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Strapping Stone

Aditi is the founder of Ruas India, a company that produces artistic straps with the help of rural artisans. She is a storyteller, designer and a documentary photographer. Read on our interview #11 below -

Keshav: Hi Aditi. Tell me about your company, Ruas.

Aditi: Ruas is a social enterprise where our focus is on helping traditional women artisans in India who practice hand embroidery. 90% of these women artisans have no education, but they have skills. So I wanted to use their skills to be able to make them into creative entrepreneurs, as I like to call it. The women who work with us create designs for straps. We make straps like guitar straps, camera straps and we will be launching bag straps quite soon. The product is really high quality, functional and simple at the same time. Another thing that we do is, we want to honor the creativity and the historic aspect of their work. So, we co-design with them, the embroidery is not just made by the artisans, it’s thought about by the artisans, its co-creativity. That’s what we do. We give not just wages to them, but a creative outlet to help them grow and become entrepreneurs.

Keshav: What does the word Ruas mean?

Aditi: Oh Haha! It has two meanings actually. I wanted to name it after my sisters. I have two younger sisters, Rupali and Asmita, so the name is short form of both of them together. And the other one it goes for is rural artisans, so I thought it would be a nice representation of women.

Keshav: Tell me how did you get started with this venture? How did you get this idea?

Aditi: My father worked in this company where he would get transferred a lot. So a lot of my growing up years were in different parts of India, in small towns and cities. I was an introvert, so I didn’t have a lot of friends in school but I loved going out, I loved discovering the outdoors, and everywhere I went, I met artisans. I feel like I was quite fortunate in experiencing a lot of things that kids don’t experience in their childhood. Also, I was an artistic kid, but in Indian schools unfortunately, there’s not much space for artistic kids, there’s always space for kids who are good at Math or Science. So I wasn’t comfortable in school because I was not good at that, but I was good at being an artist, talking to artisans, noticing all the creative things around us. That was one side of things, on the other side, I also noticed a lot of stuff that happens to women. How they are not treated fairly wherever you go. For example, when my youngest sister was about to be born, a lot of women, like aunties, came up to me and asked me Oh! Your parents are having a third child because they want a son… which was not true at all, but that’s what they felt was appropriate to ask. So I would say that really changed my perspective on lot of things, and very early on, I realized that our world has some serious issues! So I would say that Ruas is basically bringing together these two passions of mine and honoring the creative spirit in people and honoring women and giving them the respect that they deserve.

Keshav: How did you get the idea though? How did you make this connection with the women in rural Gujarat?

Aditi: I actually grew up to be a writer and I was quite happy in my job, but I always had it at the back of my mind that this is not what I want to be, I need to do something for women. I didn’t know what exactly. I also used to do photography on the side. So one day, I was looking at my camera – DSLR and the strap and I just thought that this is so boring - boring black strap, I don’t like it at all and I want to change it. I thought what if I asked artisans to make a hand embroidered one for me. That’s really how the idea came, and I got really excited by it and I thought what if I just go and meet these women. I decided to go to Kutch because the initial part of my childhood was actually in Gujarat, so I always had fond memories of it, and I knew about the craft and just location wise, it’s closest to Mumbai, so it’s the easiest to get to. And I chose Kutch because the more I researched, the more obsessed I got with the landscape, the people, and the crafts. I decided to go there and I met a lot of communities who practice embroidery and I researched for 6 months and actually it was in those months that the concept of co-design and fair wages came through. Then I made the first strap and started testing if people want to buy these things.

Keshav: What do you mean by co-design?

