If we look at the rich craft heritage of the country, one will realise that there are over 3,000 different types. This rich goldmine of styles and forms has the potential to be used and incorporated to create unique contemporary pieces. Tapping in on this rich and creative source is the homegrown homeware label, Ikai Asai. Founded by Ananya Birla along with CEO Kanupriya Verma, the label creates handmade objects for the table and beyond. 

Ikai Asai

In 2016, the label began its journey as CuroCarte, a design platform that curated and sold local crafts from over different countries across the world. On further introspection, the founders decided to focus on the larger cultural and creative reservoir of the country. Foraging the length and breadth of the country, they founded Ikai Asai, a label that works with local artisans to create pieces using different art forms and a range of materials. 

A combination of two words, from two very different parts of the country, Ikai means one in Punjabi and Asai means desire or wish in Tamil. “the brand’s vision can be best told through this “one wish” philosophy: to bring together the Indian creative ecosystem and build value through collaboration based on a sustainable, transparent and equitable model between artisans, designers, architects, creative entrepreneurs, artists and customers,” shares Kanupriya Verma.   

It is with this thought process that the homegrown label launched its collection, Junoon for Earth Day. Forming the crux of the collection is the simple crafting technique of papier mâché. Named after the French term for ‘chewed paper’, the technique uses traditional adhesive of water and flour to create a variety of objects. From trays, keepsake bowls, to vases in red and white, this unique collection firmly establishes Ikai Asai’s ability to turn a traditional craft technique into a modern artefact. We talk to Kanupriya Verma, CEO at Ikai Asai on the brand’s discovery of unique craft forms, design ethos, craftsmen welfare ideology such as providing Covid relief and other sustainable practices that turn them into covetable homeware items.   

Kanupriya Verma, CEO, Ikai Asai

How does Ikai Asai bridge the gap between artisan and designer?

Our vision is to empower the Indian craft ecosystem to become a community of self-sustained creators and entrepreneurs. The richness of knowledge and creative skills that they possess needs to be supported with consumer connect, technological interventions for increased effectiveness in quality & process, infrastructure & tools, and design intervention at a material level for making the crafts relevant for the modern global market. 

We are looking at this sector from a larger ecosystem point-of-view and not in isolation. Hence a collaborative system where artisans, designers and consumers can be an equal and inclusive part of the whole. While these are our long-term and sustained efforts, we have been working closely with our partner clusters for immediate Covid relief in the form of giving them constant production, financial support and employment opportunities.  

What are the various lesser-known craft techniques or styles that the brand employs to create its own products?

Ikai Asai is constantly exploring – whether that is through our robust calendar of events that bring people, food and places together, or collaborations with those who share in our vision. 

Personally, the most interesting discovery was during my visit to Kantilo village in Orissa. We work with Kansa artisanal clusters in that village. It was fascinating to see the process of them waking up at 3:00 am each morning to begin work. The process involves hand beating by a group of 5-6 men on one piece, which is done in absolute harmony and so effortlessly. This also reflects the harmony, unison and discipline with which the community lives in the village. 

Another craft intervention we did was in Kutch. The region is a melting pot of diverse communities and craft cultures – and when we think of it, we think of cotton – the organic, resilient Kala cotton. It is indigenous rain-fed cotton grown in Gujarat. Acknowledged as one of the most carbon-efficient cottons in the world, the spinning and weaving of kala cotton was revived recently in the region. We used this traditional material, not just for its natural aesthetic but also to celebrate the socio-economic ramifications in connection to its local communities.

The Tangalia style of weaving (an extra weft weaving technique much like embroidery where the pattern is inlaid in the weft and warp by hand), is practised today only in a handful of villages in Gujarat, where patterns are woven into the fabric by arranging raised dots of thread, which are visible on both sides of the fabric. This technique requires skill, nimble fingers, attention to detail and, of course, patience.

Tangalia & Suf embroidery from Kutch, Gujarat

What has been the biggest hurdle in creating a sustainable décor label, Ikai Asai?

Personally, curiosity drives me and I thrive in complexities – I have always strived to create something bigger than me, with a lasting impact while solving some of the real human challenges.  

Hailing from a small town in central India and travelling with my father on his work visits in the forest and education sector kept me grounded, as I engaged with the local tribal communities. I followed my intuition and ended up stumbling upon an opportunity to create something that’s taking me closer to my purpose. Design for me is more than aesthetic and function — it’s about solving a complex human problem. I am on the journey of designing an impactful and sustainable system/platform that can empower and give voice to human creativity. I have been actively working on this vision for the past five years now — from idea to execution to failure to rebuilding, to now where we are, ready for scale. 

All launch collections are a collaborative effort with other designers or artisans. How does this help in giving an authentic voice to local crafts?

Our goal is to expand on our discoveries, nurture our relationships by facilitating curated, equitable collaborations between the artisans and Indian designers. The focus for us has always been to source, create and consume locally through sustainable and inclusive collaborations and design.  Ikai Asai began as a cross-country quest, with the aim of uncovering the hidden craft communities of India. It all began with me just travelling to different remote places of Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Chattisgarh, Karnataka, et cetera, where I discovered the fascinating diversity of Indian art forms. As our team extended the ground they were covering, they discovered a number of craft clusters and traditions that had remained relatively unknown.  So it’s a constant journey, a result of pure curiosity. 

Ikai Asai

Can you tell us more about the Junoon collection from Ikai Asai?  

The mood of JUNOON is an ode to India’s fearless, saturated, and manic intensity. Created with paper pulp and the traditional adhesive of water and flour, the Ikai Asai Papier-mâché range offers display trays, keepsake bowls and vases in the stark contrast of red and white.

Your rules or tips for a beautiful dinner table setting?

Hosting memorable experiences is an art and we believe that the table is a place to gather and share in the harvest of ideas and conversation. The setting of each should reflect the uniqueness of your style of curation – through the tableware, music, lighting, flowers, fragrance and more. All that coming together holistically is what kindles a beautiful setting

Images: Courtesy Ikai Asai

Akshita Nahar Jain
Sr Associate Editor
Akshita Nahar Jain has worked with various publications, including Elle, Harper’s Bazaar Bride, and Time Out Delhi, and written extensively on fashion and lifestyle. A sucker for alliteration and shows with more style than script, she enjoys scrolling the web for less travelled destinations.