Meet green designers Kriya and Leony Rynjah who have given the humble loofah a quirky twist to make it a lifestyle accessory through their brand Oh!Gourd

While I sit in Chennai's sweltering heat, wiping off beads of sweat from my forehead as I take down notes, the two ladies I am interviewing are enjoying the cool climes of Ladakh. As we get talking over the phone, what I hear, apart from their responses, is the relaxing ripple of the River Indus in the background and the occasional roar of the wind — a perfect ambience for inspiration and creativity to flourish. No wonder sisters Kriya and Leony Rynjah shuttle between this picturesque location at Tsermang Eco Camp and their hometown Shillong to build their brand Oh!Gourd which is all about organic lifestyle products handmade from the humble sponge gourd. "We started Oh!Gourd in 2011 as a celebration of ideas coming to life. We started in summer and worked through till Christmas to launch our first collection," says Kriya (32), the older of the two and a graduate in Product Design from Birmingham City University, U.K.

Oh!Gourd’s product list includes loofah-cast bottle lamps in vivid hues, infused with fruits and spices that project light dramatically on the walls, kite lamps, coasters in the shape of bread that absorbs whatever is spilt on it, and a new bath range in bamboo and loofah. "Bread coasters are the most popular. So far around 800 pieces have been sold and distributed. Our products are eco-friendly; no nails or glue have been used to create them. We work with many natural materials from Meghalaya and this led to MeghaDreams. There are two brands under MeghaDreams — Oh!Gourd for loofah products and Baa for bamboo products," says Leony.

The idea takes shape

How did the idea of transforming the ordinary loofah into a quirky lifestyle accessory come about? “On a visit home to Shillong in 2011, it dawned on me that I come from a place endowed with natural resources which would make interesting materials to work with. In the city, I worked with metal sheets and wires, and wood and acrylic, whereas here all around me were materials that required minimal investment. Our mother worked with bamboo, making furniture, fences and even bridges on our farm. One thing that caught our eye, was a lampshade made out of a loofah hanging above the dining table,” recalls Kriya. Around the same time, Leony, who had worked in the culinary industry for four years including a stint at The Olive Bar and Kitchen, New Delhi, happened to be looking for a more creatively challenging job. “That's when we decided to get together and start Oh!Gourd — a project where food and design would converge to make products inspired by Nature. We call ourselves green designers," says Kriya. Leony’s culinary skills helped process these raw materials and make them sustainable. Since the products are devoid of chemicals, she experimented with kitchen ingredients, food and fruits, to colour them. Some were even baked to give them the desired shape. “The bread coasters were toasted on a tawa to get the brown, toasted look. We approach our materials as if they are food and our products are all created out of a recipe,” says Leony.

And that was the end of their mainstream jobs. Kriya, incidentally, had worked for a design house for a year. She also designed for The Holi Cow Festival in Delhi. Interestingly, she has also worked on a project titled India Unwired, which is wire art, showcasing Indian cities, its people, its culture, its art....

Engaging the community

With MeghaDreams, the sisters, while giving diverse shapes and utility to loofahs and bamboo, also engage the local community, thereby creating employment opportunities. They work with five local artisans who are paid salaries and outsource the handloom work from various villages in Meghalaya. “Our project is part-funded by the Khadi and Village Industries Commission which continues to support us with material research and development. Our plan for the coming years is to engage a huge section of the village community in reviving local craft that has almost disappeared and look at alternative ways of using local materials and human resource to create products that have a place in contemporary homes.”

Their products are available online at greenthegap.com and itokri.com