Lines of freshly-washed plastic bags flutter in the breeze in Union Territory of Dadra and Nagar Haveli’s Bonta village. These bags have been collected by rag pickers and companies engaged in waste collection, and once they arrive at the village, they are cleaned and shredded by 13 girls and women of the Warli tribe. The women then use a traditional charka to make yarn from these bits, which is later woven into fabric on a hand loom. From there it travels to Pune, where a compact nine-member team transforms the fabric into bags, laptop sleeves, pouches, yoga mats and home décor products.
These accessories are the result of a three-year initiative undertaken by Amita Deshpande and Nandan Bhat of Aarohana Ecosocial Developments, Pune. Since 2013, their enterprise has been training tribals, who are artistic, to also weave and earn a livelihood. Regulars at art fairs such as Dastkar and Khala Ghoda, they are showcasing their products in Chennai this weekend.
From the hills
It all started when avid trekkers Bhat (with experience in the corporate sector) and Deshpande (an engineer with a sustainability background) saw how trekking sites in Maharashtra were degrading due to reckless crowds dumping alcohol bottles and polluting the hills.
“Earlier, the place was pristine, but over the past five-six years, we have spotted a lot of plastic waste. So we carry along a separate bag and bring back the trash we find on our path,” says Bhat, who has been trekking for 12 years now.
Five years ago, Aarohana began as a curator for Corporate Social Responsibility projects, but the founders soon realised that they worked better on their own. The pilot project began in August 2015 in Maval near Pune, with two artisans. They were unsure if the idea of products made using waste plastic would find favour with people. Then, during a pre-Diwali sale that year, Aarohana’s test batch sold well. They can still recall their excitement over their first sale: a handbag, bought by a relative for ₹600.
Talking about how their products have evolved, Bhat says interns from NIFT, Chennai and Mumbai, Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru, and Pearl Academy, Delhi, help the Aarohana team with fresh inputs. “They help us with construction, detailing and colour coordination of stitches.”
Deshpande and Bhat have been hands-on founders. “We are involved in all stages. From waste collection and training to weaving and marketing,” says Bhat, 38, adding that their decision to attend only certain craft fairs is a well-thought out one. “There is a higher possibility that visitors there will be more accepting of the work we do, and we don’t have to spend time convincing them,” he says.
Plans are afoot to start a third unit in the State, a replica of Bonta, in a tribal village. The team prefers tribal villages, especially after their Maval project in a regular village proved a “miserable failure”. “We could not win over the social structures there. Not even after three months,” he explains.
Over the years, Aarohana has found a growing market in Pune, Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad. It also ships its larger beach bags and shopping bags to the US, Europe and Singapore. What strikes a chord in international markets, says Bhat, is the fusion of art in a material hitherto used to make only utilitarian products. Kalamkari and Ajrakh patches, sourced from artisans through craft foundations, add value.
“Our benchmark is the Swiss brand Freitag, which has been in the upcycling business for long. We want to create a social project with a market connect. In the next two years, we hope to employ 50 people, each of whom will take home between ₹5,000 and ₹15,000 a month,” says Bhat, who has just launched basket tote bags for the festive season.
Ultimately, only two things seem to drive Aarohana — conserving the environment by keeping plastic away from dumpyards. And providing livelihoods in rural India.
The products are priced from ₹200 to ₹2,000, and are available at Crafts Council of India’s Craftepreneur, held at Lalit Kala Akademi till October 28. Details: aarohana.org