A farsighted and gutsy financial decision by a 60-strong community of backward women artisans in Tamil Nadu - Porgai Craft Centre - kept their families afloat during the coronavirus-necessitated nationwide lockdown.
Tucked away in the Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu with poor mobile, internet connectivity and public transport, the women invested in raw material and spent months embroidering intricate designs on merchandise worth lakhs. They created an adorable rag doll "Covida" as a symbol of hope and did decent business through their website for many months till the fast consumer economy opened up.
Now, a non-profit group, Habba, in association with NDTV's drive to support artisans during the COVID-19 pandemic - Handmade Dil Se - is helping increase the demand for artisanal products by connecting them with corporates.
"It was so difficult to get the Rs12-lakh loan. It was a gamble we took to save the livelihood of 60 women and their families. Now, we need people's support to sustain the momentum gained over the years," said R Neela one of the two founding members of Porgai, which means pride and dignity in Lambadi language. The 72-year-old had recently received a CII award for contribution to the micro-enterprise community.
Last year, Porgai did a business of Rs55 lakh. This year, however, they've only managed to rake in Rs20 lakh, but hope to at least meet last year's profits before the end of this financial year.
The women artisans of the Porgai collective are not unlike the lakhs of others who are on the brink of being wiped out by their tech-savvy competition because of the coronavirus pandemic.
"Machines can make in a minute what we make but people should encourage artisans like us," said Thaikulam who sat outside her house embroidering napkins in the Kodiya style. Pre-pandemic, her work earned her around Rs8,000 every month, but things are tough now.
"My husband's been home without work for three-four months. House expenses, repayment of loan, children's education; how will we manage if I lose my income too?" she said.
A few kilometres away, Ramani is also shattered. "People should resume patronising handmade artisanal products. We struggled a little for food; we couldn't buy vegetable, and ate only what we grew. There's no school for our children also," she said.
These women are now getting help from Habba - a non-profit that's working to revive demand for handmade products.
"Habba is designed to enhance the income of artisans and create a large-scale economic impact. We bridge the gap between customers and artisans using technology and human-centred design," founder Ramakrishna NK said.
With a new ray of hope on the horizon, Dr Lalitha, who works with Porgai Craft Centre, highlights that their garments are very sustainable as they mostly use cotton grown locally in villages.
"You are participating in a process which is sustainable, fair and socially relevant. It will be a lot of help to all artisanal and weaver communities in the country," she appealed through NDTV's Handmade Dil Se campaign.