Karthigai Deepam 2023: Tamil Nadu’s Rajalakshmi Sivasankaran is the empress of exquisite lamps

Rajalakshmi's seven-year-old RL Handicrafts Vilakkukadai boasts over 600 designs of lamps from across the country.

ByRoshne Balasubramanian

Published Nov 26, 2023 | 1:00 PM Updated Nov 26, 2023 | 6:13 PM

Rajalakshmi Sivasankaran established RL Handicrafts Vilakkukadai seven years ago. (Supplied)

Stepping into RL Handicraft’s Vilakkukadai, nestled within Ramakrishna Street in Porur, and engaging in conversation with its founder, the poised and inimitable Rajalakshmi Sivasankaran, a sense of tranquillity immediately envelops us.

Her composed demeanour and empowering words resound deeply, while the store’s serene ambience adorned with an array of artefacts — over 600 diverse villaku (lamps) designs sourced from across the country, and intricately carved brass sculptures — further enhances this peaceful state.

Currently, in celebration of the Karthigai Deepam festival, the store is hosting an exhibition of lamps until 27 November, 2023.

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Crafted with love

The store radiates a gentle yellow luminosity, creating an aura that invites us to bask in its warmth and absorb every detail around us.

Sivasankaran warmly welcomes each customer with a genuine smile, diligently addressing their queries, and showcasing a distinctive dedication to her craft.

In its seventh year, Villakukadai has garnered a reputation as a go-to destination for purchasing exquisitely designed lamps suitable for various occasions, particularly during Karthigai Deepam — a festival where traditional lamps hold significance.

The store boasts an impressive collection, ranging from their in-house speciality, the intricately crafted Varahi lamp, to timeless classics like the Kamatchi Villaku, Naachiyar Kovil Kuthu Vilakku, Annam Villaku and Paavai Villaku.

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The tenets of a temple

The store is designed with a layout resembling a temple, incorporating elements such as a Garbagraham (main sanctum), Vadakku Sanadhi Veedhi, Therku Sanadhi Veedhi, a Madapali, and Navagraham.

Sivasankaran elucidates, “Similar to the main sanctum in temples, our sanctum is entirely crafted from stone. The veedhis represent the paths people take while circumambulating the garbagraham. The Madapali, usually the cooking area in temples, houses our collection of cooking vessels.”

The 'garbagraham' at Vilakkukadai resembles the main sanctum or inner sanctum of a temple.(Roshne Balasubramanian/South First)

The ‘garbagraham’ at Vilakkukadai resembles the main sanctum or inner sanctum of a temple.
(Roshne Balasubramanian/South First)

Additionally, a captivating element is the Navagraham section, where Kuthuvilakku from diverse South Indian regions of varying sizes encircle a magnificent Kilai (branch) Vilakku at its centre. 

Sivasankaran explains, “The arrangement around the central Kilai Vilakku mimics the way people walk around the Navagrahams in temples.”

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Harbouring a desire

After a comprehensive tour, Sivasankaran and I settle down for a conversation. Her keen attention to detail and warm hospitality make for an amiable experience. 

“Being lazy isn’t just about someone who doesn’t have a job or is inactive. It’s also about someone who understands their potential but chooses not to work up to that potential,” says Sivasankaran, setting the tone for the interview. 

She came to realise this truth early in life but lacked the opportunity to fulfil her potential. 

“I’ve always aspired to pursue education, but my schooling stopped when I was in the class 8,” she reveals.

The 'Navagraham' centres around a 'Kilai Vilakku'. (Roshne Balasubramanian/South First)

The ‘Navagraham’ centered around a ‘Kilai Vilakku’. (Roshne Balasubramanian/South First)

Growing up in Veppalodai, a village situated in Thoothukudi district, she was the youngest among six siblings. 

“My father, a farmer and entrepreneur, adhered to our customs and culture, which dictated that women couldn’t venture out after reaching puberty. This circumstance broke my educational aspirations,” she explains.

Subsequently, Sivasankaran dedicated several years to supporting her father in his business, got married at the age of 17, relocated to Chennai, and eventually became a mother of three children. “Life revolved around raising them for the next few years,” she reflects. 

“However, the yearning for education never waned,” she shares. “I always harboured a desire to study. Every time I met someone, I pondered what their educational qualifications might be.”

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Achieving aspirations

Eventually, she turned her aspirations into reality by enrolling in an open university, successfully completing a BBA degree, and pursuing an English course.

During her various endeavours, the household’s needs propelled Sivasankaran and her family to establish the Shri Hayagrivar Arts and Cultural Academy. 

Breaking away from tradition, Rajalakshmi forged her unique path. (Roshne Balasubramanian/South First)

Breaking away from tradition, Rajalakshmi forged her unique path. (Roshne Balasubramanian/South First)

While preparing for an event at the institute and searching for fitting return gifts, Sivasankaran began her quest for a brass Thiruvalluvar statue. It was during this search that she recognised a significant gap in the market, sparking the initial idea for RL Handicrafts.

