The cute and durable dolls sold in the thousands and the profits were reinvested into reviving the weaving industry. The move brought Lakshmi international fame and turned her into a household name in Kerala, and she moved on to her next boost.
With Kerala reeling from the pandemic, Lakshmi launched the ‘CoVeed’ campaign. It starts out as a paper house (veedu means house in Malayalam), kind school children can easily shape A4 size sheets. Inside the house, people are encouraged to set aside a share of grain or pulses and donate to the needy.
A CoVeed can contain enough rice for a meal for two. Hundreds of people have supported the campaign, sending meal ingredients in paper houses of all shapes and colors to orphanages and nursing homes. “The spirit of CoVeed is sharing. I started it as a leisure activity during the days of confinement but saw the support of people I thought of giving it a social dimension. CoVeed symbolizes our concern for others,” says Lakshmi. ‘Shayya’, another initiative to weave PPE clothing waste into sheets, caught the world’s attention at the World Economic Forum in Davos and was exhibited at the National Museum of Scotland. Industrialist Anand Mahindra has also expressed interest in the Shayya project.
A die-hard Steve Jobs fan, Lakshmi ventured into social entrepreneurship in 2014 and has spearheaded several projects since, earning the endorsement of political leaders, businesspeople and celebrities. She is a board member of the National Innovation Council of India. Lakshmi was born into a wealthy family in Kottayam, until late PK Narayanan, who was Commissioner of the Rubber Board, and Sreedevi. A graduate in Home Science from CMS College, Lakshmi earned several qualifications in interior design and jewelry design and worked as a fashion designer and jewelry designer in San Francisco for over 10 years.
She returned home to launch Pure Living, using her innovative design skills to solve social problems. “My father, who is my biggest inspiration, always reminded me that I was born in a privileged environment and that it was my responsibility to give something back to society,” recalls Lakshmi. “I am a person who celebrates life, its designs and its colors… I believe that if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem by default. I want to be part of the solution. So I try to provide all the simple solutions that I can create. ”
The first of these nudges was ‘Ammoommathiri’ (grandmother’s wicks) or the ‘Wicksdom’ initiative in 2014, designed to provide livelihoods to disadvantaged older people through crowdsourcing. Ammoommathiri was featured prominently in the BBC’s ‘Change Makers’ series. But what made Lakshmi really popular was the Chekutty doll which became the mascot of a resilient Kerala.
She designed the project to help revive Chendamangalam’s hand weaving industry in Ernakulam which was destroyed by the 2018 floods. ‘Chekutty’ – the child (kutty in Malayalam) who survived the deluge of slush ( cheru) – was made of dirty and tattered cloth salvaged from the textile village of Chendamangalam. When people planned to burn the damaged saris, Lakshmi collected some, washed them and made small rag dolls. From a 6m long saree, she made 360 Chekuttys and sold them each for Rs 25. The original saree, which sold for Rs 1,300, fetched Rs 9,000 when it was transformed into dolls. “Over 50,000 volunteers and 260 schools have helped make Chekutty a beacon of hope and they have been distributed around the world as a symbol of Kerala’s resurgence after the tragedy,” says Lakshmi. “Proceeds went to livelihood programs envisioned by Chendamangalam Hand Weavers Cooperative Societies. ”
Gopinath Parayil, who owns a travel agency in Kerala and founded the Chekutty initiative with Lakshmi, says the doll has taken on a life of its own, in the most beautiful way. “We were struck by the plight of the weavers as their hand-woven saris were soiled by the floodwaters. At that time, we had no idea the dolls would be such a hit,” he said. Thousands of boxes of Chekuttys made their way to a United Nations 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 the United States, Australia, Brazil, France and Germany. A travel agency in Australia has organized tours to Chendamangalam where visitors can learn the art of Chekutty from the weavers. Lakshmi’s other initiatives include ‘Seedpen’, a handcrafted disposable paper pen that is ‘plantable’ because it contains a seed. During the 2018 floods, she also launched an innovative campaign called “FriendSHIP” to help fishermen.
She urged people to help fishermen pay an annual premium of Rs 24 for life insurance cover of Rs 1 lakh in conjunction with New India Assurance. More than 17,000 fishermen have benefited from the campaign. At the moment, Lakshmi is focusing on ‘TOILES’, which aims to ensure clean, user-payable toilets for women in towns in Kerala. The plan is to partner with clubs, auditoriums, wedding halls, religious institutions, car dealerships, stores, etc. to convert their toilets into hygienic and female-friendly spaces. “In this 75th year of freedom, it is deeply saddening and disturbing that we are still discussing the crying need for clean public toilets, especially for women. Clean public toilets are an essential step in empowering women,” says Lakshmi.