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THE FABRIC OF LIFE Discovering the story of Aranya Naturals


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Arashi shibori before ironing.


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Author’s Note

W

hen I view Aranya Naturals through the prism of a well oiled commercial enterprise, I suddenly realize that the organization’s mission is not to make profits but to fulfill the dreams and aspirations of people unable to fend for themselves. This is like a breath of fresh air, considering the capitalist world based on quarter to quarter profits. Aranya Naturals is an experiment which has proved that an organization can succeed and do great creative work despite tremendous odds. I am truly inspired by what I experienced and hope many more companies will follow this example in fulfilling their Corporate Social Responsibility. Written & compiled by

Rohini Mani


Objects carry the story of their makers.


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Contents INTRODUCTION .

... 13

GENESIS Bittersweet beginnings

...15

FOR THE LOVE OF COLOUR Natural dyes

...23

GOD’S OWN The blessings of Munnar

...33

US The makers

...41

THE BEAUTY OF ACCIDENTS Our techniques

...59

STANDING TALL AND HIGH Our support system

...71

Ackowledgements

...79


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A break from the rigours of time, A little imperfection, a little disorder, The hand following its natural impulse, The mind wallowing in mud, Mother nature is in no hurry.


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Madasami using the smocking pleating machine.


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Introduction Start before the start

A

f ew decades ago, several mentally and physically challenged people were identified in Munnar, either working for the tea plantations or belonging to the family of plantation workers. Most of them were unemployed and dejected as they had no way of earning their living or contributing to society. In 1991, DARE (Development Activities in Rehabilitative Education) came into existence for the sole purpose of giving vocational training to children suffering from disabilities- in order to help them become independent and useful earning members of society. With the aim of providing jobs to these differently abled students, Srishti Welfare Centre was established. It was then divided into four different units:

1. Athulya- Handmade paper making unit 2. Nisarga- Preserves, jams, syrups and marmalade making unit. 3. Deli- Bakery and confectionary unit. 4. Aranya Natural- Natural dyeing and fabric printing unit. This book uncovers the story of Aranya Naturals.


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Genesis Bittersweet beginnings

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ranya- A word that signifies a lush green bountiful forest with deep roots of prosperity. We the people of Aranya Naturals celebrate the age old relationship that man has with nature using art and fabric as the binding thread. Whatever nature discards- leaves, flowers, roots seeds or bark- we embrace. Over the past few decades, man has become more mechanical and moved away from nature- he has found happiness in worldly things. However, we believe that the traditional ways of continuing certain practices is absolutely essential in the world we live in today.


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Lakshmi untying and displaying a shibori scarf after dye bath.


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Srishti Welfare Centre is funded by Tata Global Beverages Limited. Mrs. Ratna Krishnakumar is the trustee of Srishti trust and wife of former Tata Sons director R.K. Krishnakumar. She came up with the idea of establishing these units in order to employ the students from DARE. The organization is run by Mrs. Victoria Vijayakumar, the wife of a physician at the general hospital in Munnar. She was determined to do something for society and this seemed like an interesting way to take that forward.

Mrs. Ratna Krishnakumar learnt the art of natural dyeing from Dhaka and came back with all the knowledge she gathered, and a revolutionary idea that illuminated the darkness in many lives. She organized a workshop on natural dyeing for all the women in Munnarwhich was attended by almost 150 women. After this workshop, around 10 women seemed genuinely interested to take it forward.

We started off with one pot, few women, some water and whatever plant material we found around us that we thought will work to colour the fabric. We set off in 2 cars every morning with Vocational Training Centre (VTC- the former name of Athulya) students and conducted fabric dyeing experiments in small spaces. Slowly, we came to realise that each fabric has its own unique properties and fastness levels, which we knew nothing of.

Our journey started by flipping through books about natural dyeing and colours, and learning about fabric and its properties. We used to observe the designs in these books and replicate them to the best of our ability.


