Yes, I Can
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In a greasy tools shop on SJP Road in Bangalore, Pratham Hegde, a 26-year-old software engineer, searches for a multipurpose wrench. For the last half hour, he has been trying to convey his requirement to Mohan, the nervous shop assistant who has laid out everything from Allen keys to a lug wrench.
So when Mohan finally produces an imported, adjustable spanner, Hegde nearly snatches it from his hands. "This is the one," he beams, later trying it out on the hexagon keys that hold together his hardwood desk in his apartment on Sarjapur Road. The design of the desk was inspired by a 3D model Hegde downloaded on Google SketchUp, a program for designing and sharing models of buildings, interiors and other objects. "I watched a simple video tutorial on how to design a chair on SketchUp. And I thought, I could do this. I spent a fortnight modifying the design and getting it reviewed. The rest was easy — I picked up the wood from a timber mart and got a carpenter to build it," says Hegde, who, like most urbanites, was unsed to mechanical work till recently.
Invent a piece of furniture. Whip up detergent from ritha. Grow a herb garden. Take a jar of homemade apple butter to your cousin's dinner. Make lip balm from beeswax. Then sell some. And while you are at it, try repainting your motorbike. Yes, it's hard work, and yes, it's worth it. Urban India is at the fringe of the do-it yourself culture, spearheaded by hip homemakers, industrious professionals, progressive bloggers and born-again traditionalists.
The movement here is not so much about pinching pennies as it is about a growing disenchantment with consumerism, and the desire to stand out from the crowd. Anisha Shekhar Mukherji, a Delhi-based architect and conservationist who swears by home remedies, says it's a way of asserting one's independence in an industrialised society. "Personally, it's about being in control of my environment as much as possible. I don't know if the bread at bakeries is made with margarine or not, so I'd rather bake my own," she says. Mukherji is now looking for eco-friendly ways to repaint the doors of her Delhi apartment. "Most paints available in the market contain lead. We are hoping to sandpaper the doors and colour them with natural dyes," she says.
The you-are-what-you-eat school of thought has spawned many a lifestyle flip-over. For Susmitha Subbaraju, a Bangalore-based jewellery artist, the DIY turnaround came when she turned vegan in 2003. "When I craved cake, there were few vegan options, so I started baking my own, substituting flaxseed and fruit pulp for egg. And it was ridiculously simple. There's something about kneading dough with my hands that I've always liked — it's nice and relaxing," says the vegan blogger and activist, who likes to treat her friends to homemade chocolate brownies. In her airy Lavelle Road apartment peppered with little statements of DIY art — photographs displayed in old glass bottles, a potted herb garden with a self-made trellis hanging above, and rows of miniature polymer clay animals that she sells on Etsy.com, an online store for handmade art — Subbaraju leans over her desk to craft a piece of exclusive jewellery. Wrapping a Brazilian amethyst in fine silver wire, she tops it with a brilliant carnelian before bending the wire along a Sharpie pen to make an ear-hook. "I learnt basic jewellery making by reading online tutorials. Once you learn the techniques, you can experiment with them endlessly," she says, finishing the ends of the hooks with a fine file.
Henry Mason, head of research and analysis at trendwatching.com, a global trend analysis company, incorporated in the Netherlands, says DIY is an aspirational trend. "As products get cheaper and more commoditised, taking the time to create something unique becomes a luxury that consumers aspire to, a status symbol in itself," he says, adding, "Easier and cheaper access to tools and a lowering of the barriers to entry by reducing the technical skill and knowledge needed to design products are some of the main drivers of the DIY trend."
In India, where the market for hobby-craft supplies is practically non-existent, and one often has to tease out raw materials from wholesalers or flea markets, DIY is all about improvisation. Subbaraju, for instance, uses a pasta machine to roll out polymer clay and sources copper wire from electrical stores. At a time when we are moving away from stereotypes of handmade being old-fashioned, a key challenge is the unavailability of raw material, says Melissa Arulappan, a Bangalore-based communications consultant who, with her 10-year-old daughter Keya, conducts baking classes for children and enjoys recycling scrap into creative gifts. "When I decided to make some bib necklaces for my family last year, it was such an effort to source the material — the fabric had to be bought from a particular store, the embellishments from another, the thread and needle from a third, the glue from a fourth. If one had stores here like Hobby Lobby or St Michael's in the US, there would be more people wanting to work with their hands," she says.
