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A doll called courage and other little big ideas

By Anantha Narayanan K | Aug 10, 2022

Be It The 2018 Kerala Floods Or Covid-19, Art Entrepreneur Lakshmi Menon Is In The Business Of Nudging Hope Out Of Despair

Lakshmi N Menon believes in ‘nudges’, small ideas which, used smartly, have a huge ripple effect. One of these was the ‘Chekutty’ – dolls made from handloom saris ruined in the floods in Kerala in 2018 – which transformed the tragedy in public imagination into a celebration of courage and resilience. The cute, durable dolls sold by the lakhs and the proceeds went back into reviving the weaving industry.

The initiative won Lakshmi international acclaim and turned her into a household name in Kerala, and she moved on to her next nudge.

With Kerala reeling under the pandemic, Lakshmi began the ‘CoVeed’ campaign. At the outset, it is a house made of paper (veedu is house in Malayalam), the kind schoolkids can easily fashion out of A4-size sheets. Inside the house, people are urged to set aside a share of grain or pulses and donate to the needy. One CoVeed can hold enough rice for a meal for two.

Hundreds of people supported the campaign, sending meal ingredients in paper houses of every shape and hue to orphanages and old-age homes. “The spirit of CoVeed is sharing. I began it as a leisure activity during the lockdown days but seeing the support from people I thought of giving it a social dimension. CoVeed symbolises our care for others,” says Lakshmi.

‘Shayya’, another initiative braiding PPE tailoring scrap into bedrolls, drew global attention at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and was displayed in the National Museum of Scotland. Industrialist Anand Mahindra too expressed interest in the Shayya project.

A hardcore fan of Steve Jobs, Lakshmi ventured into social entrepreneurship in 2014 and has spearheaded several projects since, winning endorsements from political leaders, businessmen and celebrities. She is a governing council member of National Innovation Council of India.

Lakshmi was born into an affluent family in Kottayam, to late PK Narayanan, who was Rubber Board commissioner, and Sreedevi. A graduate in home science from CMS College, Lakshmi secured multiple qualifications in interior design and jewellery design and worked as a fashion designer and jewellery maker in San Francisco for more than 10 years.

She returned home to start Pure Living, using her innovative design skills to address social issues. “My father, who is my biggest inspiration, always reminded me that I was born into a privileged environment and it was my responsibility to give something back to society,” recalls Lakshmi. “I am a person who celebrates life, its designs and colours… I believe that if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem by default. I want to be a part of the solution. So I try to bring in all the simple solutions I can create.”

The first of those nudges was ‘Ammoommathiri’ (grandmother’s wicks) or the ‘Wicksdom’ initiative in 2014, designed to provide livelihood for the underprivileged elderly through crowdsourcing. Ammoommathiri was highlighted in BBC’s ‘Change Makers’ series. But what made Lakshmi really popular was the Chekutty doll that became the mascot for a resilient Kerala.

She designed the project to help revive the handloom industry of Chendamangalam in Ernakulam that was destroyed by the 2018 floods. ‘Chekutty’ — the child (kutty in Malayalam) who survived the deluge of slush (cheru) — was made of soiled and tattered fabric salvaged from the textile village of Chendamangalam.

When people were planning to burn the damaged saris, Lakshmi picked up a few of them, washed them and made little rag dolls. From a 6m-long sari, she made 360 Chekuttys and sold each for Rs 25. The original sari, which sold for Rs 1,300, fetched Rs 9,000 when transformed into dolls. “More than 50,000 volunteers and 260 schools contributed to branding Chekutty as a symbol of hope and they were distributed the world over as a symbol of Kerala’s resurgence after the tragedy,” says Lakshmi. “The proceeds went to livelihood programmes envisaged by the handloom weavers’ cooperative societies of Chendamangalam.”

Gopinath Parayil, who owns a travel company in Kerala and founded the Chekutty initiative with Lakshmi, says the doll took a life of its own, in the most beautiful way. “We were struck by the distress of weavers as their handloom saris were soiled by the flood water. At that time, we had no idea the dolls would be such a hit,” he said.

Thousands of boxes of Chekuttys made it to a UN conference on disaster risk reduction in Geneva in 2020 after the World Bank placed an order for them. The idea caught on and since Lakshmi’s initiative, ‘Chekutty workshops’ have been held in US, Australia, Brazil, France and Germany. One travel company in Australia rolled out tours to Chendamangalam where visitors can learn the art of Chekutty from weavers firsthand.

Lakshmi’s other initiatives include ‘Seedpen’, a disposable handcrafted paper pen that is ‘plantable’ as it has a seed inside it. During the 2018 floods, she also launched an innovative campaign called ‘FriendSHIP’ to help fishermen. She urged people to help the fishermen pay an annual premium of Rs 24 for a life insurance policy cover of Rs 1 lakh in collaboration with New India Assurance.Over 17,000 fishermen benefited from the campaign.

Right now, Lakshmi is focusing on ‘TOILESS’, which aims to ensure clean pay & use toilets for women in the cities of Kerala. The plan is to tie up with clubs, auditoriums, wedding halls, religious institutions, vehicle dealerships, shops etc to convert their restrooms into hygienic and women-friendly spaces. “In the 75th year of freedom, it is deeply saddening and disturbing that we are still discussing the dire need for clean public toilets, especially for women. A clean public toilet is an essential step in women’s empowerment,” Lakshmi says.

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