This IITian trains unskilled women to handcraft eco-friendly products; sells across the world

Jhumkee Iyengar’s Ohrna trains unskilled homebound women for free to make home décor products and accessories combining jute and Kantha embroidery. Set up in 2018, the Pune-based sustainable enterprise has empowered over 100 rural women 

Aruna Raghuram
New Update
Jhumkee Iyengar and her daughter Mitul, who is currently involved with the venture. Pic: Ohrna

Jhumkee Iyengar and her daughter Mitul, who is currently involved with the venture. Pic: Ohrna

“Ohrna started as a feeling,” says designer Jhumkee Iyengar. “I would meet Sundarbai almost daily, while she was passing my house, carrying firewood on her head. She would greet me so cheerfully. I would think that by a stroke of fate, I could have been her and she could have been me.”

“I always felt that I was very blessed to have a good education and the good opportunities it brings. We were from a middle-class family, but we had enough. So, what motivated me to establish Ohrna when I was 57 was the burning desire to give back to society as I had received so much. I felt this would give new meaning to my life,” explains Jhumkee, now 63.    

Ohrna (which means veil in Bengali), launched in 2018, is a social enterprise that trains unskilled rural women in tailoring and Kantha embroidery work on jute to make home décor products and accessories and provides them livelihoods.      

Jhumkee and Ohrna are featured in the ‘Book of Aspiration’ (volume 2) curated by social development entrepreneur and founder of The Buddha Institute, Ved Arya.

Jhumkee’s family came from partitioned Bengal, from the Bangladesh side. Her grandfather started a school in a backward area to encourage girls to study. 

She thinks she may have imbibed some of his qualities.

studio in pune
At the studio in Pune. Pic: Ohrna

A mechanical engineer, she earned a Master's in Design from IIT, Bombay. After that, she did an MS in human-centred design from Tufts University, US.   

A teacher at heart 

She presently teaches product design at IIT Kanpur and IIT Jodhpur. Interestingly, whatever she teaches at the IITs she has tried to teach rural youth in Maharashtra. She conducted workshops for them in Khandala for over two years. That’s when she realised that mothers were the backbone of the family. She was amazed by the inner strength of the women from the poorer strata of society in rural areas. She also realised that they had very few opportunities to earn a living.  

Also Read: Bengal: Living in poverty, how Pritikana Goswami revived Nakshi Kantha embroidery

“During my visits to Khandala, I was introduced to the Mann Deshi Foundation, a rural bank for women. They kindly offered their facilities to conduct workshops and connect with rural women who were part of their network and interested in working from home,” relates Jhumkee.

The women she trained were not artisans, but farmers and homemakers. Many women don’t know how to read or write, while several have never been allowed to leave their homes or villages. 

Some have never sewn in their lives, she says. Initially, she would give them ‘ready to sew’ kits. 

She fine-tuned the processes and started documenting them in a ‘maker’s manual’. 

Also Read: How Okhai handcrafted a success story with 25,000 rural women artisans and one e-commerce platform

Special features 

“The main unique feature of Ohrna is that we train completely unskilled homebound women for free. We provide them with materials to work from their homes if they want. The aim is to make them financially independent and give them choices. Learning cycles are very long and it takes time and a great deal of patience to teach tailoring and basic embroidery skills,” she says.

Ranjana guiding a newcomer (left); totes on display (left). Pic: Ohrna

The second special feature of Ohrna is its dogged adherence to quality despite having a team of unskilled women. The aim is to create value for customers with good designs and products, she says. Three, the venture is also committed to using no material that could harm the earth. 

“Our base fabric is jute - a natural, durable, breathable and versatile material. Some of our product elements are created from scrap byproducts and donated old clothes. I also chose to package all our products in upcycled saris, which showcases the beautiful saris,” says Jhumkee.

The women learnt how to do Kantha work on jute cloth. Both jute and Kantha are from Jhumkee’s roots in Bengal. Jute is one of the most sustainable materials available and Kantha embroidery is simple, especially when done on jute because of its weave, she explains.   

“We make ‘responsible products’ in that we are responsible to the earth by being a sustainable enterprise, we are responsible to the people whom we work with by paying them as soon as they deliver the work. And, we are responsible to customers by providing them high-quality products,” explains Jhumkee.    

US stint 

She decided to launch the first batch of products in the US. There are three reasons for this. She wanted to showcase India’s handmade craft traditions in the West. She had lived in the US so there was a sense of familiarity. Also, she felt that Western design sensibilities aligned with her own.

