Weaving Dreams

10 min read
16 Dec 2016
10 min read
1799 words
Shyam Badan Shrestha is one of such entrepreneurs: she dared to start her own venture of knotted handicrafts with a paltry sum of Rs 200, out of a makeshift workshop in her house

Tell us about your family.

I belong to a Newari family and grew up in a local community in Gobahal, near Kumbeshwor, Lalitpur. My father passed away due to malaria when my mother was four months pregnant with me, so I don’t really know what my father looked like—people didn’t usually take photographs in my parents’ generation. I was raised in my mamaghar, with 15 other children. Watching my mother take care of me on her own taught me the value of education, hard work and independence. I don’t rely on other people to take care of me, although it’s nice to be taken care of once in a while.

Was it tough growing up as the daughter of a single mother?

After my grandmother passed away, my mother decided to move back to my father’s ancestral house. It had been partly damaged by the earthquake of 1934, but we didn’t have anywhere else to go. We basically owned a dilapidated house and a few utensils. So, yes, it was tough growing up. However, I also think that it has been a wonderful journey, and I was fortunate to have a guardian who understood the importance of education.

Run us through your daily routine as a young girl.

I was surrounded by a lot of small cottage industries—handicraft producers, shoe manufacturers and sweater weavers—when I was growing up in Patan. You could say that I was exposed to entrepreneurs and an entrepreneurial mindset from an early age. And I took to working very early on in my life too. On most days, I would wake up at 2 am and make Nepali topis. We earned less than a rupee for 20 hats. Around 5 am, at the break of dawn, I would weave on a loom placed next to my window. By the time I had breakfast and went to school at 9 am, I would have woven around three metres of cloth. I didn’t mind working hard, but I was certainly affected by the discrimination my mother and I faced due to our poor financial condition. Due to this, I promised myself that I would work extra hard to complete my studies and to become a self-reliant person. My hard work must have paid off, because I was eventually able to get a scholarship at a local school.

Tell us about your educational experience.

My life’s only ambitions were to get a good education, a job and a master’s degree (you might be surprised to know that at the time, I didn’t even know what a master’s degree meant). I remember when the results for my SLC examination came out—we didn’t have enough money to buy a copy of the Gorkhapatra to view my results. I learned later that I had passed with a second division. After tenth grade, I completed my Intermediate in Education at a college in Chet Bhawan, the same place where Radisson Hotel stands today. The best part about college was that students were given an allowance of Rs 55 per month. Getting the money meant that I didn’t have to wake up at 2 am anymore to earn extra money, and that I could devote more time on my studies. I got a bachelor’s degree in Education too and then got into teaching. I was a teacher for 13 years.

Did you enjoy your teaching career?

I loved teaching in schools and colleges. This is a vocation that touches lives—our words and actions directly influence a child and help them make informed and responsible choices. I taught Biology, but my approach was to have them get interested in the practical side of the subject instead of only the theoretical aspects. I didn’t want my kids to be bookworms; I wanted them to apply their learnings to their daily lives too.

What triggered the transition from teacher to entrepreneur?

The day I decided to quit my teaching job, I promised myself that I would never work for someone else. After I quit, I briefly worked as a coordinator for the Godavari Alumni Association (GAA). There, I met Father Watrin. He encouraged me to start a handicraft camp for women and funded the venture. I had been interested in macramé from an early age, and I wanted to do something with that. Since I had no formal training, I read a lot of books and taught myself the art of knotting. My venture into handicraft-making was largely through trial and error. I’m a self-taught handicraft maker and entrepreneur. I bought threads for Rs 200, built a small workshop in my house and started making knotted handicraft items with two friends. That was the humble beginning of the Nepal Knotcraft Centre (NKC), in 1984.

How easy was it for you to take on the mentality of an entrepreneur?

There is no nine-to-five when you’re doing a business. It is constant work—doing research and trying to improve your products. Since I was raised by a single mother who worked tirelessly round the clock, I was not fazed by the prospect of hard work. Back then, there weren’t that many women entrepreneurs in Nepal, so a few of us like-minded friends got together and established the Women Entrepreneur Association of Nepal (WEAN). We started out by making small items at NKC, and as we gained enough confidence, we began experimenting with different materials like cotton, hemp and yarn. The early days were challenging, and it took us a couple of years to gain visibility in the local market. Eventually, things started looking up for us. The 1990 embargo changed everything (I would say in a good way).

How was the blockade, which crippled the supply of your raw materials, beneficial?

There was a severe shortage of cotton twine for macramé and knitting due to the embargo. This inspired us—actually forced us—to experiment with other natural and locally available materials. It was during this time that we started making corn husk ethnic dolls. Interestingly, these dolls became one of the hottest commodities at our Kupondole outlet.

What other surprises did you unearth in your research?

We couldn’t make everything out of corn husk, so I started looking for alternatives for macramé. Sadly, to this day, I haven’t found any good twine that can be used for knotting. However, during my research, I did come across many types of indigenous weaving traditions practiced by Nepali women from diverse communities. For example, in Newari culture, we have traditional hay-woven carpets, the sukul. During this time, I also discovered that the women who were involved in this vocation had the expertise but lacked the technical knowledge and proper resources to use to their skills to generate income.

What changes have you seen in the women who have worked at NKC?

NKC focuses on teaching women’s groups the art of blending their unique indigenous weaving techniques with more contemporary styles, so that the end product is of value, from a buyer’s perspective. This helps the women to polish their craft and to familiarise themselves with the market for their handicrafts. This has made them more socially and financially independent and has also brought about a sense of pride in their skills. And when they pass their knowledge on to the younger generations, that is bound to preserve their cultural roots. The honest money these women earn can help them support themselves, their families and their children’s education.

What makes your work so interesting?

I was always interested in flora—I am a biologist after all—and I’m constantly documenting fibres that can potentially be used as raw materials in handicrafts. Trust me, Nepal is a treasure trove of plants whose fibres can be used as alternatives to imported raw material. Nepal is rich in natural fibres, but apart from local communities’ using them, many of us are still unaware of their potential—so if we can create proper documentation and research facilities, the handicraft sector will take off in a big way. I would say, the best thing about my job is that I’m constantly learning.

Why buy local handicrafts?

You need natural products to save the environment, and you need cultural products to save your identity. Just imagine the wealth of craftsmanship that the 125 indigenous people who live in Nepal have to offer. I have said it before and I’ll say it again, what we need is research, documentation and implementation from the state level. There’s plenty of raw material, manpower and design-inspiration in our country. With the urban Nepalis’ growing interest in eco-friendly living, including for interior decoration, and with more people leaning towards natural products and with Nepali expats seeking to reconnect to their ethnic roots, there’s a renaissance in locally produced crafts.