Our New Roots: From Channapatna, with flourish – Karthik Vaidyanathan, Varnam

Karthik Vaidyanathan talks about his journey from reluctant entrepreneur to owning Varnam’s first flagship store in Bangalore.


After a little over 2 years of launching his product line inspired by the Channapatna art form with crafted products ranging from toys, home accents to jewellery, Karthik Vaidyanathan recently opened a flagship brick and mortar store in Bangalore’s Indiranagar area.

Neatly tucked away in a basement in the thickly wooded bylanes of Indiranagar, the Varnam store is charmingly lit, refreshing in its minimalistic design, and propagates resourceful usage of space with cheery product samples lining the shelves and the centre stage.

Varnam_lampshades

As charming as the store is the story behind Varnam (meaning ‘colours’): Vaidyanathan, a media professional with over a decade of experience in media and broadcasting, found a void when it came to well-designed Indian toys. He started to work with talented artisans from the little town of Channapatna between Bangalore and Mysore on the highway; the result of this work is a collection of wonderfully designed toys and utilitarian décor that has won two Kyoorius D&AD design awards (communication design and packaging design) and the CII Design Excellence award in industrial design-home products category. In this tête-à-tête, he tells us the inspiration behind his business idea, life as an entrepreneur, and what is in store for Varnam in the years to come and more.

The charming store tucked away in a quiet bylane in Indiranagar.

The charming store tucked away in a quiet bylane in Indiranagar.

How did Varnam come about? 

I wouldn’t have thought of becoming an entrepreneur in my wildest dreams. The growth of Varnam has been organic – a slow evolution over the past three years. One evening, during my mom’s visit to Bangalore, she casually suggested that I do a small exhibition of soft furnishings for friends, similar to the ones I had done for her. That exhibition was a runaway success and there lay the seed for doing something creative on my own. Varnam, meaning colours, started with soft furnishings but soon embraced my love for the Channapatna craft.

Varnam bangles

Varnam bangles

My mother was a seamstress; she came from the small town to Mumbai city. And along with raising three kids in an unknown city, she also learned tailoring. So my childhood memories have always been around my mom and a sewing machine. I guess the creative genes rubbed off on me in some way.

How did the idea of working with the Channapatna artisans take shape?

A visit to Channapatna started my love affair with the craft. Its proximity made it an ideal option as I wanted to be part of a hands-on creative process. Everything happened organically and slowly. The artisans didn’t take me seriously initially as I wasn’t a ‘designer’, since I didn’t have the background for it. My first design took four months to make. Initially, I would just buy them off to be taken seriously. I did a series of lamps and had a small exhibition to showcase it. The lamps were sold out and Varnam took off.

Varnam products are all carefully handcrafted and made of safe materials and natural colours.

Varnam products are all carefully handcrafted and made of safe materials and natural colours.

How did the Kyoorius award come about?

Last year, we won two Blue Elephants at the Kyoorius D&AD design awards. It was a spur of the moment decision to enter for the award. And I was happy that a traditional craft story garnered attention in a room full of designers. Our piggy bank toy inspired ‘Oinkston Tableware’ also won the CII Design Excellence award in industrial design-home products category. This is a series of tableware comprising of a toothpick-napkin ring holder, a coaster set, and a salt ‘n’ pepper shaker.

The salt and pepper shaker.

The salt and pepper shaker.

How easy is it for a grassroots level entrepreneur to start a business venture in Bangalore?

Bangalore is a budding ground house for several entrepreneurs thanks to the social media and various avenues for sales—both online and offline. With a little bit of initial investment in products, one can take off, but sustaining it is the tough part. Both, a strong product and communication design play a key role in building a serious brand. And that’s where most entrepreneurs seem to fail.

Tell us about the market/reception for initiatives like Varnam. Are people ready to buy products to support artisans and the craft?

I don’t think one can build a brand based on sympathy. At the end of the day, a consumer will buy your goods only if the same appeals to them and if they have functional value. A strong story behind the same helps build credibility for the brand but cannot be the lone factor. Varnam has very clearly steered clear of building sympathy for the artisans. We have always been about creating awareness about the craft, a strong design story and product innovation. And that’s what has worked for us.

Almost everyone who has bought our products has come back to buy more due to its strong design and superior quality. And thanks to our communication design, there is a strong connect and involvement with our various products. People walk into our new store knowing what they want to buy. Our products are not run-of-the-mill. They are quirky, fun and very relevant today.

Inside the store. Pic: Prathap Nair

Inside the store. Pic: Prathap Nair

What next at Varnam?

Varnam has always been about taking one baby step at a time and enjoying the whole process while at it. Two years ago, I quit my job to work part time and continue my work on Varnam. From being available in 2-3 stores in Bangalore, we are today available at close to 14 stores nationally. Stores that are special and believe in our work. And this July, we just opened our first exclusive first flagship store in Bangalore. The initial response has been very encouraging. Right now this is where we are. It would be too ambitious to predict anything about the future. We are blessed to have made it this far.

One of Varnam's recent products: a collaboration between Channapatna artists and Bagh print.

One of Varnam’s recent products: a collaboration between Channapatna artists and Bagh block printing.

Any wise words for budding entrepreneurs?

Believe in it and enjoy the whole process. That’s the only way to make it a success.

Our New Roots is a special series featuring entrepreneurs, artists, visionaries and youngsters who are forging the old and the new in exciting and innovative ways.


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Although still stuck in a desk job, Prathap is an ardent traveler, amateur food blogger, avid reader and a dawdling writer. While battling with an attention deficit disorder, responsible travel, organic farming and keeping abreast of the latest on gadgets interest him as much as seeing his book (heís not sure on what yet) in print someday. more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Although still stuck in a desk job, Prathap is an ardent traveler, amateur food blogger, avid reader and a dawdling writer. While battling with an attention deficit disorder, responsible travel, organic farming and keeping abreast of the latest on gadgets interest him as much as seeing his book (heís not sure on what yet) in print someday. more

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