We all Endeavour to succeed; some of us even plan for success. But there's no denying that success is best enjoyed when it's unexpected. Leela Bordia was just another ordinary girl brought up in a conservative Marwari household in Kolkata. Achieving international fame, as an entrepreneur-par-excellence wasn't even a remote expectation, forget a dream. What pleases Leela immensely is that she has been able to give a major impetus to an ancient local craft, the famous blue pottery of Rajasthan. Society meets the achiever with a difference
BY SHASHI SUNNY
For some, life indeed does begin after marriage. It all started when Leela Bordia moved to Jaipur after tying the knot. As a housewife looking to use her free time lucratively, she decided to help the underprivileged in the city by working with the local potter community. What began as social work soon became a passion. And within a decade, Leela Bordia and her company, Neerja International, had put Jaipur on the international map with her revival and innovations in the field of blue pottery. Today, blue pottery in the entire state of Rajasthan, and even abroad, is popularly known as Neerja pottery. Impressed with the global achievements and efforts of this remarkable lady, the commercial success of Neerja International has been picked up by Business In Asia magazine along with giant corporations like the Korean Hyundai Motor Company, Nintendo (the Japanese electronic entertainment giant) and Singapore's Changi Airport for a case study on amazing enterprises.
As recognition for her achievements, the Government of India has also given Leela Bordia the National Award for the Best Export Performance. Her zeal for developing a viable international business model for local craft has raised the living standards of the craftspeople of the area. This is indeed an effort worth lauding.
She tells us about her inspiration to serve the needy, which was sown in 1977, when as a newly wed, Leela happened to visit the slum areas near Jaipur city. What she saw made her weep. "The poverty there was unbearable. People were leaving in hordes for the city in search of work. They ended up in the city slums and became the urban poor. Self-respecting, proud farmers either became day laborers, or pedalled cycle rickshaws in the scorching sun for a paltry sum.
Some women were even forced into prostitution just to feed their families. I was devastated at the living conditions these people were having to endure and was determined to figure out a way to help. In Kolkata, my mother worked with Mother Teresa to help the poorest of the poor. I, too, in my own way, wanted to do something for the underprivileged."
After reflecting on the situation, Leela figured out a way to help the craftspeople make their own living. While in the village, she had seen some craftsmen making exquisite pottery. They made pots and vases and painstakingly hand-painted them in patterns that were perhaps a thousand years old. "You have so much talent for such a beautiful craft. Then why are you so poor?" she questioned them. "Because nobody wants to buy our pots any more," they said. "Our craft is dying and more and more craftsmen are going to the cities in search of work." Leela quickly realized that this was the opportunity she was looking for. She said to them, "Let's work together. You make your products and I will help you sell them." The potters liked the idea, but were still skeptical about trusting an outsider. In addition, Leela also knew she would have to convince the potters to break from tradition and make new, more marketable designs. And that would be her toughest challenge. TRUE
The next two years were spent watching and talking to the craftsmen, offering suggestions to make utility items. There was a lot of resistance from the locals initially. Then finally, a potter named Kailesh came to Leela and agreed to work with her designs. Soon after, Leela met a French buyer named Pajul Comar. He saw the potential in Leela's work and placed an order for extravagant blue pottery bead curtains that he would sell in his Paris retail store. He paid Rs 50,000 in advance for the order. Leela and Kailesh worked as quickly as possible, finished the curtains and sent them to Paul. The project didn't turn out as planned; the beads were of lower quality than Paul had expected, so he couldn't sell them in his shop. Leela had planned for re-orders, which meant she was stuck with two big sacks filled with hundreds of beads. She did not give up though, and decided to make necklaces out of the beads. Kailesh made the necklaces for her, and she displayed them for sale at a retail shop named Anokhi.
Coincidentally, at that time, the movie, Far Pavilions was being filmed in the area. While the necklaces were still lying on the display counter, a few actresses from the movie came to the store, saw the necklaces and bought them all. "I never looked back after that!" says Leela determinedly. She continued working with Comar, who went on to become a life-long friend and mentor to Leela. She took Paul's advice and mixed it with her own creativity to develop hundreds of new products that served as utility items, while still maintaining the identity of the blue pottery craft. From one potter to over 150 potters, the business expanded and excelled, thanks to the new products and high quality standards that Leela insisted upon.
That was the beginning of Neerja International and the rejuvenation of the blue pottery craft. Named after Leela's younger sister Neerja, the company, today, provides work forthousands of craftsmen. The future of blue pottery looks better than ever. Hundreds of new designs are being made each year and the craftsmen have successfully passed on the craft to their second and even third general ions, ensuring that the craft will continue to thrive for years to come.
It's been an eclectic journey for the industrious Leela Bordia. What started in 1980 with four craftspeople has become the perfect example of success three decades later. It's time for Leela to sit back, her glass of champagne in hand, and view with satisfaction her successful company. With justifiable pride, she says, "I have never needed to canvas for orders. We now produce a wide range of products using traditional and adapted blue pottery techniques and designs. Presently, there are over 200 different items, each with hundreds of designs. 90 per cent of the products are exported and just 10 per cent are available locally. When I first started, the artists would just make plates and bowls in blue. I introduced them to bathroom accessories, jewellery, vases, crockery, wall decorations and light fittings and experimented with colors and designs. So now, along with the blue, there are a lot of colours such as yellow, green and purple—virtually all the colors of life."
Leela is now in the process of setting up a museum of blue pottery and is also writing a book on the subject. She says, "I don't really want to be remembered as a successful businesswoman. I would rather be known as somebody who gave back more to blue pottery than what she took from it! My dream is to revive and re-energise this ancient handicraft and give it its place of pride as an Indian art form, in these days of factory and machine-made goods." It's a dream that Leela promises to turn into reality. «