When Gauri Malik was six, she began a new life in Welham Girls’ School, a boarding school in Dehradun. Hailing from a well-to-do and not-so-conservative family in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, Gauri traversed two paths – one of the freedom she experienced at the boarding school and the other of conservatism in Muzaffarnagar, where women were mostly limited to households.
“I went to the boarding school when I was six. There, I was an overachiever. But I used to come back to a conservative society where women, mostly from minority groups, were not allowed to work. I grew up with this dichotomy and I wanted to resolve it,” says Gauri, the CEO of sustainable luxury brand Sirohi, which offers home and lifestyle products based on Indian heritage.
Gauri went on to study finance and became an investment banker, but soon became numb by her job. In 2012, she began the Skilled Samaritan Foundation to work with communities in a quaint village in Haryana called Sirohi, which was not much on the map back then.
“I began to work on a solar project and helped the village light up. As the foundation concentrated on these community development projects, I realised in three years that we could not continue this as a charity. We were working at highly subsidised prices,” she says.
People in the village began to leverage their poverty, expecting to get everything for free. “That was also the time I discovered that rural women from marginalised communities have the talent of weaving charpoys (cots),” she says.
This thought took root in her mind and, in 2019, Gauri revived the foundation with a focus on using the skills of women to create products consciously made for global buyers.
She went back to Muzaffarnagar and with the help of her family, started the for-profit brand Sirohi, honouring the Haryana village and giving employment opportunities to women in Muzaffarnagar.
Gauri started Sirohi in June 2019 with one woman artisan, Gauhar Fatma, who agreed to work from her home.
Today, Sirohi works with over 900 artisans across India, mostly women, who handcraft cotton, fibres, and other waste materials into pieces of home décor and lifestyle. “Make in India and market to the world,” says Gauri about Sirohi, which makes sustainable, environmental-friendly products and offers employment to women, especially from conservative and marginalized communities.
Gauri proudly says the employment Sirohi created has reduced child marriage and crime rates by increasing disposable income for families. It has also helped uplift women to leadership positions.
With women then hesitant to come to work, Sirohi started with three people -- Gauhar who was the only woman to come on board and take up the artisan work, Jitendra Kashyap who took care of the operations, and Gauri herself.
“I started Sirohi from my parents’ garage in Muzaffarnagar. I hired Jitendra at a monthly salary of Rs 8,000," she says.
"I had Rs30,000 in my bank account from the foundation work besides my savings of Rs 2 lakh. With this, we developed the first set of products. The artisan was paid Rs 7,000,” Gauri recalls.
They would procure raw materials using a tractor, give the designs to Gauhar, and ferry the finished products on local rickshaws. “It was chaotic but beautiful that we were creating something with our own hands on our soil. We started the Sirohi website with 37 products in 2020. By then, the pandemic hit, and we had to take up the social media route to popularize our products,” adds Gauri.
Sirohi now works with 580 artisans in Muzaffarnagar and has a team of 30 full-time employees. Five agencies support Sirohi’s marketing, finance, and website functions. The brand forges partnerships with craft clusters across India to collaborate on collections.
It sells only online. Besides its website, the products are also sold through Okhai, Amazon and marketplaces like Purple Turtle and La Marche. Gauri is targeting to set up Sirohi’s flagship store soon.
The design war room
From chairs, benches, and charpoys, to baskets, boxes, and home décor items, Sirohi offers a wide range of products. Sirohi also collaborates with other craft clusters, like paper mache artisans in Kashmir and copper craftspeople from Pune.
Currently, Sirohi works with designer Manshi Sharna apart from partnering with other designers on a project basis. “Our designer understands Sirohi’s aesthetics and wants. We look into market trends, and what people have been asking for, and based on that, we come up with mood boards. Last year, people were enquiring about baskets and boxes and for festive seasons, we saw an influx of orders for hampers and corporate gifting. So, a lot of ideation comes from trend forecasts and what people have asked us,” Gauri says.
Once the mood boards are created, Sirohi’s master artisans lead the team and share the designs with artisans, she adds.
Manshi, who hails from Vadodara, and has a background in textile and design, has been working as a merchandiser and designer for the brand since 2021. “We work on a quarterly basis and come up with designs to align with the festivals and occasions. Muzaffarnagar does not have an art or craft of its own but the Skilled Samaritan Foundation taught locals the art of weaving. We have created a balance between local and international aesthetics,” says Manshi.
Sirohi’s handcrafted products are environment-friendly and zero-waste.
Gauri says they measure their impact based on three aspects: social, economic and environmental. “Our website shows the data on carbon emissions saved on each product. Our products can last for generations,” she says.
Sirohi uses natural fibres sourced from within a two km radius of their manufacturing facility in Muzaffarnagar. Natural cotton, jute, water hyacinth fibre, upcycled textile, plastic waste, moonj grass, and raffia fibre are some of the raw materials used by artisans. They are sourced from local vendors.
With this, Sirohi has reduced 60,000 kg of textile and plastic waste from going to landfills so far. An average product from the brand uses 8 kg of textile waste and 10 kg of plastic waste.
Artisans and production
While Sirohi began with only Gauhar, artisans began approaching Gauri for work as the word spread. “Most of them came to us through word of mouth,” she says.
To maintain quality control, every product has a checklist that is shared with the production team of 15, stationed in the Muzaffarnagar factory. They make sure the products adhere to the sample. “The master artisan is in charge of consistency,” the woman entrepreneur says.
Sudeshi, 35, who hails from Rukanpur, works in the Muzaffarnagar factory and is in charge of consistency and quality of basket weaving. She earns Rs 6,500 a month. “This work helps supplement my family income as my husband’s income is not enough in a household with three children,” says Sudeshi.
The consistent income has helped in her children’s education. “Women were not allowed to work in our conservative society. But now, we not only work but also hold our heads high,” she adds.
Gauhar, the first artisan at Sirohi, has been working for five years now. She concurs that financial independence has given her a newfound respect and dignity in society. Now a master artisan, she earns Rs15,000 a month.
“I had once woven a charpoy for my child and since then I took an interest in weaving them. I now lead a cluster of artisans at Sirohi. We also have workshops regularly and new designs are explained over video calls.”
Gauri says Sirohi has a wage rate for each product. “On average, we pay Rs 5,500 per artisan a month,” she says, adding that about 30-35 percent of the product cost is the payment to the artisan.
“At Sirohi, our net profit margin ranges between 10 and 20 percent,” Gauri says.
In FY23, Sirohi’s revenue was Rs4.5 crore, a growth of 300 percent over FY22. It also received grants from the Rope Weaving Cluster Project and NGO Upaya Social Ventures in 2022. “About 42 percent of the Upaya grant was used for hiring, followed by digital and offline marketing (23 percent and 12 percent). The rest went into design support and training. The Rope Weaving Cluster grant was used for community mobilization, skill enhancement workshops, machinery and equipment.
Gauri is now looking forward to increasing the artisan clusters to 100, with an average of 50 artisans per cluster in 2025. In the pipeline are five new collections forecasted to increase products to 50,000 by next year.
“We want to be known as the Ikea for sustainable products from India. It might take years, but we want to reach there. We want to be collaborators rather than just sellers. And through that, if we can improve the lives of artisans and be kind to the environment, why not?” she signs off.
(US Anu is a Madurai-based writer. She specialises in stories around human interest, environment and art and culture.)