“The moniker ‘Villakukadai’ was added later on. As I assessed my collection, I noticed it comprised several lamps. Wherever I went, my focus gravitated toward lamps in any location, making them the standout feature,” she explains. 

“Even to this day, when I visit a temple or any place of cultural or spiritual significance, my eyes instinctively search for unique lamps. I’m always on the lookout for something that others might overlook,” Sivasankaran shares with enthusiasm.

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Forging a unique path

Today, standing as the authority on exquisite lamps, Sivasankaran reflects on the strenuous journey. 

“From discovering suppliers to gaining confidence, it was a challenge,” she remarks. 

“I used to pack my bag and explore various places in search of artisans creating diverse traditional lamps,” she shares, highlighting a stark contrast to her earlier years of being confined indoors.

 

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Breaking away from tradition, Sivasankaran forged her unique path. 

“For a woman in a predominantly male-dominated business sphere, the journey is never easy, and it was no different for me. People often remarked that this wasn’t a ‘saree business.’ Some suppliers would quote higher prices assuming I wasn’t familiar with market rates. I had to assert myself and demonstrate my knowledge. That boosted my confidence to be more assertive. Now, even some of those same suppliers work with us. Many are eager to collaborate with us,” she shares, with a smile. 

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A commitment to consistency 

During the initial two years of starting the business, Sivasankaran made a commitment to wholeheartedly dedicate herself to the growth of her work. 

“It was a pledge I made to myself — to demonstrate my capability. I made sure Villakukadai’s doors were always open, even on festive occasions. For instance, during a close relative’s wedding in Thoothukudi, I attended and promptly returned to Chennai to reopen the shop. I didn’t want anyone to think the shop kept closing intermittently, as it might create a negative impression with customers,” she explains. 

“Consistency, accountability, and credibility are vital aspects of running a business, and that’s what I aimed for. The only path to achieve that was through relentless commitment,” she shares.

As noon approaches, the steady stream of customers slightly dwindles during the lunch hour. Sivasankaran’s voice booms throughout the space, echoing among the brass wares.

Self-sustaining mechanism 

Seated on the threshold of the garbagraham, next to a Varahi Amman kolam, Sivasankaran takes a moment to soak it all in. 

“Those initial two years were crucial. It’s because of that period that I now have the confidence that even in my absence, Villakukadai will never shut down. It has a self-sustaining mechanism in place now,” she smiles confidently.

True to her words, while Sivasankaran is in the midst of the interview, her employees seamlessly manage the store in her absence. One employee weighs a lamp while another elaborates to a customer about the various types of leaf lamps available. Meanwhile, another staff member assists a customer in selecting the appropriate lamp for their occasion. They function like a well-oiled clockwork, demonstrating efficiency and expertise in their roles.

We notice that most of Vilakkukadai’s employees are women. 

“There’s a stigma that women can’t perform tasks like lifting heavy lamps or weighing them, among other notions. Here, we’re breaking that stereotype,” Rajalakshmi asserts. “Everyone is capable of doing everything. I have done everything here, and anyone can,” she affirms, emphasising her belief in equal capabilities regardless of gender.

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The light of their lives

Today, the store collaborates with over 150 suppliers from diverse regions across South India and North India. 

However, what truly brings Sivasankaran joy is the livelihood this business offers to the artisans crafting these lamps and sculptures.

“In the face of commercialisation, it has become challenging to find artisans preserving traditional methods. Yet, being associated with these families entrenched in the art and crafts business, and contributing to their journey, has been immensely rewarding,” she adds.

Vilakkukadai offers lamps starting from ₹40 onwards, provides customisation options, and has a clientele across the globe. 

“I feel blessed to have established a strong clientele. As part of our Karthigai Deepam exhibition, which commenced on November 15, we’ve been inviting accomplished women to inaugurate each day of the festival. It’s a celebration of women’s power and sisterhood. Personally, this initiative serves as a tremendous inspiration for me to strive for more,” Sivasankaran shares with gratitude.

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When life mimics your thoughts

When discussing lamps with Sivasankaran, her enthusiasm shines through, and her eyes light up as she delves into a treasure trove of knowledge about various lamp types.

“There are numerous lesser-known types like the kambi villakuchavi vilakku, Thirunelveli kai vilakkumada vilakku, Karaikudi vilakku, and so on,” she shares eagerly. 

“While the Nachiyarkovil villaku is the most famous, not everyone might require it. Hence, we make an effort to educate our customers about these traditional lamps. However, there’s no pressure; people can choose what they like according to their budget and preference,” she explains.

“At the end of the day, lamps are beautiful in their own way. It’s all about our perspective,” she expresses.

This perspective appears to be ingrained in Sivasankaran’s life philosophy.

“I believe that our perception of life manifests in reality. I consider myself my own competitor, and I believe that my thoughts shape my life. So, I prefer to keep it bright, just like the lamps,” she signs off with a sense of positivity and optimism.

RL Handicrafts Vilakkukadai is located at 5, Ramakrishna Street, Thirumurugan Nagar, Porur. The exhibition is on until 27 November. For details, visit Website; Instagram @Vilakkukadai. Follow Rajalakshmi’s journey here.