Combining an entrepreneurial spirit with a deep consciousness of the environment, Kanakavalli’s December Vignette Vijay Rajeswari Ramakrishnan has recently launched her own line of herbal beauty products. Dividing her time between Singapore and the family farm in Theni, Viji embodies the idea that the traditional and the modern can seamlessly co-exist. Attempting to make the shift to natural farming, she has found a way to balance business and ethics, sustainability and profit. In conversation with Aneesha Bangera of The Kanakavalli Journal, Viji reflects on how her background as a fine artist informs everything she does. Going with the flow, she manages to effortlessly manage her time as a mother, an artist and an entrepreneur, being fully present in each moment. For Viji, kindness is more important than physical beauty, and the sari is the epitome of comfort. Taking time out of a busy schedule on the farm to chat with us, Viji also curates a selection of exquisite Kanakavalli kanjivarams.
You describe yourself as a nature- and agri-preneur. Could you tell us a little about what this means, and about the journey that brought you here?
A naturepreneur is a business owner who offers products and services that benefit not only consumers, but the planet as well. I have been fascinated by the idea that for-profit ventures can also be conscious of the environment and focused on sustainability. An agripreneur is someone who returns to the land, through alternative or organic farming. In recent years many people have given up corporate careers in cities to move back to the villages and take up farming, exploring sustainable options.
I grew up in Chennai, and the city is a big part of who I am. But I spent every single summer at my grandmother’s farm near Tirunelveli, and this was the highlight of my year. I’d carry nothing but a bag full of books and my Sony Walkman. I would spend hours wandering through the orchards and fields. Summer also meant that it was mango season, so we were surrounded by heaps and heaps of the juiciest fruit. After graduating from college and working for several years in Chennai, I got married and moved to Singapore. When I had children of my own, I resumed my annual visits to my grandmother’s farm. In this way, I remained connected to the land even after I left the country.
Above (from left): A maize plant in the early morning light at Viji's farm in Theni; Sunrise upon a field of maize.
My father-in-law had a large parcel of agricultural land in Theni. In 2012, he grew sick and wanted someone in the family to take care of the farm. So, after my youngest turned five, I started spending a few days every month in Theni. While learning everything I could about the farm, I also began to explore alternative and sustainable practices, and was very keen to shift to natural farming. We still use some pesticides on the farm, but we have started implementing the principles of Subhash Palekar’s Natural Farming ideology. This method depends on indigenous cow manure to balance soil health, with very little other external input. Along with my growing interest in farming, I have recently become involved with the Kongu Goshala run by Mr. Sivakumar that saves and rehabilitates Kangeyam cows, an indigenous breed. I now have three Kangeyam cows on the farm, whose rich manure is very good for the soil.
Spending time on the farm also drove me to pursue another interest of mine more seriously. I have always used herbal products—from hair oils to ubtan facial powders mixed at home. I realised that this shift to herbal remedies had done my skin and hair a lot of good. I felt healthier, had more energy and better immunity, and so did my children. When my daughter was born, I was inspired to use the age old Ayurvedic wisdom to create really good homemade products for the hair and skin. I experimented with recipes till I perfected them, and soon I had friends asking what these magic potions were!
I knew that a lot of people wanted to make the shift to herbal products, but didn’t have access to them or know a brand they could trust. Once I got involved in farming, I was able to complete the circle of demand and supply. While on the farm every month, I would source the ingredients and prepare the oils. My friends felt they could trust these products because I had created them for my family and used them all myself. They encouraged me to make my products available to a wider audience. And so, I have recently introduced Avir, my first line of herbal skin and hair products.
Above (Clockwise from top left): Viji at the launch of Avir, her line of herbal beauty products; Mixing oils to create blends that are perfectly customised for clients' skin and hair; Avir products all packaged and ready for shipping; Viji uses natural and indigenous ingredients to create oils and powders for the skin and hair
I have received very positive reviews so far, and I’ve realised that people are very happy to go back to their roots. Many tell me how using the products makes them feel very nostalgic. Age old traditions, indigenous materials, the science of Ayurveda and agriculture all come together in my products. And this, I think, is at the very heart of being a naturepreneur—combining the ancient and the modern, and building a partnership between business and the environment.
As I studied herbal remedies and explored natural farming practices, I realised that so many of the plants considered weeds in crop fields have wonderful medicinal properties. For example bhringraj or karisilankanni and arugam pul (grass). Neem, curry plant, moringa and hibiscus, which grow wild on the farm, are actually ingredients I use for my herbal products. From jamun seeds that I use for a pimple pack, coconut oil from the nuts, to henna, amla and aloevera, I find a great deal of what I need on the farm. Thus, I have found a business model that is truly balanced. Instead of using chemical weedicides, I plant useful herbal plants and let them replace the area covered by weeds, using them as ingredients for my products.
I am so grateful that farming has brought me closer to nature, creating a business that benefits the planet. For me, this has truly been a spiritual journey. Not only am I learning so much about the land and about the cycles of nature, but I have also learnt about myself. The last five years have been completely life-changing for me; even more so than the experience of becoming a mother!
Does your training as an artist influence your work and your everyday life?
I did my masters in Fine Arts in Stella Maris College in Chennai, after which I headed a graphic design team for a big corporate company. Painting was the way I expressed myself, and I tended to use traditional styles, drawing inspiration from the frescoes of Ajantha, and the likes of Raja Ravi Varma, India’s first modern artist. After moving to Singapore and becoming a mother, I painted less and less. I paint the way I read a book—I have to stop everything else and be fully immersed in it. This is why I wasn’t able to give it much time while my children were young. Now that they don’t need my attention full-time anymore, I find myself painting again. I work on a piece for two or three days almost without a break; watching the kids or the house from a corner of my eye.