But where there is a will, there is a DIY way, and often, it can be found on Web 2.0, the great equalising force of our time. Ask Ranjan Maruthi, an engineering student in Mangalore, who makes little sculptures from M-seal, and has even learned to patch up old clothes into giant comforters. The 23-year-old discovered the versatility of the bonding material two years ago while fixing a leaky pipe. He has since become quite an expert in repair work, thanks mostly to DIY sites like eHow.com and howstuffworks.com. DIY, he says, is not just about cool projects, but a lifestyle. "I didn't realise the importance of manual skills till an electrician conned me out of Rs 3,000 for a simple wiring job. Later, when I re-wired the entire house myself, I realised that I was satisfied, not just with the work but with myself," he says.
The average urbanite has become an instinctive outsourcer of anything arduous, happy to pay for the service. As Giridhar Govindarajan, a 28-year-old information security consultant from Bangalore, puts it, "We follow the law of electricity, taking the shortest and the easiest path." Govindarajan says he knew zilch about the machinery inside his Royal Enfield Bullet till he decided to attend a training workshop last year — conducted by BR Gurunandan, a bike aficionado who runs a garage in Bangalore. Govindarajan has now made impressive modifications to his bike, the latest being a fat rear tyre. A year ago, he couldn't have imagined dealing with a flat tyre or a broken chain. "A little knowledge may be a dangerous thing, but it's also the difference between limping home and riding home," he says.
To equip people with basic repair and maintenance skills, Mala and Sonia Dhawan, who run A Hundred Hands, a cooperative of craftspersons, from their residence in central Bangalore, are planning a workshop by a trained electrician or plumber. "It's a throwaway world we live in today — we don't bother opening up faulty TVs and toasters anymore. There are many who say they can't change a light bulb or replace a socket. We want to give them a set of basic skills and tools, a box of independence, that will equip them for everyday repairs," says Mala. "There is a certain compartmentalisation among urban people, of art and household chores. Art is acceptable as a hobby while chores are for domestic help," says Sonia, who follows her grandmother's recipes to make aromatic lip and foot balms with beeswax and infused floral oils.
George Varghese, a techie-cum-organic farmer who moved from Bangalore to his six-and-a-half-acre farm near Sirsi, Uttara Kannada, three years ago, says he has picked up carpentry, plumbing and painting skills out of necessity. His wife, Susheela, now stitches clothes for their two daughters, processes the fruits and grains they grow, and bakes muffins with whole wheat and jaggery. A rural lifestyle, clearly, calls for DIY.
Even in urban Bangalore, Asad Hajeebhoi's residence near Indira Nagar is a study in discerning DIY. The ground floor houses his glass-crafting business. On the first floor, where his older daughter Sheefa is busy sweeping the bare cement floor of the living area, Hajeebhoi says, "As a family, we take care of the house maintenance ourselves. We've taught our kids how to change light bulbs and let them watch when I open up a faulty oven. I guess it's because I've been raised that way — I still have my father's tool kit." He is also an avid biker who often takes apart his antique 1969 Java and puts it together after a coat of fresh paint. The three-storey house is his labour of love. "It's made of eco-friendly mud bricks. We designed everything ourselves. I built most of the doors from wood crates that the glass for the workshop comes in," he says, turning the fish-shaped brass handle of a door to reveal the simple 'Z' brace at the back. "My wife's maiden name is Machhiwala," he says, explaining the fish. From a bathroom shelf made of glass chips to a wooden stapler in the shape of a dog's mouth — "It was my wedding present to my wife, I used to make and sell these in college," he says — the Hajeebhoi household is an ensemble of personal things and spaces, the answer to the modern furnished apartment.
Most DIY-ers, however, start small. Bangalore's Uma and Aravindh Anantaraman set up a kitchen garden in their backyard by looking up geekgardener.in — every micro harvest, from a baby bitter gourd to a bunch of methi, makes it to their Facebook page to inspire friends and family. Priyanka Dalal, a social media marketing consultant from Mumbai, finally mustered the courage to paint a mural on a wall of her home in Churchgate, and Ruchika Abbi, founder of matrimonial website Youpid, discovered crochet online and found it an effective stress-buster. Yet others who wanted to create but didn't know how flocked to personalisation websites, where they submitted their own designs for bespoke T-shirts, art and gifts.
A new venture that's riding the wave of customisation on the Web is Sheyna, a jewellery company based in Bangalore and California, created last year, by a team of jewellers from India with help from a design professor at Stanford University. Their website, based on a you-design and-we-get-it-hand crafted model, features beads, charms, stones, connecting hoops and chains in silver and gold that can be easily dragged-and-dropped into a workspace to create original designs. "We see thousands of original designs coming from members, who often come to our site just to create," says Shipra Jain, managing director, Sheyna India. As Hedge says, "Once your hands and your mind have created something, you can't get the genie back in the bottle."
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