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Mrs. Victoria then went to Secundarabad to attend Dastakar Andhra, where a workshop was being conducted by Jagada Rajappa and master dyer Salim. She absorbed all the knowledge she gained, came back and showed us the right path. She never lost faith in us and made each one of feel special and accomplished.

In this space, we feel liberated and skilful, and our efforts never go unrecognized.

It took us a few months to crack the dyeing process and get absolutely fabulous results. We don’t have any age old secrets hidden in a book that has been passed on for generations. Whatever we have achieved till date is because of relentless hard work and passion to learn more.


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Life as an open book, Innocence and its own immeasurable beauty.


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For the love of colour The art of natural dyeing.

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atural dyeing is an art that started declining towards the end of the 19th century, when synthetic dyes came into existence. The few people who continued this practice faced financial hardships. But gradually over the years because of the rarity of this application- the products dyed with natural material are now valued as exclusive handcrafted commodities.


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Plant Material At the beginning, it was plant material that we saw around us. We didn’t have knowledge, just a powerful intuition guiding us with the choice of what to pick. But after experimentation and reading a lot of books, we came to realize that there are certain plants that give vibrant shades to certain fabrics. For big orders like 20-30 kgs of fabric, we have now purchased a roller machine that makes the process easier and cost effective. In this machine, the horse power, temperature, speed and a lot of other features can be controlled by us.

There was a lot of trial and error involved in getting what we wanted, but it happened finally. And once it happened, there was no stopping us. When we realized that our colours and fastness levels of the fabrics are so good, we felt a renewed sense of confidence. However, our learning didn’t stop there. Even today we play with various permutations and combinations of plants to feed our curiosity. The curiosity of colour is strange, yet powerful. It made us happy, and helped us achieve much more than we expected.

The beauty of this space is that it allows room for making mistakes and learning from it. Sometimes, it also allows the mistakes to take a life of its own and become something extraordinary.

The curiosity of colour is strange and powerful. It made us happy, and helped us achieve much more than we expected.


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Mordant In our journey of finding colours, we came across the term “mordant�. What is a mordant? A mordant is an oxide that helps the dye get fixed on the fabric, without getting rinsed away. When this organization was started, our mission was crystal clear- Aranya will be a 100% sustainable unit. So we made it a point to use mordants that are environment friendly. We chose to use metallic salts that are extracted from the earth as mordants. Some of them include Alum, Ferrous Sulphate and Soda Ash. This was a conscious decision that was made.

A wide range of colours are produced by mixing two plant materials, changing the mordant, changing the proportion and also by changing the order of dye bath in which the fabric is dipped.

Our plant waste, once the dyeing process is complete, is used as a fertilizer for the vegetables and flowers grown in the garden surrounding Srishti Welfare Centre. We have observed that it serves as an excellent fertilizer for the plants growing in the garden that surrounds Aranya. There is a huge compost pit where all the plant waste is collected and stored as a fertilizer.


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Water The most obvious and crucial element of natural dyeing will definitely be water. Some scholarly articles debate whether natural dyes are really sustainable considering the amount of water that gets wasted in the process.

Aranya made sure they were not wasting a single drop by investing a fortune on a water treatment tank that filters the impurities and makes it suitable for gardening.

There is a small passage inside Aranya where the water is let out after use. This passage finally gets connected to the treatment tank which is linked to the sprinklers for watering the garden. There is absolutely no waste that is generated here at Aranya. The remaining cloth after cutting is also used to make bags and pouches for packaging and gifting.


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Colour coding with its own wording, The stamp of eternal beauty on the mind


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God’s own The blessings of Munnar

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he land that looks green from the satellite. One can only marvel at the existence of such a place on the surface of the earth. It is pronounced as “Moon-aar” which in Malayalam means three rivers, namely- Madupetti, Nalathanni and Periavaru. Munnar was all evergreen forests because of the elevation that it had. Over the years, it has been converted into tea estates. It is also a very well known elephant corridor. It still harbours a lot of biodiversity. The critically endangered resplendent bush frog is seen in a few areas. Munnar is a good example of man and nature trying to get along and create a balance between various life forces.


