From the Valleys of Mussoorie, rises a Start-up that's transforming weavers' lives
"Our aim is to produce high-quality products, using natural fibres and dyes"
It is said that spaces have tales. Around eight kilometres from Mussoorie, in an obscure hamlet called Masrana, a tale of love for nature, history, art and tradition is being weaved carefully. And it is being written by a feisty couple, Patricia and Dr Ghayur Alam, who had settled here about 12 years ago as they found Delhi too crowded and raucous to understand their artistic sensibilities.
While on a drive in the Himalayas, the Alams spotted a piece of land, bought it and settled in the village on the Mussoorie-Dhanaulti Road. The tradition of weaving, an intrinsic and intangible cultural heritage of the villagers living in the neighbouring hamlets, provided the couple with essentials for entrepreneurship that suited their way of life. What started as an endeavour to provide a market for the handmade products of the local community has now grown into a full-fledged business enterprise, providing livelihood to local weavers of Mussoorie.
Dr Ghayur Alam, owner of Himalayan Weavers, enumerated his journey as an entrepreneur, in an elaborate interview with Entrepreneur India. He spoke about his vision of initiating a green venture, engaging the local community in gainful professions and building an art-based livelihood.
Combining Nature, Tradition and Quietude
Born and brought up in Delhi Dr. Alam went to the UK in 1975 to do his PhD from the University of Manchester in technology policy. In 1981 he came back to Delhi and joined a research organization. Love for nature and an intense craving for quietude made him and Patricia relocate to Masrana in 2005.
"It was the time when weavers in Uttarakhand were going through troubled times. Earlier the Uttar Pradesh Khadi Board used to satisfy weavers with bulk orders for blankets. Though the wages were low, the bulk order assured a decent payment. However, after Uttarakhand was carved out, many weavers took to working as daily labourers," Alam said while highlighting the plight of traditional craftsmen, which acted as a catalyst prompting him to initiate his venture.
Traditional Art As a Means for Livelihood
Dr. Alam was doing a research study on conservation of medicinal plants in the higher altitude areas of the Himalayas, when he found that a number of villagers were engaged in illegal harvesting of rare medicinal plants, posing a threat to their survival.
Propelled by his interests in mountain agriculture, rural development and armed by his knowledge in the use of environment-friendly technologies, he conceived a venture where the skills of the community could be leveraged into business opportunities.
"They worked with wool. We thought that if we could help them with getting better market opportunities for their woollen products, they will have less reason to go to the forest for collection of medicinal plants. We tried to help them sell more at a higher price through our contacts in India and abroad. We failed as the wool used in these products was rough and was not dyed, which limited the possibility of designing interesting products. So I learnt natural dyeing from the internet and set up a weaving business, using better quality wool. Later we expanded to include Eri silk, cotton and linen," he elaborated.
"Our aim is to produce high-quality products, using natural fibres and natural dyes. The emphasis is on using environment-friendly processes. We have the resources, both human and natural, around us. We train the traditional weavers in dyeing but don't interfere with the weaving, which is an age-old art form of the region," shared Alam. The couple has employed five full-time weavers, in addition to three weaver families, who work with the Alams from their home. Around 10 women weavers are also engaged for spinning the yarns from their home.
Himalayan Weavers' products, mainly stoles and shawls, are woven by local craftspeople on traditional looms in villages near Dehradun. "The products are made with natural raw materials like wool, silk and Pashmina and hand-dyed with natural dyes. The colours are from the flowers of tesu (flame of the forest), madder, indigo, i, myrobalan (harada), henna, shellac and sappanwood, which is a cousin of Brazilwood and is available in Kerala," informed Alam.
The couple owns two shops — one in Masrana and the other at Rajpur village — in Dehradun. Products are also sold online and are exported to boutiques abroad.
Adding Clean Energy to Green Venture
Great care is taken by weavers to make sure that production is environment friendly and energy efficient. As the area is one where water is scarce, they try to reuse as much water as possible.
The enlightened couple is also planning to introduce solar water heating system so that the dye bath is heated only with solar power. "We are considering installing a vacuum tube solar water heating system with a heat exchanger to circulate hot water through the dye bath. We don't know of anyone doing this for dyeing on a small scale," enthused the erudite entrepreneur, who disagreed that weaving is moribund as craft.
"States like Himachal Pradesh, in spite of having a time-honoured tradition of weaving, has more demand than supply of weavers today. Hence there is still hope for craftsmen!" concluded Alam.