Mountain echoes

The founders of Echostream want to create a booming creative industry in the mountains

July 22, 2017 04:21 pm | Updated 04:34 pm IST

Contemporising traditional weaving is just one of Echostream’s many initiatives

Contemporising traditional weaving is just one of Echostream’s many initiatives

We are squeezed into the back of Sonam Gyaltsen Bhutia’s buzzing studio in Gangtok, which brims over with interns from the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, and from Indian School of Design and Innovation Parsons, Mumbai. The long table in the middle where they work is covered with sheets, fabrics, laptops and sewing machines. Notice boards on either side are filled with sketches, postcards, pictures and scribbled designs. A doodle on one of the glass panels of a cupboard reads, ‘Shit happens, it’s organic.’

“We help generate and provide services to build a creative mountain economy,” says Bhutia when I ask him about Echostream in Sikkim. The initiative promotes natural, handmade and organic products from the Himalayan state.

Sonam and his partners—Karma Sonam Bhutia, her husband Ranveer Singh Sahmbi, Tenzing Nyentsey Bhutia and Karma Palzor Bhutia—want to create a booming creative industry in the mountains. More than anything else, their main aim is the conservation of heritage. They work primarily to educate locals about their own land, traditions and customs. “Sikkim is filled with artisans who have sustained themselves for many generations,” Sonam says, but she worries that in this age of advanced technology and science, they may lose touch with their roots.

Work from home

Set up in 2008, Echostream’s founders—all designers from National Institute of Design—decided to find ways to put into place a solution to develop a sustainable lifestyle in the mountain state. Sonam himself is a product designer who specialises in working with bamboo and his brand ‘La’ promotes bamboo crafts and ‘T’ sells tea.

When Sonam introduces me to Karma, a textile designer, she is busy wielding a needle and thread. She says she prefers working with her hands rather than sitting in front of the computer. She worked in Delhi and Mumbai for a while but came back to Sikkim with her husband Ranveer.

“Coming back and starting something here was a big challenge,” she admits. She designed bridal wear and handled interior designing projects for a while. Now she has her own brand, Kuzu, which promotes textiles from Sikkim, woven mostly by trained village women. She also has a hand-knit collection for infants. Karma says that since many of these women can’t leave home, they are provided with training and equipment so that they can work from home.

“Their livelihood can improve so much if they are appreciated and encouraged for what they are doing.” At the Weavers Service Centre (the Central government’s handloom department) Karma works with nearly 45 women weavers in different weaving techniques to contemporise traditional weaving to suit the demands of the market.

Ranveer, an animator from Madhya Pradesh, the only non-Sikkimese in the group, is working on a film for the World Wide Fund for Nature along with Palzor. He joined Echostream in 2010. “Sonam was persistent that I should work with them. He would send me pictures of what they were doing, making me feel jealous.” Coming to Sikkim was the best decision he has made, he says.

Palzor and Ranveer helped Chowang, a director friend, conceptualise and execute the animated character Pokchi, a female red panda, who takes kids on a guided virtual tour of the flora and fauna of Sikkim. Many schools have welcomed Pokchi into their classrooms as a teaching tool. The mission is to make Pokchi a household name. Palzor emphasises that creating a production house and engaging local talent is their main focus.

The animation team also collaborated with four Thanka painters on a short animated film for Tales of the Tribes, a collection of animated folktales from India, produced by the Adivasi Arts Trust. They are looking for more ways to bring traditional thankha work into the fold.

Chillies and teabags

Tenzing, also the owner of B.R.E.W (Bakery, Retail Events Workshop), says his café provides a space for artists and social organisations to interact and conduct workshops. He is promoting a brand called ‘Sikkimis’ whose products range from t-shirts to the famous hot round chillies called Sikkim Dalle. He calls them ‘OyeDalle’ (slang for ‘hey shorty’). His teabags, postcards, key chains and other products tell stories of Sikkim. He is now working on an app that will provide tourists with information in the form of stories.

Echostream works closely with children too. B.R.E.W designed workshops especially for students on baking, carpentry, pottery, knitting and other life skills. Tenzing initiated a project where the founders visited a government school in Lingding, near Gangtok, every Saturday for a year and held workshops on poetry, reading, writing, cooking, music and crafts. The idea was to give the kids a break from the monotony of classroom lessons.

As I leave Echostream Studio, Sonam and Karma are busy putting the finishing touches to their brands, which will soon be showcased in sales exhibitions in Gandhinagar and Dubai.

The freelance journalist hails from a remote village called Gangyap in West Sikkim.

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