It would be difficult to deny the brilliance as well as the simplicity of Lakshmi Menon’s work that merges art and social development into a seamless mix. Lakshmi is an interior, jewellery, fashion and product designer who has enhanced the life of many people all over India. She is the brain behind the GrandMark brand that has senior women citizens engaged in creating simple products. She created water lamps in Bihar, made packaging materials and products out of water hyacinth and then went on to concoct the plantable pen that when discarded, grows into a tree. Most recently she has been busy spearheading the Orange Alert movement that warns motorists when they are near potholes or unmotorable roads.
Moving base from San Francisco, where she was a resident artist who even took part in the New York Fashion Week, to Kottayam in Kerala 10 years ago gave her the space to think of out-of-the-box ideas that were also aimed at creating economic and developmental opportunities. In her own words, “I found life in America to be very mechanical and my soul was always in India.” The soft-spoken lady becomes garrulous when she speaks about the various social reforms that she has been a part of, especially the GrandMark brand, that was inspired by her own grandmother. She elaborates, “My grandmother is 92 now and a physically active person. To find activities to keep her occupied is the toughest of all jobs. Four years ago, seeing her making wicks for the lamps in the house, I asked her to make some extra wicks for the neighbours, guests and friends. Being a product designer, I put it in cute pouches. Seeing the response to the wicks, she decided to extend this wick-making to old age homes. Not only did the elderly women get back their sense of pride and purpose in life, and their livelihood, but families who abandoned them came back when they saw the money (however paltry) they were earning. That sense of empowerment gladdens me to no end.” The wick-making activities diversified to various other products and Lakshmi brought it under the umbrella of GrandMark.
Coming back to the innovative plantable paper pen idea, Lakshmi hit on the idea of inserting a seed into the small space at the end of the pen. She decided on the Agastya Tree because of its medicinal properties and small size. “Each part of the tree is useful and my endeavour was to create a lakh trees from a lakh pens!” she explains. The latest and most useful social initiative is Orange Alert that is making some people see red. The campaign was born out of a moment of sheer frustration. The recent spate of fatal accidents and the deep potholes on roads when you least expect them, had Lakshmi making the rounds of PWD offices to no avail. Thinking about what next, had her deciding, “If I cannot fill the potholes what I can do next is to warn the motorists about the danger ahead. I decided to paint bright orange triangles about 50 Feet away from the potholes. Though it started off as a means to warn motorists, there were some other benefits too and I am in talks with some app developers. These marks could be integrated with GPS and a user can see orange flags. Another feature would be to tag the contractor’s name and number on each flag and I call it a social audit and a silent protest. Though small, these marks cry out loud about the inefficiency of the authorities. Each orange mark is a black mark for the authorities.”
Though a globe trotter, Lakshmi names her home nestled in acres of land as her favourite destination. Born with a happy gene, Lakshmi is not so ambitious that she does not have time for herself or her near and dear ones. Her business can be expanded but she does not want to go large scale, and take on extra stress. She ends with a favourite quote by Napoleon Hill, “If you cannot do great things, do small things in a big way!”