Around 2009, when Usha visited her parents at Gaya, Bihar, she felt they were getting affected by isolation. All seven of their children had settled down in different cities after completing their education and getting married and loneliness was taking a toll on them, especially her mother. Their youngest child Usha, a textile designer and social development professional, thought of setting up a home-based self-reliant enterprise that would not only utilise her mother’s excellent crochet skills but also empower women and girls, who mostly remain on the fringes of Bihar’s patriarchal society.
Usha's family were very encouraging and supportive to this initiative. “I wanted to give back to my roots and also work for the betterment of girls and women in my hometown. Despite working in various cities of India and other countries as a development consultant, India was always my calling. Samoolam was a natural outcome of all that I wanted to do,” says Usha, adding that her mother is the inspiration behind setting up Samoolam - the zero-waste craft brand empowering women of rural Bihar.
In 2009, Usha’s mother Geeta Devi (who passed away in 2020) began training 12 rural women in crochet craft in the garage of her father, a car mechanic. In crochet, yarn is turned into a textured fabric by using just a hooked needle.
Soon the number of women learning the craft fell to just three. Most of them did not believe there was a market for crocheted jewellery and artefacts and felt it was pointless to continue. “But I did not feel discouraged. I thought it was easier to give work to three people than arrange work for 30,” says Usha.
Handcrafting an enterprise
While working as consultant to various social development projects in Delhi, Usha would source threads and other raw materials from different parts of India and send them to Gaya. She would take the finished products to stores and exhibitions pan India.
In fact, she was involved closely with Samoolam, which means collective roots, only in the early days when she combined her deep sense of design with her mother’s crochet skills to train women in creating new age products.
But overall, Samoolam has been designed as a people’s organisation where women are empowered to manage the day-to-day activities and management is looked after from a distance. “For the last 20 years, I have been out of Bihar - first for studies and then for jobs. The core philosophy was to create an organisation which is not leader-dependent. I have built Samoolam from a distance and I am available to guide it from wherever I am in the world,” says Usha, who graduated from the National School of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, in 2005.
She then received the Ford Foundation International Fellowship in 2006 and completed her master’s degree in International Development & Social Change from the Clark University, USA.
While development work made her travel to China, Sri Lanka, Nepal, the UK and other countries, she was always closely involved in Samoolam. For Usha, it has never been an organisation for monetary benefit. "It is about craft, livelihood and women empowerment. It is a message that anyone can make a positive social impact on the ground from anywhere if they wish to," she says.
True to the philosophy behind it, Samoolam has trained over 500 women in crochet craft in the last 12 years.
“Samoolam is donor-independent. The earnings from the sale of products are enough to pay all the artisans and cover other expenses,” says Usha, who funded operations with her income for many years before the NGO reached the break-even point.
“I used to invest my income from development consultation work in Samoolam. That is how we grew initially,” she says.
Now, Samoolam’s crochet jewellery, home décor items, curtain ties, cushion cover, coasters, table linen, stationery, rakhis and many other products are sold through both online and offline stores. Gaatha, Okhai, Flourish and Amara Earth are among the online retailers which sell Samoolam products. The products are also available offline in stores of Fabindia, Goodearth, Artisans, Anantaya and PeopleTree in Delhi, Mumbai, Jaipur, and Goa etc.
“Our vision is to make Samoolam the house of crochet. We keep experimenting with new designs and products,” she says.
Decentralising women empowerment
The senior artisans at the NGO work as master trainers and others look after quality control, production, training new people in crochet etc. Those not too good in crochet can take up other roles like stitching or packaging.
It is not just income and livelihood that Samoolam provides. It ensures dignity and self-respect for women who would otherwise struggle for survival in society.
A case in point is artisan Kanti Mishra, who lost her husband a couple of years back. Mother of four children, she says Samoolam is everything to her. “My household runs on the income from Samoolam. They pay for medical expenses when any of my kids fall sick and also provide for their school fees,” she says.
Neelam Devi, who has been working with the NGO for five years, says her income gives her the ability to meet her own and her children’s expenses without asking her husband for help. “Earlier, I had no idea about things outside my house. Today, I can operate my bank account and don’t have to depend on my husband for anything,” she says.
“When there is a fight in my house, I begin to crochet to divert my mind. It brings peace,” says another artisan.
The NGO also conducts health and eye check-ups every six months. It has opened bank accounts for all the artisans and all the payments are made through them. The earnings of artisans vary between Rs 3,000 and Rs 12,000 per month depending on their skills and the number of pieces they make.
“They work in groups of 8-10 people. They come to the centre, collect raw material and complete the product at home. The artisans come back on a designated date to deposit the ready products,” she adds.
The zero-waste grassroots enterprise works with cotton and viscose threads, wooden and glass beads and zari to create its wide range of products. The raw materials are sourced from across the country like Delhi’s Sadar Bazar and some threads from Delhi. The organisation also collaborates with artisans from from Bhagalpur, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh to bring out new collections.
Usha has achieved a lot more than what she set out for. Yet, her quest for women empowerment using design and craft continues. “I want to see Samoolam growing further in the years to come while keeping the roots strong, making positive impacts in lives of the community at grassroots,” she says.
(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in business, financial and socio-economic reporting)