India is known for its vibrant culture and incredible craftsmanship. It forms an essential part of the country’s heritage. One such form of art is ‘hand block printing,’ a technique of pressing and stamping fabric with carved wooden blocks filled with colour.
Hand block printed products range from gorgeous sarees to bed linen, but these studios have struggled to survive the test of time. Fortunately, as consumers become more conscious about consumption, there is a slow but steady shift towards sustainable living. Hand block printed products have found a way to reinvent their place in the global market.
Brown Girl Magazine contributor Prithika Manivel spoke to Padmini Govind, the CEO of Tharangini — one of South India’s oldest surviving hand block printing studios. Based in Bangalore, with sustainability at the heart of their practices, Tharangini supplies beautiful block-printed fabrics to various global businesses.
Prithika: Tharangini was founded by your mother back in 1977. What did your mother envision for the brand when she first started it?
Padmini: My mum was studying art in Delhi back in the ‘60s before she got married. That’s when she stumbled upon block printing and absolutely fell in love with the technique and the craft. She then decided that somewhere down the line, this is what she wanted to do. Fast forward several years, when my sister and I were in school she decided to set up a little block print studio in Bangalore. At the time, these were few and far between but right from the onset, she was lucky to have some amazing mentors. One of them was Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, a freedom fighter and an amazing woman who believed in the power of natural dyes and handcraft fabrics.
People like this make a huge difference to any enterprise that is being set up from scratch. It was the same for Tharangini, especially since we weren’t from a textile background but a family of art and culture lovers. So my mother set up Tharangini with just two tables with the goal of being completely organic, sustainable, low waste and ethically run. Although these concepts are trending now, this is how my mother wanted to run the business since back then.
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Prithika: What prompted you to transition from a tech job in the United States to leading Tharangini in Bangalore?
Padmini: My father is an electrical engineer. I followed in his footsteps and did my Masters [at] the University of Wisconsin. I lived in different parts of the US including Los Angeles, Chicago and Texas but wherever I was, I used to connect various small independent designers with Tharangini. My mum would also come to the U.S., and we would conduct lovely workshops in art museums across the country. So even though I had my day job in the corporate sector, I never really moved away from Tharangini. A little over a decade ago, I decided to quit corporate completely and moved back to India with my family to sail the Tharangini ship forward. This was especially because my mum was very ill at the time. I did not want to see this piece of heritage go away. She passed away a few years after I moved to India.
Prithika: Can you tell me about the sustainability aspect of running Tharangini and how the studio embraces this concept?
Padmini: A lot of Indian handicrafts and artisanal forms are inherently sustainable at their core and basal form. They were designed that way because they were done in times when resources were somewhat expensive. Whilst I feel that mechanisation of any process including textile production has to happen as things scale up, we still need to be aware of things like waste management, having a transparent supply chain, etc. Tharangini is one of the first and only studios to have a gold star rating in ISO 26000 compliance, which is a certification for social and environmental impact. This was awarded after a detailed six month audit of everything including the processes and the people. We were very happy to be awarded this as it gives us credibility in something that we’ve always believed in.
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Prithika: How do you ensure that your sourcing is environmentally friendly?
Padmini: A simple example would be the blocks that we use that are carved from teak wood. Teak is sustainably farmed in South India, for use in furniture, and so it is a forest-friendly choice to make. Another example would be the sourcing of our dyes. It’s easy to go online or to any supplier and pick dyes. But if we do the homework to ensure that the supplier is following our parameters, it goes a long way in ensuring that things are done right.
Prithika: What challenges did you face when building the studio and scaling up?
Padmini: Sustainability means different things to different people. To us, we simply want to sustain the craft of block printing in its true form. Especially because we are the last heritage block print studio left in Bangalore. But if I look at my own team of 20-25 artisans, none of their kids are coming into this industry. We live in a tech city and there is a certain ‘cool’ factor associated with working in a corporation. So the biggest challenge in growing the business is to build a larger pool of artisans who can expand our production capacities. Therefore, we have partnered with various autism community centres, which are a mix of specially-abled artisans, their mums, teachers and volunteers, and we are teaching them to run smaller self sustaining practices. Like mini Tharanginis! This is where we see the future for us.
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Prithika: Despite the rise of fast fashion, how do you manage to be relevant to the market?
Padmini: The current market wants something new. While vintage block prints are loved, we need to tap into the mainstream market and make products for everyday use. Traditional craft can do this. We just need to know how to apply it and the dynamics of using that skill. So we run workshops! Pre-lockdown once a month, we had ‘open studio day’ where people could come and work with our artisans and learn. We’ve also tied up with various educational institutions in the U.K., U.S., Australia and several parts of India. This is to teach next gen designers how to use traditional techniques to create contemporary products.
Another important factor to understand is that it’s not about what is made but how it is made and the impact it has. If you look at the millennial population, 90 percent of them care about what companies stand for. This value system is very important. As a company, if we continue to stand by our values, we believe that we will reach the right demographic. People are looking for authenticity and social impact. We align with 4 of the UN goals including inclusivity, gender equality and waste management. With the pandemic, more people are becoming conscious about consumption. This shines a larger spotlight on producers which is great!
At the same time, it’s not inexpensive to align with ethical wages, organic dyes, etc. To check all the boxes makes any product more expensive than the average product. That is always a challenge in any market, especially a price sensitive market such as India. But I do see that changing drastically.
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Prithika: What are your thoughts on social media and its role in marketing?
Padmini: Social media is amazing! I got to the Instagram party very late. It is absolutely essential for artisans to find digital channels like Instagram or Facebook to reach wider audience. That’s when you can eliminate middlemen. Social media provides visibility to lesser known groups who may not have a big marketing budget. It offers transparency to the customer.
Prithika: Any words of advice for entrepreneurs or people who are looking to start something?
Padmini: As important as it is to define the product, it is very important to do your homework on supply chain and producers. Do this with whatever level of in-depth auditing can be done so that it is in alignment with your brand values. One thing my mum taught me was to keep a few non-negotiable pillars of value around you so that during the decision making processes, they can guide you. That’s what will make you stand out!
The block printing studio works with various businesses ranging from small start-up brands to more prominent brands. Their products have found a global reach, and businesses looking to work with Tharangini can reach them through their website or message them on Instagram.