The smoke rises from the chimney, cutting through the thick blanket of fog hung over Songsong, a sleepy little village in Manipur.
The quiet slowly breaks into spirited chatter amidst the rustling symphony of separating the husk from corncobs, a daily chore.
Neli Chachea has grown up with this sound, and she remembers it was one such morning as a child while playing in a heap of the waste husk, that she found the purpose of her life—to create simple yet pure beauty.
A treasure trove of indigenous art and handicrafts, Manipur has a lot to offer. For instance, beautiful and eco-friendly handcrafted products made by rural artisans of the region using a natural water reed called kauna, which you can purchase here.
“I never knew if I would become an artist. I just knew that I was making my own playmates so that mother would not need to get me new dolls. And, now after years, it is why I wake up every morning,” says the 38-year-old florist-and-artist, whose trash-to-treasure corn husk dolls have won hearts both in India and abroad!
Revolutionising the idea of recycling waste, she uses waste silk and husk derived from maize to make beautiful dolls.
“Beauty is in everything, including waste. You just need to know how to mould and use it. My mother inspired me to pursue this art when I was young, and I will do the same for the next generations. Although simple, this is too precious an art to die with time!” she shares with The Better India.
Talking about the procedure, she adds that although the dolls look simple, they are intricately made to perfection, using maize husk for body parts and silk for hair, in addition to dry flowers for decoration which is customised as per the needs of the customers.
Appreciating her work, a customer, Vikhweno Chale says to ANI, “She is so creative by making use of all the waste material and changing it into wealth. I encourage youngsters and entrepreneurs not to give up and keep on working hard. We have the talent, we are capable and have a lot of resources, but we have to promote them.”
— RamNiranjan 🇮🇳 (@ramniranjan187) July 13, 2019
It takes an entire day to make 12 dolls with prices ranging from Rs 200 to Rs 500, according to the design. Neli earns about 45,000 a month by selling these dolls.
Although the idea was conceived at a young age, Neli chose it as a profession in 2000. A few years later, she also opened a workshop to teach the art to young children and women.
With the growing popularity of her innovative and eco-friendly dolls, her training sessions on the doll making, as well as flower and basket arrangements, have travelled far, to Mysore and Bhopal.
“Its both surprising and refreshing to find people so much interested in learning this art. I have taught around 20 students in Mysore and 150 in Bhopal,” she adds.
Back in 2007, she had participated in the 2nd International Flora Expo, at Pragati Maidan, New Delhi, which was organised in collaboration with Indian Flowers and Ornamental Plants Welfare Association under the Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India.
The expo not only opened up her work to the world, showering her with several invitations from exhibitions but also honoured her contribution. This led to her work being showcased at the Manipur Sangai Festival in 2017.
Now she sells her products through a store in Imphal, called the Horizon which specialises in promoting indigenous art forms of the region, and connecting small enterprises with consumers.
“I am happy with all the appreciation, but honestly more than that, it is my work that gives me real joy. When I look at the future, I see myself, sitting at the workshop in my village, spending hours making the dolls, nothing else. I am thrilled this way!” concludes the artist.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)