Aditi: That’s a good question. I think it’s a term which is thrown around a lot and often it’s not used in the right way, unfortunately. So it’s co-creation, where each party brings the best of what they know. For example, I am the one who brings them the market linkages, who brings them the product ideas, who brings them the concept of designs they can make, but they are the ones with history, they are the ones with skill and they are the ones with creativity as well. So take guitar straps, I am the one who thought of the product, I am the one who does research on product innovation –what should the material be, how can we make it high quality or doing research on color trends etc. But when I go

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Aditi is the founder of Ruas India, a company that produces artistic straps with the help of rural artisans. She is a storyteller, designer and a documentary photographer. Read on our interview #11 below -

Keshav: Hi Aditi. Tell me about your company, Ruas.

Aditi: Ruas is a social enterprise where our focus is on helping traditional women artisans in India who practice hand embroidery. 90% of these women artisans have no education, but they have skills. So I wanted to use their skills to be able to make them into creative entrepreneurs, as I like to call it. The women who work with us create designs for straps. We make straps like guitar straps, camera straps and we will be launching bag straps quite soon. The product is really high quality, functional and simple at the same time. Another thing that we do is, we want to honor the creativity and the historic aspect of their work. So, we co-design with them, the embroidery is not just made by the artisans, it’s thought about by the artisans, its co-creativity. That’s what we do. We give not just wages to them, but a creative outlet to help them grow and become entrepreneurs.

Keshav: What does the word Ruas mean?

Aditi: Oh Haha! It has two meanings actually. I wanted to name it after my sisters. I have two younger sisters, Rupali and Asmita, so the name is short form of both of them together. And the other one it goes for is rural artisans, so I thought it would be a nice representation of women.

Keshav: Tell me how did you get started with this venture? How did you get this idea?

Aditi: My father worked in this company where he would get transferred a lot. So a lot of my growing up years were in different parts of India, in small towns and cities. I was an introvert, so I didn’t have a lot of friends in school but I loved going out, I loved discovering the outdoors, and everywhere I went, I met artisans. I feel like I was quite fortunate in experiencing a lot of things that kids don’t experience in their childhood. Also, I was an artistic kid, but in Indian schools unfortunately, there’s not much space for artistic kids, there’s always space for kids who are good at Math or Science. So I wasn’t comfortable in school because I was not good at that, but I was good at being an artist, talking to artisans, noticing all the creative things around us. That was one side of things, on the other side, I also noticed a lot of stuff that happens to women. How they are not treated fairly wherever you go. For example, when my youngest sister was about to be born, a lot of women, like aunties, came up to me and asked me Oh! Your parents are having a third child because they want a son… which was not true at all, but that’s what they felt was appropriate to ask. So I would say that really changed my perspective on lot of things, and very early on, I realized that our world has some serious issues! So I would say that Ruas is basically bringing together these two passions of mine and honoring the creative spirit in people and honoring women and giving them the respect that they deserve.

Keshav: How did you get the idea though? How did you make this connection with the women in rural Gujarat?

Aditi: I actually grew up to be a writer and I was quite happy in my job, but I always had it at the back of my mind that this is not what I want to be, I need to do something for women. I didn’t know what exactly. I also used to do photography on the side. So one day, I was looking at my camera – DSLR and the strap and I just thought that this is so boring - boring black strap, I don’t like it at all and I want to change it. I thought what if I asked artisans to make a hand embroidered one for me. That’s really how the idea came, and I got really excited by it and I thought what if I just go and meet these women. I decided to go to Kutch because the initial part of my childhood was actually in Gujarat, so I always had fond memories of it, and I knew about the craft and just location wise, it’s closest to Mumbai, so it’s the easiest to get to. And I chose Kutch because the more I researched, the more obsessed I got with the landscape, the people, and the crafts. I decided to go there and I met a lot of communities who practice embroidery and I researched for 6 months and actually it was in those months that the concept of co-design and fair wages came through. Then I made the first strap and started testing if people want to buy these things.

Keshav: What do you mean by co-design?