Also Read: This Assam couple quit jobs to promote forest conservation through handlooms   

Ohrna participated in a trade show ‘NY Now’ and was selected as a ‘market incubator’ for its social impact work. Jhumkee was delighted. This gave Ohrna global recognition with two of its products shortlisted in the ‘the best new product’ category.   

To expand, Ohrna launched its products in India in 2019. “We were selected for the ‘Design Select’ section of the Bhimtadi Jatra, a renowned fair in India that focuses on empowering rural entrepreneurs. Our participation in the jatra was a success for Ohrna in many ways,” says Jhumkee.  

Ohrna operates from a studio in Pune. The women are mostly in the 18-45 age group. Her daughter Mitul presently works on brand building and establishing the digital presence of the venture. 

Jhumkee Iyengar (left) with handcrafted products. Pic: Ohrna

Ohrna sells to individual customers, small boutiques as well as wholesalers. Its customer base is across the US, India, Dubai, UK and Germany. 

“We make contemporary products with a touch of tradition. Our ethnic, embroidered backpacks, totes and pouches are our most popular products today, all handmade by our artisans. We also have shoulder bags, laptop sleeves, shopping bags and many products for the home, such as coasters, tea towels and bottle holders,” says Jhumkee. 

Changing lives

Kajal and Sonam came to work for Jhumkee as domestic help when they were 18 years old. Sonam, who was from a village near Lucknow, could not read or write. Kajal had studied till class 10 and was from a village near Pune.  

Also Read: How Rangsutra has tapped the skills of rural artisans and turned them into entrepreneurs

It bothered Jhumkee to see these young girls with so much potential doing sweeping and mopping. She asked them whether they wanted to learn stitching. Soon, Sonam started sending money home and Kajal helped fund her brother’s education. They grew into happy, confident women after working for Ohrna. Jhumkee engaged a tutor to help Sonam learn how to read and write. She now manages quality control, packing and shipping. 

Kantha embroidery on jute cloth (left); Kajal (blue) and Sonam (green) when they started working for Ohrna.  

Jhumkee met Ranjana at a workshop. Ranjana would beg her husband to bring her to the studio.  She started taking work home and managed to save enough money to buy a two-wheeler. That liberated her. She is the main coordinator, and manager of inventory, manages exhibitions, and brings in other women to work for Ohrna.   

Earnings depend on output. The women work on a piece basis and every product has a rate which is fixed in consultation with the women. For instance, Ranjana, who works part-time earns Rs 8,500 a month.   

Slow business

Ohrna’s annual revenue was around Rs 10-12 lakhs in 2023-24. “The nature of our venture does not allow us to make big plans. We are a slow business as it takes two to three years to train the women to deliver quality products. But I see Ohrna growing to something substantial – may not be in my lifetime. I am looking for a younger person with similar interests and passion to come in and continue the work I started,” says Jhumkee.    

Offline sales amount to 60 percent and online 40 percent. The domestic sales segment is larger post-COVID. 

But people overseas also buy Ohrna products by ordering online. “Social media has built our brand. We attended exhibitions last year in Delhi and Hyderabad. Dastkari Haat Samiti, a national association of craftspeople, organised them. We sell on other platforms and in stores as well,” she says. 

While the focus is on products made of jute with Kantha work, Ohrna has just ventured into free-size clothing - wrap skirts and bibs. Here too, the base material is jute, but it is combined with other crafts - ajrakh, bandhini and ikat. 

“I am a teacher at heart. So, the training goes on. The women have learnt how to manage orders, photography, billing, and basic accounts, talk to customers (through role play) and hone their selling skills. They have been learning planning skills over the last two months,” says Jhumkee. 

“Ohrna is teaching women how to fish (rather than giving them fish to feed them for a day), to borrow a phrase from a famous parable. These skills they have acquired will remain with them in the long term to enhance their lives. The work also gives them dignity in their families. Their husbands and mothers-in-law value their earnings. They now have a voice and opinion in the house. They can ensure a better life for their children,” says Jhumkee with satisfaction.

(Aruna Raghuram is a freelance journalist based in Ahmedabad. She writes on women’s issues, environment, DEI issues, and social/development enterprises.)

Also Read: How Kamli Tribes is empowering Udaipur’s tribal women through embroidered handicrafts

Look up our YouTube channel