Truly Tribal – Contemporising Indian Handicraft for a global market

New ways of lighting up your homes. Leather handicrafts - Tholu Bommalata. Photo courtesy: Truly Tribal
New ways of lighting up your homes. Leather handicrafts – Tholu Bommalata. Photo courtesy: Truly Tribal

The market is flooded with home décor items at competitive pricing. When we pick up a product, we look for its finishing and price. We seldom notice that the product that claims to be an ‘Indian handicraft’ is often not made in India, and yet we pick it up.

We at The Lifestyle Portal support handmade, traditional Indian handicrafts and artisans and have been writing about them for the last eight years. In our quest for authentic conventional Indian craftsmanship, sourced directly from the artisans, brought us to Truly Tribal. Truly Tribal is a one-of-its-kind handicraft store in Pune, that is working to give the traditional Indian handicraft it is due in the world of machine-made, mass-produced goods.

The Lifestyle Portal is genuinely awestruck at the hard work and perseverance by Shweta Menon, Founder, and MD of Truly Tribal, who has embarked upon this journey to revive Indian handicraft and to give its due space in India and at a global level.

We got to know more about her work when she attended our second entrepreneurs’ meetup in Pune in November 2019. The Lifestyle Portal is happy to share with you our conversation with this 45-year-old computer engineer turned entrepreneur who has been successfully running Truly Tribal since July 2015.

Shweta Menon, MD, Truly Tribal
Shweta Menon, MD, Truly Tribal

When did it all begin?

Being a Computer Engineer and having worked in the IT Sector for almost 13 years, Shweta realized it was time to step out of the comfort zone and follow her heart. She shares, “IT is a good sector, but personally after a point, it was not fulfilling for me to continue as monotony started seeping in. I always wanted to do something where I could directly connect with people. Also hailing from a Marwadi business background when I thought of switching the career line, business was an obvious choice!”

How Truly Tribal was born

Shweta has always been an art enthusiast who was fascinated by traditional Indian artwork. Coming from a small tribal town Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh, she has been a witness to the work by tribal artists since her childhood, which she felt was highly undervalued.

She adds, “I have witnessed the potential of these artisans and realised how they’re affected by the massive gap between the supply and demand. The idea of getting all kinds of Indian artwork at an affordable rate is where I saw the protentional. I also realised this market is very scattered and in need of a single window. It needed a space where all kinds of Indian artwork can be made available and not filled with ‘ready to use’, ‘off the shelf’ standard designs, but also with possibilities of expanding these art forms in newer and more contemporary designs. It would need evolution to be able to cater to customised design requirements and that’s how “Truly Tribal” was born.

Candle holders with a style. Photo courtesy: Truly Tribal
Candle holders with a style. Photo courtesy: Truly Tribal

Handicraft entrepreneur

Shweta recalls how it all began around four years back when she wanted to get back to work after her second child. She shares, “I was very clear that I did not want to be part of the IT sector anymore and wanted to start something of my own. I tried my hand on Soft Skills and Process Training but was still not very happy.”

The idea of a business didn’t occur to her before July 2015, when she started to look for an alternative career. Shweta has always been an art lover and loved collecting traditional artwork from different places. It was then that Shweta realised that Indian art is hugely popular in India and abroad, but people are unaware of where to procure genuine products. She has also seen how these artisans get exploited by middlemen, and they hardly get a good price for their artwork.

She further adds, “At the same time, I also realised where talented artisans did not know how to reinvent their art to remain relevant. Art needs to be more in line with the changing time.

Another constraint that Shweta witnessed was there is no place where all kinds of Indian artwork would be available under a single umbrella. Some retail options are there, but they are expensive and have only readymade products. She explains, “If I want specific customisation or a particular concept being created, it is a herculean task to find the right person to do the work. I put my IT background to use and decided to come up with a digital solution to bridge this gap.”

Self-taught entrepreneur

Hailing from a business family and the IT corporate background helped Shweta in her entrepreneurial journey. “I am a self-taught entrepreneur and learned as I progressed. Yes, I did receive a few business tips from my father but I couldn’t have done it without the unwavering support from my husband who helped me to stay afloat and remain in the business, despite the setback. I did face quite a few setbacks and breaks before things started moving the desired direction, which even involved revamping the business model entirely.

Handpainted madhubani painted wedding invite and giveaway. Curated by: Truly Tribal
Handpainted madhubani painted wedding invite and giveaway. Curated by: Truly Tribal

Shifting gears from retail to manufacturing

Shweta further explains, “Initially, we started as a retail and an online setup, and landed up spending on wrong marketing strategies. We didn’t understand the buying pattern in this industry well. Indian handicraft products are essentially, a ‘touch and feel’ purchases, and not the impulse buys or a daily needs buy. Hence, we decided to reach out to existing retail home décor and gifting stores.

It became their vision to make art affordable, which will lead to more work for the artisans apart from a considerable penetration in the customer base. That’s how Truly Tribal got into manufacturing and trading of these artefacts.

Shweta started travelling across the country to set up her team of artisans to understand their work which would further in better designing of the products.

