Santhosh Kumar grew up in Nagercoil, a coastal town close to the Southern tip of Tamil Nadu, where his father learned the art of weaving cane and wire furniture. “Why don’t I learn the craft from my father,” he thought to himself when he reached the 12th grade, “I’ll not only be useful at home but I’ll also earn some pocket money.” After assisting his father with a few furniture pieces, he took up the job of rewiring an entire cot. “Completing the entire job on my own gave me the confidence to publicize my new skill,” he grins.
Santhosh’s weaving days were behind him before they even began. Like most others, he went to engineering college and moved to Chennai to pursue an IT job in 2015. “The job wasn’t as high paying back then so I put up a post on a blog about my weaving skills hoping to earn some money on the side.” Time went by and the post did not linger in Santhosh’s thoughts for very long as he began to pursue different mediums—looking to make some extra money. Within three years Santhosh and five of his friends from the company decided to sell sarees online. At the end of the year, Santhosh quit the IT job and moved back to Nagercoil to develop the saree business.
Around 2017, Santhosh’s saree boutique was growing steadily when his past came rushing back. “I started receiving messages in response to my post about weaving from so many years ago!” he recalls amused, “They were mostly inquiries about my furniture weaving services.” His phone’s ringtone became a constant rhythm in the background as a result of the trending post. With a heavy heart, Santhosh would tell the person at the other end that he was no longer providing those services, while also noting down their contact details (just in case).
“It reached an extent where I began to think about why I was trying to avoid something that was falling right into my lap,” he laughs. So he immediately dialed his five friends, back in Chennai—they were still working at the IT company—and asked them to pass on contact details of any weavers they could find in the vicinity. “One of my friends actually took his bike and went around the city scouting for artisans.” Santhosh collected these contacts and went back to his list of potential customers. He spent night and day contacting people from the list and asking them if they had found someone to weave their furniture. If they hadn’t he would pass on the contact details of the nearest weaver.
“I had no inhibition,” he chuckles, “In case the person I called had already found someone to weave their furniture I would ask them for the contact and enquire about the artisan’s service. Once I recommend a weaver to a customer I would call them back to receive feedback. That is how I started building the catalogue.” The young entrepreneur covered Chennai. The rest of Tamil Nadu was next.
“When the pandemic struck I couldn’t travel much so I began calling all of my friends and relatives and asking them to pass on the contact details of local weavers from around their neighbourhoods,” he says. “Every time I traveled I would get off at the intermediary bus stops and take an auto around the town and ask the drivers to help me scout for weavers—because they know what most people don’t,” he laughs. Slowly he built the catalogue after personally interacting with the artisans, not just from around Tamil Nadu but also Bangalore and parts of Kerala.
That is how Irukkai came into being. “I only officially launched Irukkai as a brand in 2019, right before the pandemic,” he explains. The aim of the start-up is to create a database of weavers from all over India and connect them with customers from any part of the world. “The most important aspect according to me is to ensure customer satisfaction while also ensuring that artisans are not undervalued—a pivotal reason for the decrease in craftsmen.” As Santhosh reiterates the importance of customer satisfaction he also describes how he takes the customer through the journey of making the furniture. “We keep sending them ‘work in progress’ pictures so that if there needs to be a change it can be done early on,” he explains, “The customer is also immersed in the process that goes behind making the furniture, thereby helping them understand its value better.” Santhosh believes that the more inquisitive the client is about the process the more pleased they would be about the result.
The young start-up has managed to create a network of 25 weavers based in Chennai, Thiruvallur, Coimbatore, Trichy, Madurai, Salem, Tirupur, Ooty, Kodaikanal, Polachi, Tirunelveli, Nagercoil, Tuticorin, Marthandam, Pazhani, Trivandrum, Alapuzha, Bangalore, Goa. “I am currently serviceable throughout Tamil Nadu and Kerala,” he claims, “I haven’t found weavers in every single city and town but I do have weavers who are willing to travel for a sizable amount of work.”
As the Irukkai network expanded, a customer who found him through his blog post insisted on Santhosh personally taking up the rewiring job of his vintage easy chair. The founder, who was not entirely in the mind to enter the furniture-making industry like his father, eventually gave in to the persistent customer leading to a handful of collaborations with clients and interior designers on various designs.
“During my free time, I have been teaching and promoting the art to women, visually challenged people, youngsters and anybody else who was looking to be employed. This not only empowers them but also ensures that the art doesn’t slowly fade into oblivion.” While smaller groups are taught for free with the existing projects at Santhosh’s workshop, larger group sessions come with a fee and need to be organised by a body. “Nagercoil municipality and some schools have shown interest in our upskilling initiative,” he adds. The young entrepreneur is also looking to upskill and onboard people from the transgender community to give them a means of income.
Besides furniture, Irukkai also specialises in wire-woven bags. “We have women in Coimbatore and Dharmapuri who can weave bags with custom colour choices in one week.” An artisan earns about three hundred rupees for weaving bags and much more from the furniture. Irukkai is a proud Tamil Nadu startup having completed about five hundred projects around India since its inception in 2019. “In fact, we made sure to use a Tamil font for our brand on Google so that people would know where we come from!” the founder gleams. While Santhosh spends the majority of his time engaging with clients, answering questions about the craft and taking them through the process, he strives to create a viable source of income for the under-represented workforce by reviving the craft.