Growing up in Varanasi, Kaushiki Agarwal had always been fascinated by the beautifully handcrafted wooden toys that the city was famous for. Visiting friends and relatives would pick them up to take back home, and there too, they would be cherished by the children who received them. All that changed over time, however. The art itself seemed to have plateaued, with fewer takers for the old, standard designs that the artisans churned out. Unable to make ends meet, many of them had moved away from the craft, to seek better opportunities in bigger towns.
It was at this point that Kaushiki decided to do something about it. Armed with an MBA degree, she decided to speak to some of the artisans and figure out why the craft was dying. Most of the time, she’d receive the same answers – fewer takers, lower demand, financial constraints, better opportunities in the city.
Some of the senior craftsmen were still keen on working to save the craft though, and it was in these talented woodworkers that Kaushiki saw hope.
She identified three artisan families who were open to the idea of modernising their designs, and with them was born Lattu, a Banarasi woodworkers’ collective.
‘Lattu’ is the Hindi word for a spinning top, one of Varanasi’s most popular wood-crafted toys.
Over time, Kaushiki helped create scores of contemporary designs, including tableware, cutlery, coasters and coat hangers. The products are still uniquely Banarasi in their style, but now have a contemporary, utilitarian aspect to them that was never there before.
“The tableware products are coated with a food-safe lacquer base, that’s washable, as long as you don’t leave them soaking in water for too long,” says Kaushiki.
It hasn’t been an easy journey for her though. “At first, it was difficult to get the artisans on the same page. But with time, they began to quickly understand the newer colour combinations and product concepts. They started to recreate my ideas on wood with a perfection that I could not have imagined. They have been doing it for generations, after all!” she says.
Through Lattu, the artisan families slowly started coming back to life. Many were finally able to repair their crumbling homes and workshops with the money that came in through sales. An artisan’s son who had migrated to a big city nearby, returned to take his place next to his father. He now handles the business side of things, helping his family package, price and sell the products.
“I can detect a change in the energy with which the artisans look at their products now,” says Kaushiki. “They now present them with pride, secure in the knowledge that they are now relevant, contemporary and in demand!”
She’s very impressed with the honesty and integrity of the artisans as well.
“I’ve never had an incident where an artisan has copied or recirculated any of Lattu’s designs. Their old-world courtesies and graces are very endearing indeed,” she says.
Kaushiki presents herself as a one-woman army, managing most of the affairs of Lattu on her own. She does, however, get help from her family. For large orders, her entire family sits with her, helping her catalogue, pack and ship products across the country. Without their support, she could never have sustained what could easily have become a very stressful business.
“My first investment in Lattu was a loan from my father, which I managed to pay back in a year,” she says. “While the business is now sustainable, I still plough back most of the profits, to support more artisans. I also try to make sure the artisans receive their just share for the hours of painstaking work that they do.”
What plans for the future, we ask Kaushiki. “Well, my journey with the craft has been based mostly on instinct, with very little planning,” she says. “As of now, I’m planning to focus on getting more designs out, and also to experiment with new crafts, like moonj-grass baskets and mats.”
Well, here’s wishing Lattu all the very best in its journey to revive and contemporise the ancient craft forms of Banaras.
Check out some of their selections of cutlery, tableware and coat hangers on The Better India Shop!
Check out some of Lattu’s selections of cutlery, tableware and coat hangers on The Better India Shop!
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(Edited by Shruti Singhal)