Vellakulangara is a quaint village, a couple of kilometres south of Adoor in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala. Otherwise a nondescript place, the area is fast catching the imagination of netizens.
And the reason is Leelamma Mathew. Or more precisely, her unique craft of turning discarded plastic sachets of Milma products, into items of everyday use. By weaving the strips cut out from the plastic packets, she makes purses, bags, containers, cans, bins, fruit baskets and, believe it or not, even wardrobes.
More than making unbelievably beautiful materials, her reputation stems from her principle of reducing waste in her house and its surroundings and following a lifestyle that causes less damage to the environment.
She was felicitated at a function in Thiruvananthapuram last year and was offered a shawl by the minister for dairy development and milk cooperatives J Chinchu Rani.
She told Onmanorama her upcycling technique is rooted in her childhood passion for sewing. She grew up at Karuvatta in Alappuzha. "I liked sewing from my childhood. I was not good at studies but I was quite interested in learning any craft. After my marriage, I came to Vellakulangara and continued the craft work. I stitched artworks on towels, made embroideries and prints on saris." However, she did not take up tailoring as a profession.
But in 2019, many appreciated a purse she made using empty Milma packets. There has been no looking back since then. She went on to make purses and handbags continuously. One day, one of her relatives took a photo of the bag and send it to the Kerala Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation, better known by its product's name Milma.
Officials were impressed by Leelamma's endeavour and soon the word spread up the chain too, which culminated in her felicitation.
Not just Milma packets, Leelamma transforms any discarded materials into useful items. She has created showy decors, and toys using jute threads that come from local shops. She has made containers of different sizes using plastic strapping rolls, which are used to wrap big package boxes.
Upscaling for Leelamma is not a hobby. She uses the purses and bags she makes daily. She has also been selling these products and of course, there is a great demand for them too.
In her courtyard, there is a ring-like structure that she has created with cement and plastic bottles filled with polythene carry bags. She made the structure a protective boundary for some exotic plants as she is an avid gardener and tends to a vast area of beautiful garden plants outside her house.
The highlight of her creations is a wardrobe she has made out of more than 4,000 Milma packets. She made the wardrobe a foot taller than her by making an iron frame first and then weaving the Milma cover strips onto it.
A close watch will display the magnitude of the assiduous task, the persistence, the hard labour, and the patience that has gone into its making. She proudly drags the mobile wardrobe before anyone who visits her house and eagerly displays the ample space inside and the doors fitted with magnetic latches. Her house is now a place frequented by social media influencers and media channels.
"One should not idle away time by sleeping or watching the mobile phone. It's in fact, the duty of youngsters to find out ways to manage and reduce waste in their houses. My work not only reduces and upcycles waste of my home but also the trash in the neighbourhood," she said. Leelamma doesn't spare any Milma packets in households within the four-kilometre radius of her residence. She also picks other discarded objects to put them to her creative use.
Leelama's husband Mathew was a businessman and is now spending a retired life at home taking care of small-scale farming in the backyard. Their elder son Benoy Mathew lives in Bahrain with his wife and two children. Her daughter Minu Mathew lives a few kilometres away.
Even at the age of 68 Leelama's enthusiasm, her concern for waste menace, and her strife for the cause of the environment are encouraging. It's no wonder then that the younger generation finds them emulative.