It all started when Lakshmi decided to accompany her family to an Ayurveda Resort. The beautiful resort by the beach was surrounded by coconut trees and she noticed that the housekeeping staff were regularly discarding coconut leaves as a part of their cleaning routine. Being the creative bee, she offered to make brooms using these discarded leaves and the hotel personnel were happy to oblige. To give it an extra edge, she wove a thin piece of cloth into the outer layer of sticks thus creatong a pattern. Once pictures of her creation were shared on social media, her product garnered a lot of attention and soon they were umpteen requests for it. She saw the golden opportunity taking shape for women of low income groups to work from the comfort of their homes. Thus the seeds were sown for project ‘Choolala’. (‘Chool’ means broom in Malayalam)
It was around this time that she got a call from a friend who told her about a group of thirteen blind women from the Kerala federation of blind, who were in need of a project to support them. They had sponsors before Covid began but the economic slowdown had ended the sponsorships. Lakshmi suddenly recalled how she had watched a blind man in Bhopal weaving cane chairs with so much precision that she was amazed by his dexterity. The thought pushed her to visit these blind women and just as she had imagined, these women were weaving cane chairs when she walked in. She noticed that three of them were adept at it while the rest struggled to get it right. As she helped them, one of them remarked, ‘It is so satisfying when my fingers feel the plastic cane passing through the hole correctly and am able to tighten the weave.’ These were the little joys in their dark world and Lakshmi was moved to tears realising how self motivated they needed to be to get basic chores done let alone earn a living. She decided to support them using Choolala, which seemed perfect for their skill set. She designed a metal frame through which seventeen coconut sticks were inserted and she guided them to weave a lace through it to create a pattern. This served as the outer covering for the broom. It wasn’t easy and Lakshmi was tempted to correct them when they made a mistake but she realised that there was an inherent beauty in those imperfections. Amidst all their problems, all they needed was a little encouragement to persevere. Thats when Lakshmi realised that the colours or patterns really didn’t matter. “If you can see the imperfection, you are blessed because you have the gift of sight and so we celebrate the imperfection as the signature of ‘Choolala’”. Once the outer frame was completed by these blind women, the final finishing touches were made by another team of women. Thus the project supports women of different skill sets simultaneously. These brooms were positioned in the premium artisanal broom category but Lakshmi soon realised that she was trying to bring a change in the traditional practices of Indian households where a broom is considered inauspi-cious. This would require time and she wasn’t ready to give up yet. “The idea is to support these women by generating income for them. I knew there was a need for innovation and I wasn’t willing to lose any opportunity to promote the product.”
Lakshmi got a chance to participate in the Kochi Biennale where she introduced a part of the Choolala frames as props, wall art and even as a brooch stating ‘Wear the cause!’ She added a personal touch to it by drawing and painting on them, making it a statement piece. Orders started to pour in. The Kumarakom International tourism conference welcomed 200 speakers by gifting Choolala wearables under the campaign, ‘I see hence I will’. Fashion designer Purvi Doshi who supports sustainable fashion and Indian crafts has reached out to Lakshmi to create an exclusive fashion line using Choolala wearables. Several departments of NID Ahmedabad are also set to collaborate with the Choolala team.
“These blind women stay at a government supported home. Most of them haven’t paid a visit to their own home in a long while as they feel they are a burden to their families. When they are home, at least one family member has to be with them and if that person is an earning member, the family loses their income for the day. This thought discourages them from going home. My goal is to help them create enough income so that their family is willing to spend quality time with them. They deserve dignity. Talks are on with hospitality groups who want to bring guests to see their work as a part of experiential tourism. While it is a great way to sell their product, it is also very therapeutic for the guest as we realise how blessed we are to be able to see this beautiful world of colours.” With fourteen projects under her belt, Lakshmi is gearing up to start a training academy. “Financial independence is the key to woman empowerment and that’s my mission for these women,” says Lakshmi as she signs off.