After Losing Husband to COVID, Woman Battles Cancer to Turn Entrepreneur at 60

Mother-daughter duo Uma and Ritesha Jairaj started Ahaira project in Hyderabad as a way to cope with their losses. Today, the brand promotes Telangana’s local ikat designs.

“Inside of a ring or out, ain’t nothing wrong with going down. It’s staying down that’s wrong.”  

These words by Muhammad Ali inspire confidence to pick ourselves back up again. And Uma Maheswari (60), who faced several hardships, is the epitome of this philosophy. She says, “I had my kids by my side, and with a smile on our faces, we got through everything as a family. Life will always be hard, we need to stay strong and keep moving forward.”

“Mom [Uma] retired from government service in June 2020 and just after that, it felt like too many things started going awry. It began with my father falling ill and succumbing to COVID. Unfortunately, on the day of my father’s demise, my mother also tested positive for COVID. It was a very difficult period and there was no time to process our grief,” says 28-year-old Ritesha Jairaj, Uma’s daughter.

“We started the Ahaira project as a way to get out of the depression and rut we had fallen into after the untimely demise of my father due to COVID,” adds the computer engineer who shuttles between the USA and Hyderabad.   

Ahaira project, a clothing brand with a purpose, was founded in November 2020 by the mother-daughter duo. 

Ahaira project clothing line.
A model wearing an ikat co-ord set.

They design and sell exclusive handloom and artisanal clothes while empowering, educating and employing families whose livelihood was affected by the pandemic. 

Two months later, on 13 September 2020, Uma had a heart attack. She had to undergo surgery and also had a stent placed in her valve. Just when the family thought the worst was behind them and started to move ahead, Uma experienced very heavy post-menopausal bleeding. “In September 2021, she was diagnosed with cancer of the uterus. It was all in such quick succession that it hit us really hard,” says Ritesha.

 However, it was sheer resilience that helped the family cope. “The only thing that helped us is being with each other,” says Uma. 

‘A way to move ahead’

Uma Maheshwari and Ritesha Jairaj of Ahaira project.
Mother-daughter duo of Ahaira project

It was a collective love for fashion and textiles that the mother-daughter shared that acted as a much-needed anchor in their time of crisis. Uma says, “While I was physically suffering my daughter was also diagnosed with trauma and depression and I wanted to find a way to help her. I knew her dream was to start her own fashion brand and it seemed like a good time to explore that further.”

The duo took baby steps towards realising this dream and Ritesha says, “Neither of us viewed Ahiara project as a business. It was a way to help others who were impacted by COVID and also a way for us to move ahead.”

On working with her daughter, Uma says, “My daughter and I are like best friends. I used to make her clothes when she was little. Now she stitches my clothes and styles me. We bond over fashion and clothing and our mutual love for handlooms. I have enjoyed the months I have spent with her, especially all our shopping trips to source different textiles.”

With an investment of Rs 2.5 lakh, which was made in tranches, the duo set up a workshop in Secunderabad, Telangana, where they launched ikat (a dyeing technique) clothing. In January 2021, two months after the launch of the brand, their first collection was released.

Having grown up wearing a lot of ikat material, it was easy for the duo to use this in their designs. “We launched with ikat given how much of a nostalgic feel we all have towards it,” says Ritesha. 

Uma Maheshwari of Ahaira project busy at work.
Uma Maheshwari

On working with ikat, Uma says, “During my childhood, every summer my mother used to make us stitch school bags from old bedsheets. We would stitch newborn baby clothes by hand and give them to neighbours with newborns, as there was no market for them at that time. Even my mother-in-law used to stitch pillow covers from old bed sheets and sarees. They would not let a piece of fabric go to waste – that’s how I learnt. I also watch a lot of YouTube videos and learn new things every day.”

Within a span of a few weeks itself, Ritesha says that the team that was working together got very close. “Mom felt like she found a new purpose in her life. She cooked for the entire unit and has taken a very keen interest in every single process of the business,” adds Ritesha. 

Uma adds, “We want to educate and encourage the young generation who love fast fashion to slow down and look at how ‘cool’ handmade sustainable clothing can be. My daughter designs modern outfits like Co-ord sets, hoodies, pants, and trench coats which are fun, and quirky with sustainable designs, while I incorporate my handmade flower art in her designs that our clients love.”

The prices for the products start from Rs 1,500. 

Inner resilience

Mother-daughter in the Ahaira project ikat collection.
Mother-daughter wearing their ikat collection.

Many of those who are employed by Ahaira project have experienced loss, either of a loved one or loss of livelihood due to COVID. “Some of the stories we hear make us feel so grateful for what we have. This is our small way of making a difference in the lives of those who need it the most,” says Ritesha.

Currently, Ahaira project employs five women from the neighbourhood and are looking to get more women on board. “Most of those who work with us are senior citizens. While one aunty helps with sewing the buttons another lady helps with the fall stitching and hemming of the clothes. We go to their houses and leave the garments with them. They can work in their own space at their own pace,” adds Ritesha.

“Our mission is to promote local handlooms, especially Telangana’s own Pochampally ikat around the world,” says Uma.

To check out their products, you can log in to their Instagram page, here.  

(Edited by Yoshita Rao)

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