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Nested in the midst of emerald green vegetation and tea plantations, the space is ideal for natural dyeing and printing.


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The introduction of tea plantations changed the biodiversity of the land from what it was. However, that does not prevent it from sustaining life. The tea estate provides shelter to a lot of native species of plants and animals. A lot of the plantations are completely organic, which doesn’t harm the biodiversity and enhances the growth.


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Our workspace is a peaceful warm daylit room surrounded by sunflowers, fuschias and other rainbow coloured blossoms. The only sounds audible inside this space are birds chirping, distant chatter and low grumbling of the dryer. Every morning, we start our day with prayers to God, thanking him for this beautiful life we have and for the health of all those close to us. There is a calmness in the atmosphere in the moments between prayers and before the hustle and bustle of work. These are the moments in which we feel blessed and absolutely contended with our lives.

Munnar can safely be called the farmland of tea. When we started designing in Aranya, our favourite motif was tea leaves that was dyed with tea waste. As our expertise in techniques like shibori, batik, clamp dyeing and others increased, we gained the confidence to explore a whole new spectrum of textures and patterns inspired by nature.


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Memorable journeys with twists and turns, Winding roads that go to places unknown.


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Us The makers

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e are a group of 35 people who spend 8 hours a day doing what we love while contributing to society through the medium of fabric art. Aranya Naturals has given us a chance to prove ourselves, a platform where we can showcase our creativity and make our mark in the world. Before joining, all of us were undergoing some form of physical or mental trauma that was taking a toll on our personal and professional lives. Munnar had a lot of differently abled people a few decades ago, because of lack of awareness of polio, improper medical care during pregnancy and marriage between close relatives. However, after the establishment of Srishti Welfare Centre, the number of these people has decreased drasticallybecause of awareness and education.


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In Aranya we are all identified by our skill, and not by any other external factors. Which is why Aranya becomes our comfort zone, a space where we come together to form a team and combine our skills to create. The following pages are dedicated to giving you a flavour of our working lives.


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Punita Punita is a shibori arist who is also hearing and speech impaired. She had a flair for embroidery right from the beginning and finds solace in her work. The speed and precision with which she finishes tasks is absolutely astounding. She always wears a pleasant smile on her face and takes pride in the fabulous results of her hardwork.


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T. Bala Bala is the Batik artist at Aranya. He is also one of the deaf and dumb students who was rehabilitated from DARE. He is exceptionally quick with his work and is very good at handling the hot wax used for Batik printing. His eyes light up when he sees the results of his work once the fabric is dyed and it gives him immense satisfaction. His favourite colour is green and he is a true nature lover.


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T. Masana Muthu Masana Muthu is a DARE student who later joined Aranya. His mental health was taking a toll on him before he joined the company. He started as a helper but he is now as good as the dyers and can work independently. Aranya has helped him aquire a new skill and focus his energy on colours and fabric, which has made him independent and self sufficient.


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Maheswari Maheswari had a flair for indigo printing since she joined. Her favourite part of indigo dyeing is when the fabric is kept for drying and the colour slowly changes from greenish blue to a deep solid blue due to oxidation. “It’s like magic” she says.


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M. Kalidas Kalidas is a block printer who uses vegetable dyes to print sarees, dress materials, duppattas, etc. He’s from the Nayamakad district in Kerala. He was handicapped when he joined but Aranya helped him get back on his feet again and given his life new direction. He has an inclination towards the floral blocks, and enjoys gardening in his free time.


