Aruna Designs and Premalaya Handicrafts Covid Collaboration

By Deborah Cake

Kalai (K. Kalaimagal) is the Production Manager at Premalaya Handicrafts, a Fair Trade handcrafts business in India that employs widows and other women in need.

Deborah Cake is the Production Manager at Aruna Designs, a business run entirely by volunteers within Aruna Partnership. We partner with Premalaya Handicrafts in South India to design, import, and market high-end home goods. 

Working heart-to-heart, a pandemic collaboration became a lifeline. 

As production manager for Aruna Designs, my job is to oversee the ordering, production, and importing every year of thousands of dollars of handcrafts made by our partners in India at Premalaya. When the pandemic hit, we knew that the 140 artisans working there depended on the income stream from our orders for their survival.

During the pandemic, the Mangalam Welfare Society associated with Premalaya distributed essential supplies to the widows who worked there.

At 7 a.m. the phone rings: “Hello, dear Kalai! Arunachalam!” I hear a joyful reply on the other end. We laugh and exchange person regards while the picture comes into focus for our video-conference meeting. In 2020, after several bad phone conversations, Kalai suggested trying video conferencing on Signal. We have never gone back.

During the worst of the pandemic, everything in India shut down. For nearly a year, movement in the city of Tiruvannamalai, where our partner Premalaya is located, was severely restricted and most local shops and businesses were required by the government to stay closed.  Premalaya, as an export business, was exempt from full closure. Life was very hard: food was scarce, and one had to have a police permit in order to go out— then only to buy medical supplies and food at exorbitantly inflated prices. Fortunately, Premalaya employees were given special passes permitting them to work even during the worst of the lockdown. It was a terrible experience for our friends in India — so many people they knew died, so many young children were orphaned.

We were determined to continue ordering from India during Covid, despite the obstacles. We were very concerned for our friends in India and were committed to keep ordering no matter what the obstacles – and there were many.  Previously we travelled to India and worked together on-site, collaborating on product development, production, and quality control. Suddenly that changed. For two years we were unable to be there. Amazingly, we switched seamlessly to working entirely remotely: Distributors sent us photographs of fabric samples, we sent new designs by email, Premalaya photographed and then emailed prototypes, and the orders kept flowing.

We stayed connected when we were most isolated from one another and from the rest of the world. Kalai and I met remotely every week to review the hundreds of details that go into making and importing handcraft orders. During the lockdown in India, Premalaya was unable to buy raw materials for production; fortunately, they had maintained a surplus of supplies, so we were able to order our full line of products. Kalai says that video conferencing has been our best move, especially during Covid when they were so isolated from each other and from the rest of the world.


During this time,
the stores we sell
to here in the States unexpectedly increased
their orders.

Personal relationships with both our Indian artisan friends and store owners/managers here in the States sustained us all. During this time, the stores we sell to here in the States unexpectedly increased their orders. We used air shipments from India to keep our inventory levels up. If we ran out of a design, stores  here graciously accepted an alternative recommendation. That willing flexibility affirms our way of managing this small business: through personal relationships with both our Indian artisan friends and store owners/managers here in the States. Creativity flourished while working remotely.
Kalai and I have always found it easy to talk, although sometimes we do get mixed up! Then we are dedicated to understanding one another, not only regarding the facts and figures, but also understanding differences in how we express ourselves. I told her I feel she is Production Coordinator and Cultural Translator! Kalai laughed and said she has learned how different the Americans are from the Germans, the Swiss, and the Indians: what they each like, and how they like to work.

A Joyful Return
As soon as India reopened its doors to international travel last January, several of us were able to return. For years, Aruna Designs and Premalaya Handicrafts have worked together remotely at times, but it has always been secondary to being together in India: designing new products, meeting on Saturday mornings over tea and fresh samosas to review the details of doing business, visiting the ladies working in their craft centers, reviewing production problems, choosing fabrics in the storeroom, and writing evening emails to concur on the direction of product development. Work is work — time consuming; yet this work is affirming, having its roots in joy!

“This work is affirming, having its roots in joy! “

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