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When Leela Bordia decided to follow in her mother’s footsteps, she didn’t know that would one day lead to a full-fledged company specializing in the most exquisite Blue Pottery. Leela used to accompany her mother, a social worker helping the underprivileged, during the latter’s frequent trips into the slums of Jaipur. On one such visit, she met a family of five, living and working in a single room. They were artisans, creating beautiful blue pottery – Leela was fascinated by their creations but appalled at the living conditions of such talented people.
Leela then decided to work with them, marketing what they made and helping them modernize the art to make it more viable. Thus was born Neerja International.
“It was a long and hard struggle to make the potters understand that they had to make utility objects and not just large vases and bowls. I persuaded a potter to make me some pottery beads for jewellery and the lot was lying on the floor of his workshop when a foreign visitor was passing by and came in to have a look. The visitor was so fascinated that he bought the whole lot, and then the potters realized what a gold mine their craft was,” Leela recalls.
Modernizing the craft, keeping up with the trends
Leela is personally involved in contemporizing the craft by designing new products and bringing in modern aesthetics to the medieval art of Blue Pottery. The craft, having originated in China, moved to Turkey and the Netherlands and was brought to India during the Mughal period via Kashmir. Leela travels the world looking for similar crafts for inspiration. The trips also help her better understand the market and the kind of modernization that’s needed to take them forward.
Neerja’s product range is mind boggling – pen holders, door knobs, wall tiles, inlays, beads, oil lamps, sets of drawers, lamp-shades and even wash basins. People are willing to wait for a particular product for as much as six months since the process is completely manual and painstaking. Neerja International has not interfered or tinkered with this process, and kept the craft completely original and exclusive.
Going online early
Leela handled the business for a long time herself, while her children studied and worked abroad. However, she struggled to make enough profits to help potters run their households. That was when her son Apurv persuaded Leela to take the business to the next level by going online.
“We registered the .com domain way back in 1997. I think this was one of the best decisions we took. It gave our presence in the market a huge boost. Now, when we participate in fairs abroad or when people visit us, they tell us that they have already heard about us,” Leela says with pride. “.com was one of the earliest, most well-known domains, and it’s worked very well for us. We launched our e-commerce platform long ago, in 2008,” she points out.
Exports make up almost 50% of the business and scaled up rapidly once their online presence was established. People who saw their website contacted them for bulk exports. Today, online sales compose about 25% of their sales. You might think that pieces of art can’t be bought without having seen the real thing, but that’s no longer the case. “We are long past the era when people needed to touch and feel a product and then buy it. We have an office dedicated to the e-commerce part of the business,” Leela explains.
Their online sales are also helped by the fact that airlines have limited baggage allowances so carrying larger pieces is tough. Also, when people order online, they don’t have to worry about transporting a fragile product.
“We have established an identity in the market and I know exactly where my product stands. I would advise new businesses to take their time to make their own identity and then stick to it, because that is where your strength lies. And of course, to make full use of the Internet and its opportunities,” she says.
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