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Elias John Peter Elias John Peter helps out in all kinds of printing in Aranya- vegetable dye printing being his favourite. He used to work in Athulya but he later took a one year break and pursued car driving. He loves travelling with family to see different places by car. He went to London where he stayed for 3 months and conducted worshops and demonstrations. He was blown away by the cultural diversity, and is very proud of the knowledge base he has built over the years. .


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Banumathy Banumathy is an artist who has been promoted as supervisor now. However she refuses to stop wearing the uniform as it’ll prevent her from helping out with dyeing, and that will upset her deeply. Before joining Aranya, she had a heart problem but from the time she stepped foot in this organization, all her problems have been slowly vanishing. She got operated, got married and is now a proud mother. In Malaysia, she received an award for the most hardworking employee in Aranya. The entire process of dyeing fascinates her, and she knows it at the back of her hand. Other than Aranya, she is a volunteer at “Ekal Vidyalaya” - a school providing free education to students- where she teaches them devotional songs. She is also studying spoken English on weekends, to enhance her communication skills. Her goal is to help whoever she can and try to make her own small difference in the world- that’s what makes her truly happy.


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P. Arumugham Arumugham is an eco printing and arashi shibori artist. Aranya took him to Puglia, Italy to attend a workshop curated by Michelle Griffiths. He had a desire to explore the technique more so he used bamboo sticks while tying the fabric around the tube and dyed it. The texture it gave was very distinct and intricate. It was named “Aru� shibori by Yoshiko Wada, President of World Shibori Network. In 2008, he received the Tata Tea Award for innovation.


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J. Mallika Mallika is one of the master dyers in Aranya Naturals. She has a lot of experience in dyeing and is now capable of training the newcomers. Due to a birth deformity, she walks with a limp in her leg but that doesn’t prevent her from actively walking around the unit and explaining the process to the guests who visit. She also manages to talk in English to show the process to foreign tourists.


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R. Francise Francise is the youngest and most energetic of us all. He is a fast learner and is trained by Aramugam. Both of them work together on eco printing and arashi shibori. Francise has a good eye for and prints and loves to experiment with colour palettes.


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K. Sreeraman Sreeraman is one of the two tailors in Aranya. He is skilled at Katano shibori and also gives the finishing touches to the scarves. He is very quick with his work and doesn’t fuss about working overtime if a big order has been placed. Aranya has provided him and many others with a house, but he has also managed to build a house of his own which he has given on rent. He used to stitch clothes from home in his free time, and knows a lot of people in and around town because of his meritorious work as a tailor.


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Aranya has not only employed us but has also made our lives a lot more easier and better. Most of us have a house of our own provided by the company. There is a bus that takes us to the workplace and back. Just adjacent to the unit is a crèche, so that the mother doesn’t have to worry about a babysitter or dropping the child to a far off day-care centre before work. The organization also provides a hot wholesome meal for lunch on an every day basis. Aranya has provided medical care for many of us. This place has a mother-like feeling of warmth, comfort and security that we do not feel anywhere else. It has accepted us with all its heart and we are working towards making our mother proud with our relentless effort and perseverence.


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People of the cloth, Lives interwoven intricately


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The beauty of accidents Our techniques

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ranya Naturals has shown what each of us is capable of doing. It has taken us years and years of dedicated efforts to learn and enhance the skills we know today. We specialize in four types of printing, namely- shibori, vegetable printing, batik printing and eco printing. No product has been made by a single person, it is always team work that combines our skills for great output. Some of us have been to Italy, Japan, London, France and other countries to attend workshops or demonstrate our own skills. We get exposed to fresh design perspectives and new experiences that enrich our lives during these visits. Aranya has added colour in our lives by helping us stand on our feet and nurturing our skills to make us proud confident members of society.


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Naturally dyed indigo fabric with shibori printing technique.


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1. Shibori

Shibori is the ancient Japanese art of printing on fabric by manipulating the fabric and taking advantage of its inherent propeties. These textures are created by tying, squeezing, pleating and various other techniques. The fluidity, blurred edges and abstraction of motifs form beautiful textures on the fabric, which gives it new form and meaning. The outcome may not always be what you desire, but you learn to fall in love with your creation and gain a new perspective. The essence lies in finding beauty in imperfection while imprinting a memory on cloth.