She also decided to enter into corporate gifting as that will help Indian handicraft connect to a much larger audience. Corporate gifting exposes a larger audience to these kinds of handicraft products and also helps artisans come up with different types of product ideas.

Setting up an online platform

When Shweta started working on the website for Truly Tribal, the initial idea was to have an online retail portal catering to domestic and international customers.

She recalls, “The first year was full of trials – from understanding the customer base, requirements, products and artisans’ identification, building a production team to identify the sales and marketing channels and logistics channels. Today, we’re on a completely different business model. We are no more have a retail setup. Truly Tribal is now a manufacturer, trader, wholesaler and exporter of Indian handicraft and Indian paintings catering across the country and the globe.”

Bringing authentic Indian Madhubani art to your home decor. Curated by: Truly Tribal
Bringing authentic Gond Art to your home decor. Curated by: Truly Tribal

Initial investments and hard work paying off

“I started with a few lacs rupees for product procurement, website, exhibitions and marketing. Initially, we started as an online retail setup running from home and now, we have moved on to a wholesale setup, having our physical office cum display store along with a small warehouse. We launched Truly Tribal with three artisans, and three art forms and now have over 100 artisans with over 20 traditional art forms. We started with only 25 products, and now the handcrafted traditional products count is limited only by the imagination!” smiles Shweta with pride.

Today, Truly Tribal is supplying to various stores, corporate and social gifting segment, connecting with interior designers to make new custom products and exporting and manufacturing custom products, trying to establish Indian art into the map of world art. They supply to Indian and international brands such as Sandvik Asia, India, Ethnic Mantra, Canada, Arumi Designs, UK, Srishti Gifts LLP, Banglore, Generikart Medicines, Mahrahstra, Tribes Chatri, Pune and Things Etc. Thane to name a few.

Choosing merchandise for Truly Tribal

Shweta admits, “Initially I would choose what kind of product I like. However, over a period of time, I understood that everybody likes different things, and as a business, we should be catering to all kinds of requirements.”

Now armed with research Shweta and her team review the kinds of items are trending and if those items could be created or produced by infusing traditional handicraft. They also keep coming up with different product ideas and take them to their artisans to see if they work.

Gradually with time, Shweta and her team at Truly Tribal have listed out some criteria when designing, creating and introducing a new product and try and do something utilising those criteria like utility, costing, packaging, size and detailing. For example, utility-based décor has the most demand, followed by pure décor products. She found that having a contemporary touch to these artworks also helps in having a higher demand.

What makes Truly Tribal unique is that they’re a one-stop-shop for all kind Indian handicrafts, paintings and other traditional artwork. They don’t just sell off the shelf products; in fact, Truly Tribal designs the customised products based on customers’ requirements and expectations. They also do the fusion of the different kind of art from different states and develop new lifestyle products utilising these artworks.

Handcrafted customized brass trophies. Curated by: Truly Tribal
Handcrafted customized brass trophies. Curated by: Truly Tribal

Awareness about Indian handicraft

“I believe we don’t have enough awareness about the range of Indian handicrafts and other traditional artwork. People use the term ‘tribal art’, ‘folk art’ and ‘traditional art’ interchangeably. Sadly, people have limited knowledge of a few artworks that are more marketed. The history, geography and traditions of the artwork is very little known,” shares Shweta.

Shweta strongly feels that most people don’t understand much and consider these art forms to be cheap work done by the villagers. Very few people appreciate the hard work and effort going behind these artworks and compare the costing, production time and packaging with machine-made and Chinese products, which is impossible to match. However, if compared on the creativity, story, effort behind these products, they will fare far better than Chinese and imported products.

“It is crucial that we put in the effort to make people and the next generation aware of our rich heritage of the art and craft and also support them to keep these alive. It is our responsibility not just to support Indian artisans but also help them reinvent and reive their work through ideation. This will help them to create new mediums and products, which will help them to remain relevant in present times and also create products which are a conversation starter,” adds Shweta.

The response so far…

“People seem to be excited and appreciative of the work we are doing with artisans, art and handicraft. We are getting new insight into the industry as we progress, and we are learning as we are moving along on the upward trajectory. But due to the nature of the industry, it has been slower growth than other industries,” explains Shweta. 

 

Having moved from an organised industry to an unorganised one, from working with a global IT crowd to village artisans, from a purely profit-oriented profession to a social enterprise, Shweta feels a sense of contentment having moved from one end of the spectrum to another. 

 

“The journey has been an enriching experience with lots of learning and unlearning. It has helped my growth as a person and not just from the professional perspective but also at a very personal level as well,” smiles Shweta. 

Modernising Indian Metal Handicraft. Photo credit: Truly Tribal
Modernising Indian Metal Handicraft. Photo credit: Truly Tribal

 

Future plans

Shweta signs off by saying, “Our vision is to be the name people think, whenever they think about any Indian handicrafts and paintings. We want to introduce new products to suit the need of changing times while keeping the cost and budget in mind. We want to make the handicrafts and paintings easily available at affordable rates so that it can expand to a larger consumer base as well as provide the traditional artisans with enough work so that they don’t leave this line of work.”

To connect with Truly Tribal for orders, click here.

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