Updated: Dec 25, 2020
Sharing the story of Sura after many conversations with Shivranjani R & Nisha S, Co-Founders of Sura - a team of diverse women, united by love for fabric and passion to transform reality for families in Periyar Nagar, a coastal village in Tamil Nadu.
It all started with Nisha and Gowtham, an educator couple moving to the rural district of Cuddalore, in Tamil Nadu to work with ASSEFA schools with an aim to provide quality education to marginalized students from fishing communities along the coast.
Worried about the rising education costs, some of the mothers came forward at a parent-teacher meeting with an ask to support them in upskilling themselves as these mothers wanted to spend 7-8 hours of their “leisure” time meaningfully.
In July 2017, Sura was born out of mothers’ struggle to pay their childrens’ school fees. Women came forward to stitch to earn a livelihood and support their children’s education. The word Sura means ‘Shark’ in Tamil representing the fighting spirit of these fisherwomen dedicated to changing their life stories.
What were the artisans doing before Sura?
Sura is a 100% women-run team. Some women, prior to joining Sura were engaged in daily wage labour, seasonally. In the beginning, there were 15-18 women who were interested in being part of this initiative. Due to many social and cultural barriers, only 10 managed to pull through and complete their training. For all of them, this is the first time they are employed in a formal and organized setup, with a certainty of an income. This leads to an expansion of their financial and life choices.
How did the social enterprise grow and where do you currently stand?
In our early days, women stepping out of their villages were often ridiculed by the rest of the community. Often questions raised included a variety of insinuating remarks including where they were going and for what reasons. The women stepped out to ‘Seva Resource Center’ , 5 villages away to get trained in sewing. A rigorous course followed by an exam earned them a tailoring certificate.
7 to 8 months after being trained at the Seva Resource Centre, the women purchased sewing machines on microcredit with Nisha & Shivranjani’s support. They further identified a collective desire to set up a centre for themselves in their own village. This larger goal inspired their everyday actions and brought the community together.
As of today, the centre in their own village, Periyar Nagar, has been functional for 2 years impacting 10 women, 12 children and their families. A humble beginning led them to a place where today, Sura stitches over 40 products and has grown its clientele across India and the globe with over 350 customers.
Inspired by Sura, the founding team has further trained 25 women, who are now Singer certified women tailors.
How are the products made?
Sura started with a single product, a drawstring pouch, but today the creativity and ability of women have pushed them to grow rapidly - stitching over 40 products today.
Product design, prototype and process setting are collectively done along with the women. Furthermore, custom orders require a systematic approach to inventory and communication. Any part or raw material typically has at least two stops before it reaches Cuddalore and the women have managed to use technology wherever possible to avoid miscommunication and minimise logistics cost.
Shivranjani, one of the co-founders, shares “While we started off as an event-based product design approach, we are at a place where we can innovate through the year and experiment with the known market. We are also consciously expanding our sales channels giving us scope to employ more women, in turn transforming more families.”
What has been your biggest impact?
Our deepest impact has been the behaviour and thinking shifts in the women themselves. From being precarious about parts needed for every product to planning it in advance and tracking its use – their belief in planning has gone up. From being skeptical about sending their wives to a tailoring class far off, the husbands are lending a hand with balancing home and work. The village stakeholders see them as being a productive collective as compared to a time when they were ridiculed for leaving the village. Over 300 customers have been sensitised about the value of money while reminding them that these women, from disadvantaged backgrounds, can deliver excellent products through hard work and determination.
When asked about what their organization values , Nisha Subramaniam shared a beautiful insight, “I keep thinking about the quote from Helen Keller, “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much”. We often find ourselves reflecting on the question, “what if we valued individual excellence?”, we will be able to make more products.. but is that the point? We want to value the collective and we want every woman (we work with) to feel successful.”
Shivranjani shares this when asked about a long-term goal, “There are two pillars we want to hold strong in years to come. One is around holding a balance between how we problem solve and stay adaptable given our daily realities, be it the COVID pandemic or any local challenges within our villages. Along with that, we want the women to self-identify what they want for the future of Sura. An aspect that keeps coming up, again and again, is to grow the centre and involve more women from surrounding villages. We will be working on that as we move forward.”
At Moi Namaste, we have had the opportunity to work with the Sura women for over a year now. If you would like to support this artisan community, head to our shop! Direct links to their products are mentioned below:
b. Fabric Masks