Aditi: That’s a good question. I think it’s a term which is thrown around a lot and often it’s not used in the right way, unfortunately. So it’s co-creation, where each party brings the best of what they know. For example, I am the one who brings them the market linkages, who brings them the product ideas, who brings them the concept of designs they can make, but they are the ones with history, they are the ones with skill and they are the ones with creativity as well. So take guitar straps, I am the one who thought of the product, I am the one who does research on product innovation –what should the material be, how can we make it high quality or doing research on color trends etc. But when I go and meet artisans and tell them Hey let’s work on this theme this year and then the artisans go on their own and they think of concept and design themselves. For example, once I gave them the idea of creating animals and that collection really sold off quite fast! So they had made really cute samples of elephants and camels and other animals around them in their embroidery form and each embroidery form looks different. So each of them interprets it in their craft form and makes that design and they also help in the process of fabric as well, because the fabric is also woven in Kutch and dyed there, so it’s like team work. The literal design that you will see on any of our straps is not completely mine, it’s more theirs. We’ve never had a product returned so I think it has worked. Lot of people at the start were questioning trusting artisans so much with design but I think it’s pretty obvious that they completely have the capability to do really great things.

Keshav: Are you a one woman team?

Aditi: Hahaha! Yeah, I am a one woman team. Thankfully I have a lot of people helping me out though. But nobody officially on the team other than me.

Keshav: Great! Now do you mind taking me through one of these artisans’ life? How are they organized? What’s their family like? Etc.

Aditi: Sure. So typically how a lot of NGOs and other organizations work is that they employ women continuously but the women never see the final product. They don’t get access to innovation, it doesn’t grow their skill at all. They are just literally creating designs that are given by somebody else and never see the end product. I wanted to have minimum control over their lives. So I decided that I would not stop them from doing work with anybody else. So any woman who works with Ruas can work with as many people as she wants. It’s not really our call, right? It’s their call. So they work with several other people and they tell me when they want work. Because they are women, they have house duties and a lot of things to do, and life in the desert is not easy. So the way we work is we tell them to tell us when they need work and we will give them work for those months. That’s worked quite well.

An example of a woman would be….one of our artisans is Laxmi. I know her for the last three or four years. When I met her, she was studying at Somaiya Kala Vidyalaya, which is a school for artisans education and she was just starting out and she was not married at that time. In all these years I have seen her grow. She and her cousin have sold designs through Ruas, their own designs. The life changes I have seen in her are…firstly, she got married and she had a kid. She paid for her own wedding! She didn’t want to trouble her father with expenses so it was pretty cool that she collected the money she’s earned and paid for her own wedding. Now she has a son. We are still working together. I think we are more of friends before anything else.

Keshav: Interesting! Can you take me through your product range?

Aditi: There was a time when I was really expanding to other products but I realized that I want to focus on the impact for not just artisans but our customers as well and Ruas is a company when it grows, it needs to be really focused on having deeper impact and deeper relations with whoever we are working with. Even our customers for example, when they buy a guitar strap, it’s not just buying a strap, they have to match it with their guitar…and it’s a really personal decision for them, right? It’s sort of an extension of their personality…these people are going to go on stage and use that strap so often. So I think our focus is always going to be on creating amazing designs, and creating community really at the end of the day with artisans, customers and Ruas. So our main products are always going to be straps – guitar, camera and bag straps, but we are a zero waste company, so whatever fabric we have left over, we convert it into different products, like a lens cover for camera, small make up pouch, head bands etc. So there are a lot of secondary products that come out because we want to make sure we are a zero waste company and they look great!

Keshav: Great. So if not product types, are you planning to expand to different art forms or communities?

Aditi: Yeah! Definitely. So we have started working in Ooty, with a tribe called Toda tribe, very interesting tribe. So, we’ve already started doing that actually. The goal is hopefully at some point, we will be a company where you can get any embroidery of India.

Keshav: So manly focused on embroidery?

