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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Generation DIY

Generation DIY

Why a new breed of entrepreneurial makers are booming in urban India

Explaining how a developmental board works at Workbench Projects.Premium
Explaining how a developmental board works at Workbench Projects.

Pavan Kumar had a quintessential action-packed childhood in 1980s Bangalore. As a toddler he enjoyed leaping into and somersaulting on piles of sand at nearby construction sites. Later he built catapults and bows and arrows, experimenting every time with new materials and designs. The first thing he ever built, again with construction sand, was a tunnel. Soon he was building more complex sand structures, such as a pentagon with five entrances and one central chamber.

Kumar, an engineer who has always been utilitarian and functional, had to alter his thinking when he met Anupama Prakash, an art historian who was all about creativity and aestheticism. “We both fell in love with each other and the ideas we bring together," he says when we meet at the headquarters of their company Workbench Projects, a 5,000 sq. ft airy space with an industrial vibe located right under the Halasuru Metro Station in Bengaluru. The company, which began from a garage in December 2013, essentially provides its members a space to create and make stuff; to develop an idea and execute it.

The outdoor-indoor space is equipped with a wall of tools I can’t name, 3D printers and an impressive-looking laser-cutting machine (I instantly want to use it to make a leather jacket). For the cost of a Gold’s Gym membership you can have access to all this and more. In the back, a team is working to construct a shop floor for heavy-duty projects such as building a go-kart or a bike, spray-painting and making your own furniture. Regular how-to-build a bamboo lamp/wine rack workshops coexist happily with creating prototypes for mobile-phone accessories and programming.

You can learn to garden, fix your broken gadgets, bake a cake or build a motorized skateboard. One company sent a bunch of its top managers to work from here just so they could get a fresh perspective.

Makerspace, a globally used term, describes places such as this one where you can spend time fixing, taking apart, building and learning new things. The maker movement in India is quite active and there are at least half a dozen buzzing start-ups such as Workbench Projects spread across the country helping you Do It Yourself (DIY).

In cities where it has always been common to yell out to the household help for anything, even a glass of water, and where we delegate it all from cooking to parenting, it’s almost surreal to see the DIY movement become so big.

The DIY movement spans the gamut from geeks (mostly men) hacking things to the handmade arts and crafts scene (mostly women) prevalent all around you. Hacking shouldn’t conjure up images from the television show CSI: Cyber. “Hacking has been misconstrued," says Kumar, who dreams of hacking the Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technological Museum (essentially Bengaluru’s top science space for children) with a bunch of people. “Hacking is simply to take something that exists in its form and give a new perspective to it," Kumar says. So the Web community IoTBLR (Internet of Things, Bangalore) recently hacked a rotary phone to modernize it to work in the Internet age as part of the Sherlock Global Challenge.

Inventors showcase their stuff at regular maker events. At the Mini Maker Faire being organized by Workbench Projects and Nasscom in Bengaluru next week, you will see a variety of projects, right from Vahann—a foldable electric moped, to a smartphone accessory for the visually challenged.

But DIY ideas aren’t just contained in these maker-friendly spaces. Look around and you’ll see them everywhere: baking, preserve-making, upcycling, recycling, terrace-gardening, growing your own organic vegetables, composting. Exhibitions are packed with entrepreneurs who create exquisite handmade jewellery/lamps/clothes/bags/soaps.

“I think the whole DIY thing has gone to a completely new level," says Marissa D. Miranda, a Bengaluru-based artist and designer. Miranda’s DIY life started many years ago when she found herself in a rental in Oman with an oversized, ugly orange floral-print sofa. She and a friend went out and bought a stapler gun and some fabric and redid the eyesore. Since then she has dabbled in everything from stitching her own clothes to making bags. She’s currently juggling with the idea of creating her own screen-printed fabric blinds and making some leather shoes. “Ultimately what you create is really unique, and that unique quotient is what drives creative people. There’s really nothing like doing it from scratch," she says.

There’s a new generation of DIY entrepreneurs consisting mainly of women who opted out of the rat race after marriage or a baby, yet wanted to stay in business. Soma Datta, a scientist, quit her working life at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru when her child was born five years ago. She made terracotta jewellery for several years to keep herself busy. When she started making soaps, after understanding the science of emulsion, lots of people wanted to know how she did it. That resulted in soap-making workshops. She now teaches people to make a variety of beauty products. “At home we don’t buy any cosmetics, detergents or dishwashing soap," she says.

Datta says DIY entrepreneurs are booming because you don’t need big investments, you can learn new things from the Internet and it’s easy to showcase/retail your products through flea markets and social media.

One area where DIY seems to be gender-neutral is carpentry. Bengaluru-based healthcare professional Sushil Eapen wrote a blog in 2011 saying he would love to teach people the basics of woodworking. The response was overwhelming and he began conducting classes on some weekends, time permitting, where he teaches people (70% of them are men) how to use tools such as a chisel, handplane, wood saw and hand drill. “Many are in knowledge industries and have expressed the desire to use their hands to create something tangible—something they miss when they work in an office environment," he says over email.

The founders of online assembled furniture start-up uByld were taken aback when they found that 90% of their customers were women. Siblings Pradeep and Shobha Nair and their neighbour Denzil D’Souza founded the eco-friendly company six months ago. Their reasonably priced furniture is made from reclaimed pinewood used to transport buses and heavy vehicles from Europe to India, and takes up to an hour to put together. Most customers love solving the puzzle and assembling the furniture, says Pradeep.

Of course some of us have long been immunized against the DIY bug. uByld was forced to launch a new department called vByld because 20% of customers wanted to know: We love your product but can’t you build it for us?

Priya Ramani will share what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable every fortnight. She tweets at @priyaramani and posts on Instagram as babyjaanramani.

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Published: 09 Oct 2015, 10:52 AM IST
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