Published: 23rd June 2020
With fossilised accessories, Amrita Giriraj's Alankaara is helping craftsmen from Kanyakumari stay afloat
We speak to Amrita Giriraj to find out about her brand of fossilised jewellery and accessories, and how it helps craftsmen from Kanyakumari earn a livelihood
When Amrita Giriraj came across a technique called fossilising that was native to Ireland, she immediately developed a knack for it and began to fossilise small, medium and large seashells, flowers and other botanicals into jewellery and lifestyle objects. "It’s just magical. How enchanting is it that you can take something from nature and fix it into a material permanently and gaze at it whenever you feel like it? It is fresh, pure and just so spellbinding. The resin also helps magnify this mystical quality of the smallest botanical. It is almost like looking under a microscope. This quality is what drew me to this art," says the 28-year-old entrepreneur, born and raised in Chennai. Amrita's brainchild Alankaara not only sells an entire collection of fossilised jewellery, including hair clips, earrings, nose pins, necklaces, rings, cufflinks and anklets, and other accessories like keychains but all of these are made by craftsmen from Kanyakumari to help them earn a living.
Alankaara actually evolved from Amrita's post-graduation project in 2014 when she was pursuing a course in art and design at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bengaluru. "The project required me to come up with a business model that would make an impact in terms of profit for the seashell craftsmen who never fully recovered from the 2004 tsunami which washed away their livelihoods. They resorted to importing and selling cheap plastic products to tourists and eventually, the number of seashell artisans began shrinking swiftly. While I was researching for my project, I stumbled upon the fossilising technique. Artist Gillian Corcoran is one of the pioneers in this field. A few of the products I initially made using this technique was well received by the market. And the process is quite simple and so, it was easily understood by the craftsmen," she explains.
When Amrita began her post-graduation project, it was very rudimentary as the self-help groups in Kanyakumari had no structure or proper direction regarding creating something that would stand out from what they already used to do. Amrita says, "This is where PTSLP – the Post Tsunami Sustainable Livelihood Programme — came in like a knight in shining armour. They already had women clusters formed and ready – with funding and a plan but not enough resource people to execute them. Alankaara’s role came in here, we armed these craftsmen with basic skills and found new markets for them."
Upon graduating after winning the Best Project Award, Amrita had dreams of starting her own line but did not want to depend on family for funds. She worked as a merchandiser after completing her post-graduation and then, went on to handle public relations for another company before she began her own journey. "These jobs helped me understand the basics of running an organisation and the kind of person I needed to be to handle the livelihoods of others. In 2016, Alankaara became a brand and initially, my sister helped me with `47,000. Following this, in 2018, we incorporated into Alankaara Designs Private Limited, moved into a brick and mortar studio and began our real journey," says Amrita, adding, "Since then, we have scaled up from a garage to a 500 sqft studio and then, to a 1,200 sqft workshop. We’ve done all of this in a phased manner without any external intervention so far. All operations, staff salaries, rent and bills are from our monthly sales rotation. Our main source of revenue is through our website www.alankaara.com."
Alankaara also sells through six retail stores across the country in Mumbai, Bengaluru, Goa, Puducherry and Chennai. With fossilising and resin art gaining momentum in India, Alankaara stands as a pioneer, as the first that brought in this Irish art and botanicals from all around the world to the country. "I initially began with flowers from my own garden, then travelled to hill stations in the South to source wildflowers as well as nurseries and farms. In 2018, I trekked the Himalayan range through a Himachal valley and was spellbound by the biodiversity there. I found flowers I had never seen before. We were not allowed to pluck flowers but were allowed to collect fallen ones. We made a whole range out of them. Himalayan poppies, rhododendrons, buttercups, Queen Anne’s lace are just a few of the flowers I found in the Himalayas. Later that year, I went to Africa and found a different set of flowers there. The biodiversity near the foothills of Mount Kenya and the great rift valley is mind-blowing. I’ve always found flowers to reflect the people and the landscape where it grows, which is what I want to convey through every Alankaara piece. All our products have an empowering story. We believe in making an impact on the lives of those around us," quips the 28-year-old.
Speaking about the initial days and the challenges she faced while setting up, Amrita says, "One of the first things you learn when you start out on your own is that not everyone in your life will understand your journey. But as you persist, you cross paths with a lot of other minds who tread the same path and you become a community of artists and designers. This community-hood is truly important to sustain. The first year was extremely hard – I had no prior experience running a brand – almost all of what I know now is through experience and good mentors. I taught myself how to read data, hired people who could teach me the basics of numbers and accounting, stock-keeping was a nightmare for me, Excel was my weakest because I was so terrible with numbers. A lot of people assume running a brand has to do with social media presence but it is truly what you do offline that matters in the long run. However, it’s been extremely exciting to be a part of this journey."
The pandemic has been nothing short of a nightmare for Alankaara, says the 28-year-old entrepreneur. "Almost 40 per cent of our revenue comes from retail outlets across the country and 4 out of the 5 stores we retail with have shut down permanently. With couriers inoperative, orders have fallen by 80 per cent and we still have our fixed overheads like salaries, rents, electricity bills to pay. We survived with our emergency reserves. We’re currently changing our game plan and looking out for stores to retail through. We are taking one hurdle at a time and keeping our spirits high," she concludes.
Some of Alamkaara's other products: