“Born out of necessity and the pandemic,” is how Smriti Lamech (41), a former journalist, describes her new ‘business’ of making rag dolls of feminist icons, from her home in the hills of Kodaikanal.
Smriti’s husband works as a finance professional in Gurgaon and her children study in a boarding school in Kodaikanal. “My husband and I took up a small cottage near the school and would commute between Gurgaon and Kodaikanal to be with the children,” she says.
Pre-empting a lockdown?
Just before the nationwide lockdown was announced in February 2020, Smriti decided to spend more time in Kodaikanal and not travel up and down from Gurgaon, simply because the reports coming in about the virus were not good. “I did not think it would get this bad though – my reasoning was that the first few places where the virus would hit would include the national capital and hence staying put in Kodaikanal seemed like a great idea,” she says.
As a precautionary measure, the couple decided to take the children out of school and bring them to the Kodai home. “Just a week after we got the children back home from the boarding school, the country went into a lockdown,” says Smriti.
In a quest to find a tailor
For Smriti, spending time in Kodaikanal was not new and while they did have a functional home set up, what she missed was access to services like that of a tailor, for example. “None of us anticipated being in a state of lockdown and so we weren’t really prepared. My children needed clothes stitched and when I looked around, all I found was this one tailor who would operate out of a kirana store,” she says, adding “he never got it right – no matter how many times I explained it all to him.”
It was during one of those days, pre-lockdown, when she was strolling around the market, that she chanced upon Prowess – a local self-help group. “I had two saree blouse pieces that I wanted to convert into cushion covers. So I went into the Prowess workshop to check if they could do something. The end product was very neat and I kept going back with some work or the other.”
Subsequently, after the lockdown was enforced, business at Prowess took a big hit. “During one of my visits I gathered that they, like many others, did not have many business/orders and were doing really badly.”
Smriti started thinking about what she could do to help them, and that’s when the idea of making rag dolls came to her.
Rag dolls to help the seamstresses
“I had my own rag dolls when I was growing up and always felt that my daughter’s generation did not have access to these dolls (because of the Barbie doll culture), and for me this was an opportunity to change that,” she says. So she started designing the dolls, or bommai, and the women at Prowess gave them shape and form. The whole idea, after all, was to help the seamstresses at the self-help group.
When Smriti started out, she wasn’t even sure who or how many people would buy the rag dolls. But she was certain she wanted to stick with her ideology of zero wastage, not using plastic, being eco-conscious, and buying local materials.
Vocal for Local
Smriti feels very strongly about excessive consumption and the use of plastic and says, “I had to do something that fit into my belief system – I had decided to use only material I could source locally.”
“We fall within the cotton belt – Salem, Tirupur, Erode in Tamil Nadu, and I wanted to use what is available here. What I am trying to do here is not establish some grand business venture, all I want to do is help the women at Prowess.”
On 14 September 2020, the first rag doll was sold, and this was even before Smriti had the end product with her. “I put up a few pictures of the samples online and before I knew it people were ordering the dolls. We have already sold more than 100 rag dolls.”
Smriti says that while her personal favourite is Maya Angelou, the bestseller is Savitribai Phule, followed by Kalpana Chawla.
“I was sure of being able to sell a few dolls if I put the pics up on Facebook, and that is exactly what happened.” Little did she realise though that the sales would pick up so well and see so much traction and demand.
Dolls with a message
Smriti wanted to tell stories through her rag dolls – they were not just dolls to her but special keepsakes that carried their own history and legacy. She calls herself a feminist and believes that everyone must be educated about iconic feminist figures. It was rather late in life, she admitted, that she got to read about Savitribai Phule — by making these dolls she hoped to kindle an interest in learning more on the parts of both adults and children.
“While these are dolls, they aren’t just for children, but meant for all age groups and genders. I have many clients who are getting the dolls for themselves and for their sons as well,” says Smriti. So far, she has dolls modelled on astronaut Kalpana Chawla, educationist and anti-caste revolutionary Savitribai Phule, writer Maya Angelou, and artist Frida Kahlo.
“These are all women who, according to me, broke the rules in a patriarchal world and dared to dream,” she says.
Each doll that is sold is sent with a scroll written “by the doll” with a small story about what her life was about.
Each doll is accompanied by accessories like a book and pencil, or palette and pillow, or a sleeping bag and, in Kalpana’s case, a rocket!
The dolls are priced around the Rs 1500/- mark. Smriti is doing everything that the business needs – marketing and branding, sales, logistics, and more. Sometimes it takes her almost six weeks to dispatch an order so she asks that her customers be patient.
You can reach out and place an order by calling +91-9487053651 or on Facebook here.
(Edited by Nishi Malhotra)