As much as it is about going with the flow, this art form involves impeccable focus and precision. The shibori unit in Aranya has 8 women dedicated only for shibori embroidery.


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Mrs. Yoshiko Wada and the artists of Aranya guiding the students attending the workshop about techniques of embroidery and ithajime shibori.


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We have learnt different shibori techniques like Kumo, Katano, Nui, Suji, Arashi, and Itajime by refering to books and looking at pictures. In the year 2000, we attended the Sutra conference in Kolkata where we also diplayed our work. Mrs. Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada, was attending this conference and was very impressed by our work. After a brief conversation, we realized that she is the author to the books that we were referring to and also the president of the World Shibori Network!

Mrs. Yoshiko Wada visited our organization a year later, and was determined to teach us and refine our skills. Since that day, she has been coming every year with a group of fellow artists to conduct workshops. In these workshops, we guide the artists with the technique while they provide us with fresh insights on design. These workshops have fine tuned our skills and sharpened them for better quality output. Two of us- Muthulakshmi and Muthupetchi have visited Japan to master the art of shibori,while demonstrating their own skills.


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2. Vegetable Printing

We have a subtle colour palette for our vegetable printing. Our shades include pastel yellows, muddy browns, brick reds and oranges, black, etc. Wooden geometric and floral blocks made in Jaipur, Ahmedabad and Varanasi are used for our prints. Jaggery and plant extracts are mixed together and fermented for a unique solution. Then a binding agent like myrobalan and gum arabic is added so that it has a good consistency and it sticks to the fabric. Kalidas and Peter have a very good hand at it and enjoy working with these materials.


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3. Batik Printing

Batik printing is a form of wax resist printing wherein the desired wooden block is dipped in hot wax and stamped on the fabric. We use a bed of mud below the fabric so that it doesn’t stick to the surface, and gives a cushion effect. The fabric is then left to dry and when the wax dries, it starts becoming hard and chipping off the fabric. This process forms fine lines on the motifs. When the fabric is given for dyeing, the areas stamped with the wax do not allow room for the pigment to seep in, however these fine lines on the motif do get dyed, which forms an interesting texture on them. The beauty of Batik printing lies in these fine lines and textures.


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4. Eco printing

Eco printing is about understanding the nature and texture of leaves, flowers and twigs and using it for a desired texture. Experimentation is the key, the more plant material you try, the better your understanding of its imprint on fabric. Munnar is the best place for eco printing because of the vast spectrum of flowers and leaves that this soil is capable of growing. Srishti Welfare Centre has an absolutely stunning garden that they have strived to maintain and enhance over the years. We use flowers like poppy, coreopsis, leaves of castor and many others for eco printing on silk scarves.


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Display of Aranya Naturals products in the gift store attached to the unit.


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Chaos is that happy state of mind, Beauty emerging from the depths of the unknown.


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Standing tall and high Accomplishments and clientele

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hen we started, dyeing was similar to cooking for us. We cooked a fabric for delicious colour and texture. It started off with curiosity, which slowly became a passion and finally a source of income for us. Aranya Naturals showed us light in the darkest of alleys, it gave our lives shape and meaning when we had lost all hope of happiness. This space, the people, we are all tightly wound as one and we not only work together but share a major part of our lives with each other. We are no less than a close knit family, and our work is now globally known to many fashion brands and labels.


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A group of tourists posing with their purchases from Aranya Naturals outside the gift shop.


