A Maharashtrian farmer or shetkari stands in a field with very few crops. A Koli fisherwoman garbed in lugda (saree), choli (blouse) and a paanja (scarf), while another stands wearing the traditional nauvari saree (nine-yard saree). The detailing is sharp, the colours bright and the passion of the artist apparent. These are three of the hundreds of quilled dolls that Mumbai-based 16-year-old Kshirja Raje has made. Though the teen’s dedication to create these dolls is visible to the eye, her noble intent, works behind the scenes.
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This girl has a heart so big that it feels the pain of others acutely. Through her art and craft exhibitions, Kshirja has raised around Rs. 85,000 to fund the chemotherapy sessions of thirteen patients, sent relief for Kolhapur flash floods, spread awareness for the cause of underprivileged kids, girl-child education and even Indian soldiers deployed in Siachen, to name a few.
“I am blessed with parents who have encouraged me to pursue my art and follow my heart. Simple acts of kindness go a long way in making people happy. Even if it is helping someone cross the road, or raising funds to help one family, have a square meal a day, do it,” says the philanthropic teen, in conversation with The Better India.
Kshirja’s Craft—The story behind the Inspiration
Kshirja recalls how as a five-year-old she threw a fit when told not to eat junk food. Unlike most mothers who would have relented to a crying child, Ujwala, Kshirja’s mother, decided to take her on a walk.
“My mother took me to a slum close to our neighbourhood. A man was distributing homemade food to the poor slum kids. The scene rattled me. I realised that kids as young as two to three years old have food to eat. And here I was living the best life, yet complaining about the food on my plate,” shares Kshirja who currently studies in Class 11 at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai.
The following Diwali, Kshirja decided to make several paper lanterns instead of one for a school project. She then sold those to family members and raised some funds to buy sweets and toys for the kids in the slums.
Thus began Kshirja’s journey of using art and craft to support social causes.
The interest in the craft of quilling
“My father is a civil engineer and also an artist. I grew up watching him paint. So when I expressed an interest in exploring art and craft, my parents encouraged me,” she informs.
Quilling or paper filigree is an art form that involves the use of strips of paper that are rolled, shaped, and glued together to create decorative designs.
Her interest in quilling sparked when she attended an art exhibition with her parents at the age of nine.
“I remember walking up to a stall where a lady was selling quilled envelopes. I was immensely fascinated by art. At the time, not many people knew what quilling was. So I approached the lady and tried to convince her to teach me. She humbly refused and said it wasn’t a craft for kids and that she would teach it to my parents. To be honest, it hurt my ego,” Kshirja laughs.
Undeterred, Kshirja started learning quilling on her own.
“I told my mother to buy a quilling kit. Following the user manual step by step, I learned and mastered the craft. It was difficult at first. But the journey from learning how to quill flowers on greeting cards and envelopes soon turned into creating dolls and mini-figurines!”
Quilling dolls though was accidental. Once, when the youngster was quilling at her home on a lazy afternoon, a quilled cone and circle got glued together. And that’s when it struck her— What if she quilled dolls?
She tried several variations and designs. And once she got the hang of it, her skill at quilling dolls grew.
Kshirja’s first brush with fame was an exhibition in Kalyan on Maharashtra Day, 2015. In line with the theme, she decided to showcase the culture and heritage of the state through her quilled dolls right from popular saints, traditional musical instruments, deities, and rulers among others.
“The response was amazing. The people gushed about how they had never seen anybody my age create quilled dolls and with such precision. It boosted my confidence.”
Rising popularity, confidence and help for social causes
In September the same year, her parents held her first solo-exhibition at Prabodhankar Keshav Sitaram Thackeray Natya Mandir. The art exhibition display more than 200 quilled dolls that Kshirja had created from the age of nine.
“Today, I have a collection of more than 1,000 dolls. I intend to apply to the Guinness Book of World Records for the same,” says Kshirja.
One of her major motivations to work for the less privileged was the breast cancer diagnosis of her mother. The teen had already lost her grandmother to the same ailment and the diagnosis too emotionally draining for the little girl.
While Ujwala underwent a series of radiation treatment and chemotherapy to beat the disease, Kshirja started thinking of how the mothers of so many other kids couldn’t afford the treatment.
Kshirja decided to use the earnings from her first solo-exhibition to sponsor the chemotherapy of three underprivileged women by donating Rs 30,000 to The Pink Initiative—an NGO headed by Dr Sumeet Shah and Kshirja’s mother Ujwala Raje, that conducts breast cancer awareness.
Till date, Kshirja has helped 13 such patients.
Recalling the time she was invited to do a pro-bono workshop for cancer kids at the Tata Memorial hospital she says, “I conducted a
workshop for 40 cancer kids. The smile on their faces at the end of the workshop when they had created their own dolls was worth every minute I spent with them. It made me happy.”
Not only Kshirja supports the Thane Police Welfare fund, she also contributed Rs 5,000 to retired air force personnel Yogesh Chithade and his wife, Sumedha Chithade’s SIRF Foundation. The Pune-based couple sold their jewellery and motivated others to raise funds to install an oxygen generation plant to help the soldiers at Siachen.
The teen also donated relief material including food, clothes and medications worth Rs 8,000 to the victims of the Kolhapur flash floods. She also received invited from the iconic Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly Prince of Wales Museum) to conduct quilling workshops and to display her dolls at the museum for more than three weeks.
Kshirja and her future aspirations
Ujwala who is now the proprietor of the brand Kshirja’s creations, aims to transfer it to her daughter, on Kshirja’s 18th birthday.
“I want her to know that art can be a viable entrepreneurship and career option too. And part of the proceeds that she earns from the venture will continue to support the causes she believes in and supports.”
In her final message for other youth, the young changemaker says, “It doesn’t take much effort to spread happiness. And several people around us need help. So be happy, make people happy and spread all the love you have.”