As you enter the premises of Rizvi Park at Santacruz West, Mumbai, a small 180 sq.ft odd shop nestled in a corner manages to grab your attention. A step inside and you enter the world of exquisite artefacts made from clay. But again, the word ‘exquisite’ shouldn’t mislead you to believing that the merchandise is exuberantly priced. It isnt. Vanmala Jain, Founder – Kuprkabi runs this outlet to support the NGO she has launched which helps employ school drop-outs and people who are coming from villages in search of work.
Way back in 1976, Vanmala Jain began her journey into the mesmerising world of clay. The seed for this in reality were sown when she became familiar with blue pottery from Jaipur which was a part of her school curriculum. Her young mind then had made a decision that the vocation best suited for her would be that of doing something with clay. Post her schooling, she along with her parents paid a visit to the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad and that soon became her home for the next five years where she learnt the inside out of ceramics. Post that she started a venture along with Bunkar and Aruna Roy (Magsaysay Award Winner), in a village called Tilniya in Rajashthan. She being one of the few women from Rajasthan to achieve such niche feats which included her being the first technocrat in the field of ceramic design, the Rajasthan Small Industries Corporation extended a loan in form of cash and also a structure to start a unit at Jaipur.
After marriage, she made Mumbai her home, and though ceramics was relatively unknown then, she realised that it was important to be up to date in her subject. So she embarked on a career in teaching. She has the rare distinction of teaching at the JJ School of Arts for five years, followed by six years at SNDT University and eight years at IIT Mumbai.
Seeds of Entrepreneurship
Sharing what led her to think of launching Kuprkabi, she says, “Though the experience was rewarding, it had its own limitations. At one point, I felt that it was I started something on my own. I visited some industries as a design consultant but intellectual services do not get their dues. At that time, Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies started a Women Entrepreneurship Training Programme which was a turning point in my career. I enrolled for the programme in 1998 to learn the rope of running a full-fledged business.”
Kuprkabi took shape in 1997 when she was still teaching at the IIT. She says, “Mornings and afternoons would be at IIT Powai and evenings were spent at my studio, which then was from the balcony of my house. I had hired a boy and with him, I started my small little venture.” I got the first order was from a lawyer’s firm – Amarchand Mangaldas. She adds, “The lady at the firm had seen my work at some exhibition and she got in touch with me when they wanted to open their new office. I was asked to make masks which would represent a few things she told me. Since the brief was very clear, execution of the same wasn’t a challenge. Along with the boy who had joined me, I made about 70 masks and they were well received.”
Things worked thereon and eventually she got space for a small workshop at Santacruz in Mumbai. The money for the same was generated through her mother’s will just after her demise. She says, “We got a couple of more hands to help and by word of mouth we started getting small orders. I was positive since the initial days and I knew that I would employee only those who were either migrants from villages or school drop-outs. Though again, these individuals should have a penchant to work with their hands as ceramics is all about hand-work.”
Post that in 2006 one of the major order that literally changed things for her and got her more recognition was an order she got from the Lions Club International for their International Convention. Sharing further, she says, “It was thrilling as we had delegates from South Asia, Africa and Middle East. I did the entire souvenir shop for them with 15 hand-crafted products.”
Brush with Retail
In 2010, Kuprkabi Ceramic Studio took shape. “It was time I got into retail to display our merchandise. Till then, we used to just stock all our creation in cartons at the workshop itself and when people would come in to check our merchandise, we used to remove them from the cartons and display them on the floor for clients to choose. Though the space we operate from is small (the studio) which is just 180 sq.ft., atleast today, we have a store that we can all our own.” The opening of the store was purely the result of word of mouth. She recollects the tiny store being packed until late evenings.
To help in her studio, she decided to train women from the Dharavi slums. The modus operandi she followed was that she would outsource work to them rather than have them visit the studio. The reason she explains, “I realised that these women weren’t really comfortable stepping out of their house for work. Apart from being unable to take care of basic bus fares, they didn’t even have time to waste on travel as their household work took a lot of their time.” All these aspects led her to travel to their homes instead of asking them to visit her studio. She gave them clay and other materials required according to their individual ability and skill to do the work. The finished goods are collected after checking and payment is made at the end of the month.
The store is well designed without too much of stress being given to the interiors as it is the products on display that add to the ambiance of the store. The display racks are filled with small artefacts and souvenirs made from ceramics. Small idols of Ganesh are a major pull and Jain states that last year itself she sold 3000 idols of Ganesh. The numbers would double this year according to her. Kuprkabi products are also retailed through various other stores and with more and more people getting themselves acquainted with the brand, corporate orders are showing a steady increase as well. Recently, they had bagged a huge order from Godrej Nature’s Basket for ceramic rakhis during Raksha Bandhan.
With zero experience to back the intricacies that retail requires, till recently the inventory management of the store was all managed using hand-filled registers. Jain is now on her way to have appropriate softwares in place and for this, she has roped in a close friend as a consultant to help her streamline her operations. She explains, “Kuprkabi for me is not a money generating concept. The reason I launched it was to go ahead and generate employment for the unemployed who possessed artistic expertise but don’t know how they could earn a living out of it. Till date, whatever money is made is parted as way of salaries. I have no qualms in stating that I haven’t yet broken even though we soon shall have things in place.” She shares that earlier it was all creative instinct that led to product development. She adds, “People would come asking us to do things and at times they would never turn up again. Incidents like these led to a huge inventory pile-up. Lack of space added to the challenge of storing the work and ceramic being so fragile, it chips off if not handled with care. Now we are in the process of bringing in a corporate culture within the foundation,” she explains.
Jain states that raw material cost is negligible in this business but it is the salaries that take up all the cash flow. Apart from that, there are other petty expenses to take care of in terms of electricity bills, maintenance, logistics et cetera.
Jain is looking at getting some handholding to tighten their retail operation and reach. She minces no words stating that finances are a problem for her hence it is out of question to cough up fees that retail consultant demand. On anvil is setting up of a museum of her work. She shares, “I have the plot ready. Soon work on the museum shall commence. It would be a never-before concept where the entire premises would not only house works of ceramics but also a café and a training room where people can come in and get a first hand training in making artifacts our of ceramics. Corporates and families can book themselves for a day at the centre and hold their recreation activities where we would tutor them on ceramics.”
What has led the store running since last three years is sheer word of mouth and also the personal touch she brings in through her staff at the store. Each customer is known by their name and business from repeat customers is strong. In a world where we retail brands are leaving no stone unturned to make their presence felt via in-the-face advertising, Jain is taking one step at a time to reach out to people for her people!