Aditi: Yes. I think embroidery is really fascinating. It’s a craft that in many ways has been ignored, but it’s always been there. You go to any culture, any historic culture – men are either fighting or practicing agriculture and women doing embroidery, or weaving. So I wonder has it been ignored because it was done by women.  It is super interesting to me, I never thought I will become so obsessed with embroidery but I have, because of the way it’s connected to women so closely. For example, again, in almost all cultures, women started doing embroidery as a part of dowry. In a lot of communities that I work with, embroidery is done on their clothing, they wear it – it’s that personal to them. So to me, it’s the best form of expressing their cultural identities. So I don’t think I would go to any other craft form, we would like to go deeper into this craft form and explore more on how we can sort of change the awareness about the types of embroideries – It’s mind numbing the number of embroideries that exist in India and how gorgeous they are.

Keshav: So do you want to produce clothing with embroidery?

Aditi: At some point, maybe. But at this point I think we would focus on creating the straps.

Keshav: How do you sell your products? I do see e-commerce links on your website...

Aditi: So actually we are in the process of changing things up right now. We sell our products on amazon, our website will be launching new collection in the next month or two. Instagram as well, you can buy from there.

Keshav: I see you mention some people as your ambassadors – who are they?

Aditi: Well there’s a lot of people who have helped Ruas grow and we just want to give credit to them! So we call them ambassadors of Ruas. There are so many mentors I have. One of my greatest mentors is Judy Frater, she has worked in Kutch for several decades and she has helped countless artisans and she is one person I always go to for advice and understanding the on ground realities and how should we work with artisans, how can you best help artisans, and it greatly impacts how I work at Ruas. So yeah they are the ones who I call ambassadors, anybody who’s helped us in any capacity – whether it’s finance, design or any aspect, and has been a continuous part of us.

Keshav: How long has Ruas been in existence?

Aditi: About four years, since I have been working on the idea but two years since the official company was formed. So we started with offline sales. For almost three years, it was just offline sales, meeting artists in person and telling them about what I do. I would say that forming of a proper company and GST and online presence, all of that has been quite recent, like one or two years ago we started doing that.

Keshav: Tell me about your offline sales experience. I believe it must have been a lot more intimate.

Aditi: It was quite amazing honestly, because it was just me reaching out to these artists and meeting them and talking about our products and it was quite easy connect because of the creative aspect of it. A creative person really respects another creative person’s work, and artists really like to hear where the product comes from, how it’s made etc. What was amazing for me was to see the journey of the product, because I am there when the fabric is being made, when the artisan is embroidering over it to the point when I am connecting that strap to the customer. That’s what really is fascinating, they really choose things that are so them. When you are making it, you never imagine how well it would go with them. I think that’s why we have never had a product returned, because when people choose a strap, it’s a very important decision. A simple product but it’s a very important decision.

Keshav: What is your life like outside Ruas?

Aditi: So I am married, I spent a lot of time with my husband. We live in Bandra, Mumbai. We have a lot of friends we hang out with. I would say our work lives dominate us haha! We like to travel a lot, we like to go dancing when we can. It’s a blessed life I would say.

Keshav: Is it straining that you must have to travel to Kutch a lot?

Aditi: Actually, I don’t have to travel too much, thanks to technology. I talk to artisans on WhatsApp, so I don’t have to go that often, but I do have to travel every now and then. But that’s not new, I have always travelled in my life.

Keshav: Is there anything you want to tell to anybody who might be reading, watching or listening to this interview (you can promote your products if you want!)

Aditi: My background is actually in creative writing. I have been working as a writer for the past ten years. So a lot of times, people asked me why don’t you have a blog? Why don’t you tell people what you’re doing? I finally feel like I have enough stories to share. So I have launched my blog where you can follow my journey and see how much country offers through our people, crafts and more! It’s called kabhikabhiaditi.com. Please do check it out and follow @ruasindia on Instagram too.

Keshav: Hahaha, I’ll watch out for your posts. It was a pleasure doing this interview, thanks for taking the time.

Aditi: Same here! Thanks for doing this. I am glad it worked out.

 

Aditi can be reached at

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