. She has encouraged her grandmother and grannies in the neighbourhood to make oil lamp wicks, which she is packaging and supplying to temples. “This gives them joy and thrill to know that the wicks they make for the Gods reaches the temples they are unable to visit,” says Lakshmi. Her motto is simple: With a little effort one can do a lot of things beneficial to society.

Laksmi Menon’s website is www.thepureliving.in