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From educationist to entrepreneur

Manju Jalota shot into prominence with her Alankrit label. She was in the city this past week to hold an exhibition.


SHE IS, by now, a familiar face in the city. On her seventh visit to Thiruvananthapuram in 13 years, Manju Jalota is at home here just as in Lucknow where she resides.

What brings here so frequently is her Alankrit label. A winner of the Outstanding Women Entrepreneur Award of the Federation of Indian Chambers for Commerce and Industry (FICCI) for 2002-2003, Manju is one of the few people who have entered the heartland of the traditional crafts of chikankari and zardozi in Uttar Pradesh and secured business for the Muslim women there.

Head of the Department of Geography, St. Francis College, Lucknow, Manju chucked her job to involve herself in the traditional crafts. "My job as a teacher was satisfying but my time was never my own. There was always something - the Board exams, being on the ICSE panel or commitment to see my students through Class X."

A stage came when Manju finally decided that family commitments had to take precedence. Turning away from her career of 18 years was, however, easier said than done. "I had been a salaried person all my life and couldn't give up on the security it provided."

Then, fate intervened and dictated what Manju's new vocation would be. "Near my house in Lucknow is a village from where Muslim women would occasionally come asking for jobs. My daughter was about to get married and I got these women to work on her apparel," explains Manju. The result was appreciated a lot. "Then, friends of my daughter suggested that I hold an exhibition," recalls Manju. There was a hurdle though - money. Manju had finance to commission only 50 pieces from the Muslim womenfolk. She, nevertheless, went ahead and held an exhibition at the Maurya Sheraton Hotel in New Delhi. The response was overwhelming. "Almost 40 pieces were sold the first day," says Manju. That was just the beginning.

For two years, Manju balanced her regular job with her new-found passion. Once she gained confidence that her work was getting the due recognition in New Delhi and Mumbai, Manju gave in her papers and turned full-time to promoting chikankari and zardozi.

Finding skilled craftsmen was not enough. The problem of middlemen had to be solved. "It took me a year to win the confidence of the craftsmen in one village. They had to be made aware that I would give them a better deal than the one offered by middlemen. I also offered surety of payments."

Proof of the confidence reposed in her came when the craftsmen suggested the names of villages where others of their ilk continued to suffer. Today, Manju's label, Alankrit, has under its wings nearly 40 villages and employs countless craftsmen. "One woman working on a chikan sari would take six to eight months to finish the job and get paid Rs. 700 or thereabouts for it. I make six or seven women work on one sari, ask them to finish it in a week and pay thrice the usual asking price. This has benefited both them and me."

The transition from a teaching career to running a full-fledged business was not too difficult a task for Manju. "I had an eye for colour, patterns and detailing." She would refer to magazines, and keep abreast of the latest trends.

The FICCI award took her by surprise. "FICCI had invited entries and I applied. Later, I was told that only group entries were being considered. I was in Delhi for an exhibition when I got to know that I had bagged the award after all," she says.

Life, Manju says, is a challenge with no room for stagnation. "One has to keep doing new things," she says. This is probably why, at an age when most people would sit at home and take life easy, Manju shelved the security of a regular job and plunged headlong into something that required constant innovation.

R. K. ROSHNI

Photo: S. Mahinsha

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