73 Our clientele include brands like Maiwa Handprints, Live One Vision (LOV) project, Eileen Fisher, Lions and Four, Ogaan, Itokri, Jaypore amongst many others. We have also made customized designs for Laura Siegel and luxury brands like Ralph Lauren. Our presence at exhibitions, namely- Paramparik Karigar (Mumbai), Design One (Mumbai), Hundred Hands (Bangalore and Cochin) and seminars like Sutra conference in Kolkata has helped us gain recognition and appreciation from all over the world.


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Mrs. Ratna Krishnakumar

Photo courtesy: yourstory.com

Mrs. Ratna Krishnakumar, wife of former Tata Sons directer Mr. R.K Krishnakumar, has been our torch bearer throughout our journey. She is the trustee of Srishti Welfare Centre and the spine of Aranya Naturals. She believed in us and was determined to help us live a comfortable life with dignity. The start of our organization was quite chaotic, we kept making mistakes while dyeing but she refused to give up on her plan for us. She truly believes that we are capable of doing much more and soaring higher - this belief gives us the motivation to work harder everyday.

Every 2 months she pays a visit to Munnar. There’s a deeper connection between her and this small town. She has faith in our skills, and trusts us to build the brand that is Aranya Naturals. In 1991, She joined DARE with the goal of helping the society in her own way. She discovered her passion for creativity and love for colours, and Aranya Naturals unit was established. Patience, empathy and leadership come naturally to Mrs. Ratna Krishnakumar and she will always be our guiding light.


Mrs. Victoria Vijayakumar Mrs. Victoria Vijayakumar- fondly called “Vicky Ma’am” by us- is the person who runs the organization and maintains discipline in Aranya Naturals. When the first natural dyeing workshop was conducted in Munnar, she was the only person who could understand both English and Tamil, and volunteered to be the translator for the other students. Because of this job, she made sure she understood all the terms and techniques perfectly because she didn’t want to impart the wrong information. Soon, she was an expert in the field of dyeing and printing and helped Mrs. Ratna start her dream project.

Mrs. Victoria Vijayakumar has attended many conferences, workshops and demonstrations in countries like Malaysia, Japan, London, France among others. She has also taken a few of us to these countries, so that we get exposure and gain new perspectives. She is a self taught artist who has made Aranya Naturals her life, and us her second family. Bold, confident and a true entrepreneur, she always goes the extra mile to achieve the goals she has set for us and this company.


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Nature unleashes, The mind quivers with creative possibilities.


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“Paati� has been working for Aranya Naturals for the past 30 years. She keeps the floors spotless and gives the space a homely feel.


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Acknowledgements

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irst and foremost, I would like to thank Mrs. Ratna Krishnakumar and Mrs. Victoria Vijayakumar for letting me be a part of Aranya Naturals and helping me understand and learn from them. I would also like to thank each and every artisan working in the company for their co-operation and support, they let me get a glimpse of their lives and opened up to me about themselves without hesitating. They were very patient while I asked my questions in broken Tamil, and were honest and genuine with their response.

Other than that, I thank Indira Akka, Nithya Akka, Rajlakshmi Ma’am, Simona and Himani for guiding and helping me with the statistics and data. I sincerely thank Mr. Guha Thakurta and Mrs. Neela Thakurta for arranging suitable accommodation for me and making sure I am comfortable. I also appreciate the effort of Mr. Sashi who was kind enough to drive me around Munnar on his day off and tell me about the culture and ecology of this town.

Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology gave me this wonderful opportunity to push myself and go beyond what I expect from myself. I thank my college and my mentor Miss Srivi Kalyan whose insights have helped me craft this book. Most importantly, I thank my parents for having faith in me and supporting me along the way.


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Arashi shibori after ironing.


The Fabric of Life- Discovering the story of Aranya Naturals  

Aranya Naturals is a natural dyeing unit situated in Munnar, Kerala. It employs differently abled people and trains them with artistic skill...

The Fabric of Life- Discovering the story of Aranya Naturals  

Aranya Naturals is a natural dyeing unit situated in Munnar, Kerala. It employs differently abled people and trains them with artistic skill...

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