The Ethical Composition of Handcrafts and Empowerment


Bengal, India recalls both brevity and beauty- Ohrna reflects this with both their appeal for responsible design in a fast-paced world, and their remarkable intentions for rural female artisans. Read on for more in an interview with Principal Consultant, Founder, and Lead Instructor, Jhumkee Iyengar.
HAND/EYE Online: What can you tell us about your product line, and the process behind it? 
Jhumkee Iyengar: Ohrna products are all hand embroidered and handmade in jute, combined with a variety of regional Indian fabrics. Ohrna chose to work with jute, the organic, plant-based fabric of Bengal in eastern India….with the beautiful kantha style of embroidery from the same region. Our design, development and all prep-work steps leading to the actual sewing are done in our studio in the city. We take the pre-designed and pre-cut, marked and tagged kits to the artisans who belong to Mann Deshi Foundation (an organization that promotes rural women entrepreneurship) and who are far away from our city. They are home-based or often even homebound due to cultural or traditional norms.
We live there, conduct free training workshops until they learn the making of the product and then leave the kits with them. They then sew these on their in-home sewing machines on their own schedules and send them back.
Our designs are backed by a studied human-centered design sense and sensitivity that make our products as practical to use, as they are visually appealing. Since all of them are made by our rural women partners, we therefore design our products to not just be easy to use and aesthetic – they’re designed to be easy to make and easy to teach as well! For example, all our bags are designed for manufacture as a ‘bag-in-a-bag’, to make the finishing so much easier to achieve with an in-home sewing machine.
H/E: Who inspired your company to work with rural artisans?
JI: Ohrna is inspired by Sharmila Sen, a fine arts graduate who has been working in embroidered jute with this philosophy of financially empowering tribal women for 24 years while inspiring them to take up creative pursuits. She trained them for free, gave them raw materials and paid them to work from home and then sold embroidered jute products made by them locally in eastern India.
We are trying to continue that work with the same philosophy, but with assorted products in a different market.
Additionally, diminishing craft traditions, the inability of homebound women in rural areas to earn, and the ability of color and creative work to add happiness to a person’s life, have all inspired me.
And of course, the core belief in Design as a tool of inclusion and global outreach.”
H/E: What do you envision for your brand’s future?
JI: We envision a very bright future for Ohrna. We are working in a space called ‘responsible design’: we work with sustainable materials, they are handmade by rural women seeking financial freedom and we also strive to preserve some of the rich and time-honored craft traditions, while trying to integrate them into contemporary products.
We believe as people buy and own beautiful and desirable products today, they are also sensitive to their responsibility to the environment and its people.
We believe in the people who work with us. Being a part of their growth and success is our immense satisfaction as well as the force that will take Ohrna forward.
(Considering design as a tool of Inclusion and global outreach, Ohrna presented at the Interaction Designers Association Education Summit in Lyon, France in Feb 2018 on the topic ‘Can Design with a Purpose Inspire the Underserved?’)
And given my personal product design background and passion, I wish to continue to develop, evolve and phase-in designs, in answer to evolving market needs. And NY NOW will be that beginning for Ohrna.
Ohrna specializes in bags and a lovely variety of home items including table runners, journals, and meditation cushions. Find illustrious samples of their product line at NY NOW’s Artisan Resource August  12-15 at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City.
For more information and to buy products, please visit: