Series / 5 min read / by Dysco / Jul 31, 2018

Shuli Ghosh on reviving ancient traditions, working with rural artisans and building a sustainable business

Kolkata-based Shanta and Sulagana Ghosh are entrepreneurs, arts-lovers and sustainability enthusiasts, who set up Sienna, a workshop and store to revive artisanal arts and crafts as well as rehabilitate local artisanal communities. With growing fascination and recognition for traditional and ancient art forms, Sulagana (Shuli) shares more about their story and values. They’re also looking for collaborators across design, food and community initiatives, so chat with Shuli on Dysco App to know more about pottery and terracotta or if you’re interested in collaborations or community giving.

Across industries and continents, people are tracing their roots, reviving forgotten traditions and repackaging age-old customs to build new businesses. From the renaissance of turmeric and Ayurveda, to a new range of handcrafted and artisanal products, discerning consumers are more conscious than ever before, about the stories behind products and services. Sustainable shopping and ethical production have gradually morphed into one of the core values for customers today.

Producers are being asked to share the details of their supply chains, and those who pay close attention to their processes, come across as both authentic and aware. Sienna Store has been committed to reviving pottery since 1993, building a predominantly female team of artisans whose artefacts and crafts can reach the modern consumer. Their customers don’t simply want to purchase clothes to wear or things to place in their homes, but they want their belongings to tell tales, to represent their values and to present an extension of their identity in their most private and personal spaces. Sienna offers clothing, tableware, home décor accessories, furniture and other items that are all non-toxic and exceptionally unique in design.

Their loyal customers keep returning, not just for their beautiful earthy collections, but because of the value it brings to local communities and their often forgotten arts. In a world where we’re increasingly turning to mass consumption and e-commerce, Sienna is where time slows down, where we get glimpses of the past, and where untold stories can be shared – through fabric, clay, coffee and conversations.

“Sienna is a business that is driven to be cognisant about the people and the processes behind the products it develops”

With a rich background and history in design and craftsmanship, what was the impetus for conceptualising Sienna?

Sienna was conceived as a vehicle, which would enable the rural artisans to reach a larger metropolitan marketplace. Via the Sienna storefronts in Kolkata, individual artisans and craft cooperatives from the villages can access the urban public while keeping alive the ancient art forms of India.

We collaborate with artisans to re-visit traditional methods of textile and ceramic design, to create products that make them stylistically relevant to modern living. We hope to change the context in which these crafts have been viewed for ages, and try to make them relevant in a more contemporary setting so that the supply and demand for handmade crafts in India, in particular Bengal, is strengthened and preserved.

Consequently, we want to expand the market of handmade products. We seek to give them a homegrown alternative to high street brand. A delicate kantha stitch dress, we feel, can be a great alternate to a done to death LBD, that would be apt for an office meeting or a night out. Instead of wearing generic mass produced garments, we intend to encourage consumers to wear one-of-a-kind handmade garment, which will keep the artisans in business and in turn keep these traditional techniques relevant.

Tell us about your product range. It’s quite extensive and there’s a wide variety on offer. What makes it so unique?

We sell handmade ceramics that are available in terracotta and others are glazed with non-toxic glazes. The pottery is made with a mixture of Gangetic and China Clay. In the current market that favours mass-produced ceramics made with moulds, Sienna upholds the traditional method of pottery making that celebrates the aesthetic differences between each handmade product. The potters at the Sienna workshop produce dinnerware and serve-ware that is finished with lead free glazes and is dishwasher  and microwave safe.

We also design textiles which include saris, clothing and scarves all made with handloom fabrics and non-toxic dyes. Our jewellery range is made with ceramic, copper and waste fabric that is up cycled from scraps left over from the making of our garments. We have started a hand block and batik printing studio in Santiniketan, as an annex to our ceramic workshop.

Recently, we added a Cafe wing to our store. My mother is a great home cook, together she and I came up with a menu that is made of simple recipes using homemade ingredients and fresh natural produce from local markets. Our signature soups, salads, sandwiches, platters and cakes are served on our very own ceramics. To reduce our carbon footprint, we do not use straws, and try to use plastics, bottles and bags sparingly. All our takeaway containers are made from biodegradable materials, and we use copper straws. We are always looking for natural, biodegradable alternatives to reduce our carbon footprint.

You work with local artisans and help revive their traditional art forms. What is your working relationship with the local communities? How has Sienna impacted their livelihoods?

As a brand we are constantly striving to create without comprising on the welfare of the people who work with us and the environment in which we produce. Our workshop in the village of Santiniketan employs local artisans, talented and intrinsically artistic men and women, who work in collaboration with me and my mother, Shanta, to create wheel-thrown earthenware that is then coloured with non-toxic glazes. The production of these handmade ceramics, that are acquired by the urban population, help provide a source of income for those craftsmen and women from the rural areas of Bengal. In stark contrast to mass produced ceramics made with moulds, and machines, Sienna pottery looks to celebrate the aesthetic differences between each handmade item.

Similarly we have a block printing & batik dyeing unit, where we use azo-free and natural dyes on hand-loom fabrics made by weavers in Bengal and around India. In turn these are sent to our stitching and embroidery group in Calcutta that consists of artisans from the outskirts of Bengal to tailor apparel which is marketed to consumers in India and abroad. This entire supply chain helps give consumers the option to make conscious decisions to buy clothes that are made with hand loom fabrics by weavers that are breathable and better for our skin, by underprivileged men and women who are paid fairly, and work in happy and safe conditions. In addition any waste fabric is used to make up-cycled textile jewellery and accessories.

Sienna is a business that is driven to be cognisant about the people and the processes behind the products it develops. In the future, we would like to work with larger artisan communities around India, and incorporate natural dyes and organic fabrics.

“I’ve learned that to have a happy, peaceful and meaningful life, we need to go back to the basics”

How have you, personally, been impacted by your business?

As a person I’ve always been curious about design, whether in textile or ceramics or jewellery. Through Sienna, I have been exposed to a number of craft techniques and skilled artisans who have been preserving these for generations. While collaborating with craftsmen and women around Bengal, I’ve truly been able to expand my perspective and learn about our rich cultural traditions.

Traveling through weavers’ villages and homes of artisans I have been introduced to weaving, dying and printing systems. In this uniquely indigenous context for design, I have come to understand the hardships and struggles of the underprivileged and how organically craft forms can come out of these circumstances. I’ve learned that to have a happy, peaceful and meaningful life, we need to go back to the basics – cook our own food so that we know where our ingredients come from, take care of our environment as we do our homes, make our own clothes with fabrics that breathe, the most age old techniques are often the ones that work the best.

I’ve learned that by remaining committed to the core values that Sienna were built on we will end up on the right side of the business. The growth of our business is just as important as the working conditions of the people we work with, and the way in which our produce and ingredients are grown.

Being both, the Creative Director, and Founder of Sienna, are the two most challenging roles that I have had to juggle. I feel myself having to constantly strike a balance between staying true to the aesthetic value of the crafts we work with, the social responsibility we have towards the artisan communities that trust us, and generating revenue as a growing business.

Why do you feel there is a need for your business in this society?

In a world in which consumers are consuming more and more, and to meet that demand producers are producing more, there is need to slow down; to start thinking about systems that affect us, products that harm us, and the future of the environment. That’s where homegrown, local businesses like Sienna can play an important role in providing natural, handmade, sustainable, options and educate consumers in being more careful and responsible buyers.

How can people collaborate or work with Sienna? Are there any opportunities currently on the table? 

  • Design:  We work with handmade textiles, ceramics and jewellery so we are open to new ideas and developments in all of these fields. So whether it’s block printing, embroidery, graphic design, pottery design & glazing or really any kind of product design we are open to exploration!
  • Food: We have a cafe that serves food made with local, pesticide free, organic produce and homemade ingredients. We are always looking to expand our horizons in the world of conscious food, so any kind of workshop, demonstration, or class is welcome. We like to grow as much of our produce as we can, so we would love to have workshops/ training sessions on kitchen gardens, hydroponics, organic veggie/fruit development, etc.
  • Community: If you care about preserving the handmade, nurturing the environment we live in and taking care of people behind the processes we work with and collaborating with folks who do, then please get in touch.

To collaborate or pursue one of the aforementioned opportunities, write to Sienna at Chat with Shuli on Dysco App to know more about pottery and terracotta, if you’re interested in collaborations or community giving, or email us on for a personal introduction.