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Saturday, 16 April 2016

The story of a woman who followed her heart and hopes to never find her destination

“I have come to believe that the best kind of walk, or journey, is the one in which you have no particular destination when you set out.” – Ruskin Bond

Sheela Lunkad at a curated makers’ market
This isn’t a story of woman entrepreneur who found her eureka moment, broke societal shackles and discovered a venture with sky-rocketing revenues. This is the story of a 43-year-old woman, who doesn’t have a pre-defined destination. She’s chosen to embrace her journey and create mini-destinations – to inspire people to simply, “follow their heart and find their calling(s).”

Delhiite Sheela Lunkad had been drawn to the creative arts for as long as she can remember. She was always encouraged by her parents, teachers, and friends to explore her creative potential. After a degree in architecture, she and husband Rajiv, who was her senior, started Just another Lemon Treewith four friends. She says, “We used to have a small workshop and we’d make diverse products (such as trays, mugs, baskets, and furniture). This was our foray into design and it released a lot of our latent interests.” They shut the company in less than a year to explore bigger, unchartered avenues.

Finding her passion for people, arts and spaces

Her first professional assignment was to create a living exhibition for the 2002 Smithsonian Folk Life Festival, in Washington, DC. Unifying over 400 artisans, musicians, and scholars from 24 countries along the Old Silk Route (Venice, Italy to Nara, Japan), the month-long festival “was an eye-opener, which allowed her to design 3, 500 metres of textiles as well as curate the space. She excitedly says, “I fell in love with creating spaces and doing them up. And I, who had studied things from a larger perspective, saw things bottom up.”

After three years, she managed the construction and interiors of Fabindia’s 8, 000 sq ft flagship store in the Greater Kailash in New Delhi. She has also helped build the stores in Jaipur, Chennai, Dubai and Guangzhou (China). She says, “I started out as the only in-house architect and later became the head of design. I also designed and developed their entire home furnishings – linen, upholstery and furniture. It was empowering and life-changing.”

This was when Fabindia was expanding and they decided to decentralise and set up smaller subsidiary companies across India. Next, Sheela moved to Jaipur as the CEO of Desert Artisans Handicrafts. She says,

I asked myself one question – how can traditional crafts such as jhunjunoo, bandhej, and bagru be revived to suit contemporary needs and percolate into every household?

And over the next two-and-a-half years, she was able to bring together over 2, 500 craftspeople and the company grew 300 per cent. Many artisan families became shareholders and grew with the company.

After almost nine years, Sheela decided to take a break – to travel, spend time with her sons, read and cook. Little did she know, her entrepreneurial journey was about to start.

Creating spaces to inspire the world and finding her next calling

She ventured into eco-tourism, which brought together her love for nature, crafts, spaces and people! She created the Turtle Beach Resort in Sindhudurg district, famed for idyllic beaches where Olive Ridley turtles nest in the season.

After sandy beaches, it was the mountains that beckoned, where she helped build Jilling Terraces – a boutique eco-hotel – amidst 100-acres of lush forests, tucked in the South Gola mountain range in Uttaranchal. The resort’s five rooms, inspired by local Himalayan flora such as wild cherry trees, bay berry, scarlet rhododendrons, bamboos and alder, use all these elements in the design. She says, A Jilling Terraces room from the inside completely made out of available local resources.

The idea was to create something rustic that would allow people to be in sync with nature and the locals.

Jilling Terraces during late evening
Jilling Terraces also caters to corporate off-sites for whom Sheela creates customised workshops such as ‘Going Vegan’ and ‘Sweat Lodge’ (A Mexican form of meditation). The entire resort is run by locals, something Sheela is proud of, “We had a couple who started out by just helping us but they are managers today. It’s heartening to see them settle.”

While setting up Jilling Terraces, she realised a vacuum existed in the Indian market. She says, “In Jilling, everything is handmade and customised. We had local artisans, with whom I have long-standing relationships, create masterpieces for us. But how many people have access to these craftsmen and vice-versa? This gap has spurred industrialization and mass production.”

And that’s how she found her next calling – Direct Create.Direct Create – An online community platform to bridge the gap between makers and consumers

Sheela says, “Unfortunately, industrialisation allows scale but not customisation. As individuals, we are all creative, but the lack of right platforms to engage with the right people is stopping us from unleashing that creativity.”

She further says, “Technology can act as a catalyst bringing the artisans and customers closer. Imagine, how lovely it would be if a Bhagalpur weaver gets a chance to work withMadhubani painters – because that’s the kind of customisation you want.”

Just a year old, Direct Create claims to be one of India’s first online community platforms that allows makers, designers and buyers to connect, collaborate and co-create. While it’s currently in beta and hopes to go live in the next two months, Sheela has already hosted multiple events under the banner such as curating marketplaces for the Jaipur Film Festival and INK Talks. By end of this year, Sheela will bring together 500 makers, 300 designers and 1,000 buyers on Direct Create.

She tells us about one of the artisans a young girl from Phugalia. “She had stepped out of her home for the first time and was extremely shy. But the minute a customer spoke to her, she would explain the entire process of her craft and the happiness in her eyes when someone bought her stuff was unparalleled. She also sought suggestions on how to be even better at her craft.”

The consumption of traditional handicrafts has undoubtedly gone up, but the effort to ensure that artisans are continually improvising is dismal. How many times will you buy the same ghoda and haathi? Celebrating Indian artisans isn’t about poverty alleviation; buying a product shouldn’t be because one feels sorry at their plight but because one loves art. That’s what empowers artisans to create better products, to innovate and ultimately build a new market.

Encouraging people to buy more from the maker community, Sheela explains, I say from experience that the one thing consumers get from the makers’ community is positive energy. Every product is handmade, with great detailing, and a sense of love and affection. Remember, they are putting years of traditional wisdom and creativity into a product and in today’s cluttered world where everyone is seeking something meaningful of their own, these products create a sense of belonging. Because, indirectly, you’re connecting to the goodwill of the people.

On a parting note, she says, I have always asked myself what it is I really wanted at a point in time, and have gone after it. For me, entrepreneurship is about finding with clarity, the core of what you want to do.

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