March 2016 | Sanghamitra Bhowmik

Aranya Naturals: A palette for success

From a tiny one-room workshop to an artistic store window; from local fairs to international clientele; from drawing room references to Facebook shares - Aranya Naturals is leaving no stone unturned to create sustainable livelihoods in the hills of Munnar

Organisations and their employees’ fortunes are often entwined. This is best exemplified by the growth of Aranya Naturals and its associates over the last two decades. Starting off in a single room in 1994 as part of Tata Global Beverages' corporate social responsibility initiative — Srishti Trust — Aranya has grown to become a full-fledged dyeing and printing unit with a 35-member strong team and an international clientele.

Initiated as a project to help channelise the energies of differently-abled adults among the Tata Tea plantation employees and staff, the unit produces high-quality designer stoles, saris, dupattas and fabrics catering to the domestic and international markets. “The unit aims to use locally available ingredients to create sustainable livelihoods,” says Ratna Krishna Kumar, trustee, Srishti Trust.

The sustainable model means Aranya’s products are 100 percent natural and organic. “All our ingredients are sourced locally making our process fully sustainable. We use eucalyptus and mulberry leaves, lemon grass, pine cones, vegetable and tea waste,” says Victoria Vijaykumar, programme coordinator, Aranya Naturals.

  • An associate working on a shibori design at Aranya Naturals
  • Arumugam with his latest shibori design, the technique has been named aru-shibori after him
  • Srishti Trust's trustee Ratna Krishna Kumar and Aranya Naturals programme coordinator Victoria Vijaykumar examine a new creation
  • Japanese shibori expert Tsuyoshi Kuno conducts a workshop to teach the nuances of the art form

The origin of the unit’s dyeing technique too is unique. Learnt from a book and developed through practice; Ms Krishna Kumar chanced upon a book on the Japanese dyeing technique — shibori — and taught the associates. A few years later she met the Japanese artist Yoshiko Wada,the author of the book, at a textile conference. “I didn’t know who she was but approached her nevertheless to conduct a shibori workshop. It was only later I realised that she was the author of the book we follow. I spoke to her about Aranya and convinced her to visit us. It’s been 8-9 years, she comes every year to Munnar to conduct shibori workshops,” informs Ms Krishna Kumar.

Regular workshops, visiting artists and exchange programmes have enhanced Aranya’s learning curve. The six-month long internship offered to National Institute of Design students is one such example. Aranya associates learn new techniques, patterns and trends; something Ms Krishna Kumar believes will help expand the unit’s catalogue, “Maybe ready-to-wear clothing, designer saris and some weaving,” she says.

Aranya follows the same pay structure and employee benefits as that of tea estate workers, making it a viable employer. “However, it is the exposure that associates get that make Aranya stand apart. We involve associates in everything. Some have even travelled overseas for textile seminars, conferences and meets,” says Ms Krishna Kumar.

Aranya’s success story runs parallel to that of its associates. Many here joined as youngsters looking for livelihood and are today embedded in Aranya’s day-to-day operations and management. Bhanumathy K, who started off in Aranya as a junior associate is now a supervisor — keeping inventory, allocating work and giving design inputs.

However, the biggest evidence of Aranya’s success is the orders from international fashion houses. International lifestyle brands, such as Live One Vision Project and Lions in Four in USA, source their fabric from Aranya Naturals. “We started our marketing at the Tata Coffee housewives fair. But today our clients come from Canada, the UK, the US, Japan, Sri Lanka and of course India,” says Ms Krishna Kumar, “and all thanks to word-of-mouth publicity.”

With Rs1 crore worth of sales recorded in the last two years and a tastefully done store, Aranya is marching ahead. Already gaining followers on social media platforms, Aranya plans to expand its network but, “gradually,” says Ms Krishna Kumar, “we have to be sustainable. Aranya is after all about the associates and their livelihood, not just profits.”

Arumugam, an associate with Aranya Naturals, was awarded the Tata Tea innovation award in 2006-07 for creating a new shibori design

The many hues of success
Arumugam is the classic example of Aranya’s open and inventive learning and development model. A 16-year-old with night-blindness, he joined the unit to learn the craft and maybe earn a livelihood. Regular workshops helped Arumugam hone his skills, and he is now a senior associate training new entrants and creating intricate patterns.

Bored with the daily repetitive patterns that he was creating at the unit, one day Arumugam decided to try something new. “I added four extra pipes to the traditional pipe used in the shibori technique to create a new pattern. Everyone liked the pattern and Ms Wada named the technique after me, aru shibori,” says Arumugam. For his innovation and enterprise TGB awarded him the Tata Tea innovation award in 2006-07.

“Here, everyone encourages us to work on different fabrics and dyeing techniques. I have tried different kind of ingredients too. I am happy with the opportunities Aranya has given me, I cannot imagine a different life,” adds Arumugam.