Above (Clockwise from left): A self portrait pencil sketch on handmade paper; Viji painted this portrait of her father soon after he passed away, in oil on canvas; Viji as a student during a college festival; A monochromatic recreation of a vintage Rukmini Devi photograph for Viji's debut show 'Malgudi Days'; A painting inspired by the frescoes of Ajantha.
I never sit down to paint with a specific plan in mind; I just kind of go with the flow and let things happen, observing the forms that take shape. This is how things work in nature, and this is how I have approached business as well. I go with the flow, but I also listen to my instincts and study patterns that I see around me. I think I’m a very aesthetically inclined person, and this is reflected in everything I do, whether it’s painting or farming or creating herbal products. I try not to exert too much control over my work, instead allowing things to happen as they naturally would.
You have such a range of interests. Do you think these inform each other and tie in together in any way?
When you start observing nature closely, you find that little interference is needed; things follow a beautiful, natural plan. This is the lesson that drives my approach to everything I do. Sometimes I find I might need to gently guide the direction that a painting or a plant takes, removing a few obstacles, or providing occasional nourishment. Largely, though, if things are left to follow their natural cycles, they will turn out just fine.
Even as a parent, I am quite hands-off; not interfering too much but being present for guidance when required. I think the first five years I was much more involved with my children, laying the foundation for the kind of people I hoped they would grow into. But now, I don’t get too involved in the smaller details, giving them space to grow and explore. My husband Vignesh has helped me keep this balance. He and my in-laws have been incredibly supportive and trusting, especially when it comes to allowing me to take the lead in caring for the land in Theni.
Do you ever struggle to balance your many roles and activities?
I think I’m quite an organised person, but I don’t like to plan too much. I treat every aspect of my life as a separate entity—family, farm, friends, my herbal product line. There might be times that the farm needs a little extra attention, or occasions when I need to be there for my children. I am able to prioritise and plan in a way that I am not compromising on any one thing.
I’m also very open with my children and the family, so everyone knows exactly what is happening all the time. It helped that at the beginning I invested time in creating routines and structures at home and at the farm. So now, whether I’m there or not, things function smoothly. It helps to be organised to a certain extent, and also to be able to let go a little.
This allows me to be completely immersed in the moment—when I’m on the farm, I’m completely on the farm; and when I’m at home, I’m one hundred per cent at home.
Above (from left to right): Viji's son planting banana on the farm during a holiday in Theni; A natural farming patch on which Viji is experimenting with intercropping and has planted banana within a coconut grove; Farm workers cutting sugarcane.
What does Chennai mean to you?
Madras has become Chennai, and with the influx of IT companies, a lot has changed. In spite of that, though, the older parts of the city haven’t changed a bit.
I love the fact that I can still walk around the tiny gullies of Parry’s and T. Nagar and find everything I need. One thing that this city has taught me is that to get anything authentic, one has to return to the roots. In college when we had to buy stationery, we wouldn’t go to the biggest or fanciest store, but to a tiny, old stationer in an old neighbourhood. Similarly, when I want to understand something about farming, I try and get to the very root of the problem.
I think Chennai is the perfect bridge between the traditional and the modern. It is a city that moulded me in many ways, and at heart I will always be a girl from Madras.
How do you define beauty and tradition?
Tradition is everything to me. We have so much to learn from it—it is at the core of who we are. Chennai as a city is steeped in tradition despite having a very cosmopolitan side to it. There is space for every kind of person to co-exist within this structure. For me, this is tradition—holding on to certain elements of the past but also making space for the new.
Despite living in Singapore, so far from home, I hold on to some of the aspects of my traditional upbringing that are important to me. At the same time, I am always open to new things, and I resist anything that is narrow-minded or restrictive. This combination of tradition and modernity defines my lifestyle.
Beauty for me is definitely not skin deep. It is so much more than a person’s appearance. Beauty is accepting yourself completely and being confident in your skin. No matter what the social norms around beauty are, it is your sense of self confidence that shines through.
One of the things I tell my children is that they can do whatever they want to in life, but if they can’t be kind and polite, then nothing they achieve will matter. I think for me, kindness is much more important that external beauty.
What is the role of the sari in your life? In particular, what does the kanjivaram mean to you?
I got my first sari when I was 13 years old. It was a gorgeous yellow kanjivaram with a navy border that we bought in Kanchipuram for a wedding in the family. I still have it and wear it. I always loved saris, even in school when it might not have been considered very fashionable. In fact, during school fashion shows, I’d insist on wearing only saris to walk the ramp!
The recent handloom wave and the return to authentic Indian crafts and traditional weaves is amazing. I have a sari group in Singapore, and we encourage each other to wear saris for special occasions. Some of these women had never worn a sari before, but have discovered this beautiful garment through social media.
I am most comfortable in a sari. I can run and play and work, all draped in a sari.
What is the story behind the Kanakavalli sari you've chosen to wear for the Vignettes shoot?
My mother-in-law had given me one of her beautiful old saris, but I wore it only once before it fell apart. When I visited Kanakavalli, this sari caught my eye immediately because it reminded me of the older one. I love the unusual layout, the vertical pattern and the striking palette. Black is a colour I love, and one that I find is very close to the colour of the earth and the soil. I chose this kanjivaram for the shoot because I thought it would stand out against the colours of the land. It is definitely one of my favourites.
Viji is wearing a classic black Kanakavalli kanjivaram embellished with stylised leaf motifs and geometric patterns in gold zari, yellow, green and red. The border has geometric patterns in gold zari, while the pallu features floral, peacock and horse motifs all in rich gold zari.
- Vijay Rajeswari Ramakrishnan, in conversation with Aneesha Bangera, photography by Raghuram Vedant
View Viji's guest curation here.