Innovative Indian Handicrafts-Varnam-Karthik Vaidyanathan
Karthik Vaidyanathan explores the world of handicrafts with his new venture—Varnam, with a vision to give a new lease of life to traditional handicrafts in Karnataka. The unique range of products is focussed on the home living segment, while the design is inspired by our rich heritage and culture. Indian Handicrafts
A creative journey is often a serendipitous one. Karthik Vaidyanathan’s story is one such journey that went from the precision focussed disciplined routine in the world of IT, to that of exploring traditional craft and reviving the fortunes of the artisan in India. From a comfortable bank balance and cushy perks to small-scale industry where returns on investment are murky waters with no defined sitemap to guide you. If you stay the course, it is often a decision that stems from the heart. This case is no different.
An engineer by profession and training, Karthik was inspired to explore the world of design and handicrafts through his love for sketching and drawing as a child. He admits that somewhere along the way he lost touch with his creative side due to what he terms as, “the typical South Indian dream of becoming an engineer.” However, Karthik is grateful that life found a way of giving him another chance.
Through his working years he remained involved in some way in the social sector. While at his last full-time corporate job, he started doing some voluntary work with the ANTS Trust, a Bangalore based NGO that works with artisans from the Northeast region of India. That apparently set thought processes in motion, of working with artisans in the crafts sector,and, “slowly but surely, the idea of reviving traditional crafts seemed like a creatively satisfying and appealing idea,” says Karthik.
We featured Karthik’s interesting home on Prismma last year as it showcased the design heritage of the Chettinad region he hails from. He has wonderful memories of his childhood, particularly those of visiting his grandparents every few months.
The region of Chettinad consists of about 75 villages. There are three things that are famous in this region—cuisine, temples and architecture.
While the cuisine has thrived and the temples get their share of devotees, the architecture and art of the region has not been fortunate to receive similar attention. There are torchbearers, like Karthik, who have taken their traditional heritage and given it a new perspective, attempting to keep the flame alive.
Karthik attributes the conceptualising of the idea of Varnam to the huge role played by his mother. He reminisces that while designing his earlier house in the Chettinad style, he got the furnishings customised to suit his preferences.
“These appealed to several of my friends,” he recalls, adding that, “during one of the numerous coffee conversations, my mother (who incidentally is a very good seamstress) encouraged me to arrange an exhibition just for fun if nothing else.”
That was the stage at which Varnam began its journey. Karthik was very clear that Varnam would be an extension of his own design philosophy, which is, “to find inspiration in our rich cultural heritage.” Being a regular at exhibitions, he also realised that while our craftspeople had the talent and the skills, most of their creations were not very innovative and thus not considered relevant in modern times. Karthik’s aim was, “to bridge the gap and hopefully make people visualise the same craft through a different lens.”
“Varnam attempts to revisit the crafts with simple design interventions to make the outcome more appealing and exciting,” says Karthik, elucidating what the main focus of the project is.
On his experiences of working with artisans in Karnataka and the challenges in terms of bringing traditional crafts into the urban mainstream, Karthik talks of working very closely with a small cluster of artisans in Channapatna.
He admits that in the initial stages, he found it extremely agonising to adjust to their idea of timelines, viewed from his perspective of 15 years of corporate life. There was a period of soul-searching and debating whether it was a wise decision to have given up a disciplined and comfortable corporate life for something that while creatively satisfying was not financially rewarding.
However, as Karthik says, “the entire hands-on process of working with the artisans and seeing the delight in their eyes when they delivered the final product was exhilarating and rewarding.”
Channapatna is well known for its wooden toys—a craft brought to India by Tipu Sultan and toys were made using ivory wood. Although the lac-turnery craft dates back a couple of centuries, what is different about the Varnam perspective is that the same technique was used to create home décor products.
The inspiration for each of these traditional products also finds it way to a part of our heritage.
The first Varnam product was a lamp base inspired from the South Indian ‘Villakku’ or lamp. The best sellers include the ‘barni’ series of tea-light holders and lamps inspired by pickle jars of yesteryears.
The range has since expanded to include several home décor accessories.
His personal favourite is the ‘Kuruvi’ (meaning small bird) series of home-décor accessories inspired by sparrows.
These include paper-roll dispensers, knick-knack boxes and lamps.
The ‘Khana’ fabric of North Karnataka is used for the other product range at Varnam.
Khana is a traditional blouse fabric with a double border and primarily a cotton/silk blend.
The blend also varies depending on what is used for the warp, but the weft is always cotton. Its distinct feature is the border.
A hand-stitched colourful vibrant khanaa lampshade was one of the first Varnam products to be rolled out.
Looking to the future, Karthik hopes Varnam will provide a viable platform for other rural crafts of South India, especially within Karnataka. In that context, he also intends to start work in furniture using traditional craft techniques.
Commenting on how e-commerce platforms have changed the way designers sell their products today, Karthik recalls that when he was first approached to sell his products online he did not take it seriously. Today, he is happy he took that leap of faith.
“While there are several e-commerce websites mushrooming every day, the serious ones that do not treat your product like a commodity are few. My products have done well with such partners and hopefully will continue to do so. Check out on my online store on Shopo,” Karthik urges.
His advice to those who seek to work in the handicrafts sector is simple : “patience, tolerance and working hands-on with the artisans, collaborating with them in the fabrication process is the key to success. Neat paper-drawn designs rarely work as each craft has its own unique features and limitations.”
Karthik considers his greatest and most satisfying achievement (from a creative perspective) in being able to instil pride in his craftspeople and help them realise the true value of their craft.