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Your photographs are stunning. It’s as if they unlock something inside you.

Thank you! A friend of mine says that there’s nothing more painful than having music in your heart and not being able to sing it. To not be able to physically or tangibly express emotions is difficult. I need to express all the time. I have to create. Photography is how I am able to express my feelings and experiences with the world. It is my creative outlet. With a camera in my hand - I can spend all day, all night. I just love it.

Did photography inspire the idea for Kopái – Paar?

I’m a very visual person and I’ve been a filmmaker for most of my professional life. Looking at images, characters and stories comes naturally to me. Whenever I travel to the interiors of the country, I discover a diverse and beautiful cultural existence that most of urban India is not aware of. The more I interacted with communities of artists and craftspeople and the more I saw of their lives, the more I felt the need to give their talent a voice. The beauty of their crafts lies not just in the fact that they are handmade, but that they are a part of a shared cultural understanding. The history, the geography, the traditions – all come together to make that piece of art. And that’s what I want people to experience. 

Do you feel responsible for these crafts and craftspeople?

I’m in awe of artists who can create something that will live beyond my lifetime and yours. When a personal expression or a creative process is not being respected, I feel the urge to consciously support it.

But I am in no position to fulfill any kind of responsibility. When you go to these villages and see how people are living… there’s a lot to do and you can never do enough. Yet they are holding onto their craft and trying to make a living from it. It’s sad and inspiring at the same time. A craftsman once told me, “You’re asking me to make these samples but sister, give me more work.” It’s a strange sort of feeling. I feel so limited. My hope is that Kopái – Paar will make you conscious of what you are buying and where you are buying from. You can own something beautiful and help someone. That’s a beautiful fit, right?

What if a larger company wanted to take over Kopái – Paar?

I will not be ready to let go until I am able to complete the journey which I have only just begun. Creating a brand to sell off is not the point. I want to create a community where people who share my passion come together to talk about the crafts and the cultures, to experience them in all their dimensions. Moving forward, I want to have a space where people can express their creativity without worrying about whether they are good enough. Where they can just enjoy creation. So Kopái – Paar is not just an e-commerce product site. It is also another way in which I am expressing myself. It’s very personal. 

So everything you do is an extension of your own self.

Growing up, we were always told that you have to choose one thing to do and work towards it. But what if that one thing stifles a lot of other passions? Or if it’s not what drives you anymore? As the years are passing, I don’t know if there is something like one calling, or one thing I want to dedicate my life to. There are so many things that interest me and I don’t want to shut the windows and the doors to that. When I was busy with my films, I felt I had started losing those other parts of me. And while filmmaking is still very close to my heart, I felt the need to step away from it for a while. At least in the structure within which I was working then.

Given the scale of the task you are on, how are you able to feel any sense of success?

For me, success is inward and personal. It’s the ability to be happy with the way you’ve spent your day or with your own productivity. I feel even though it’s important to focus on the bigger picture, you can’t be burdened by it. You have to rejoice in the small steps, the everyday accomplishments. Enjoy the journey, irrespective of where it will lead. I’m not saying that’s easy to do all the time. But I try.

We all take different routes to go out and find where our voices fit in this world. But at the end of the day, it’s always about coming back to our center with what we discover.

Is this quest for self-discovery why you love to travel?

I am very adventurous by nature. Adventure for me, doesn’t mean physical adventure. I want to try and experience the good and the bad in as many situations as I can. It’s the reason I love to travel alone. It’s an amazing adventure because you are out of your comfort zone – meeting strangers and seeking new experiences.

Where does this adventurous spirit come from?

I was quiet as a child and always had my nose in a book. Reading makes your sense of adventure grow as you experience worlds, which are so far removed from where you are. I love that about books – they can transport you anywhere. Your experience is only limited by your imagination, which for me is limitless. My favorite author growing up was Enid Blyton because of the fantastical worlds she would spin. I guess, as I grew up and became more confident, less scared to express myself, the physical manifestations of this spirit became more apparent. 

Would you describe yourself as fearless?

I need to constantly try to do things which challenge me. Being too comfortable in a space is the death of creativity.

That’s also a reason why I took a break from films. Sometimes you need to step back and embrace change. Not be scared of it. Breaking away from something I’d been doing for so long, taking that leap of faith into the unknown, was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. Now, I have a vision for Kopái – Paar in my head but I have no clue how I’m going to reach it. That is what is really exciting me right now.

What is the biggest challenge in making your vision come true?

A big challenge is running Kopái – Paar as a sustainable business. I need people to know the brand and there’s just so much clutter. It’s very difficult to hold someone’s interest for even thirty seconds. And it’s not easy to set up a business in our country. I always think, “I don’t have a head for numbers. I don’t know how I’m going to do this.” But then when you cross that hurdle, you learn a lot and success becomes that much sweeter. It’s more scary in your head than when you actually do it. You’re conquering your own fears. It’s as easy or as difficult as you make it.

How do you deal with failure?

I don’t really see failure as negative. Most of the times the fear of failing is what keeps us from doing things. It’s okay to fail. It’s great to fail. It can’t be the thing that stops you from trying. I am grateful for things that have not worked out or things which have not turned out as perfect as I would have liked them to be.

When something goes perfectly, you don’t know what to learn. It’s the oldest cliché, but it’s so true - the most valuable lessons are from your mistakes, and also the most growth. There is no substitute for that.

Where does your confidence come from?

Actually, I’m very unsure of myself. But I am also more comfortable now with admitting that. I’m finding my center a lot more. That really turbulent sense of, “What am I doing? What’s going to happen? Maybe everyone is right and I am wrong,” has settled down a bit. I don’t know whether I would call that confidence. It’s more of a calmness that helps drown out self-doubt. Maybe somewhere, my mind has become a little less noisy and I am more at ease with my life choices. 

What is keeping you inspired?

I am fortunate to know lots of people who inspire me. The list is endless. Everyone in their life has overcome or is struggling with something. If you’re really open to listening, you’ll find that most people have a story to share. It is beautiful to find that inspiration in regular people. It’s everywhere. Nature is such an inspiration - the trees, the mountains, the ocean. That connect is so primal and pure. Being around nature opens up deep spaces in my heart. It’s like coming home. I don’t see myself living in a city for too long.

Your philosophy is so similar to your company’s namesake. It’s like a journey that flows outward yet takes you towards your own truth.

There are these beautiful lines written by Rabindranath Tagore, “Beyond a distant river somewhere, on the edge of a thick forest somewhere…You’re finding your way.” Kopái – Paar means “across the river Kopai.” Kopai is the river which flows through Shantiniketan, the place where Tagore created many of his timeless works.

For me personally, it means my home in West Bengal, and everywhere around the whole world. Because you can cross the river on both sides and encompass everything. That is the journey which I would like to make in my own way. That’s why I find traveling to be the best way to find yourself. The more you go outward, the more you go inward.

Where do you see yourself in fifty years?

This might sound very removed from where I am today, but I see myself living by the ocean in a small quaint beach town, running a dive school and an organic-farm home stay. A quiet life, surrounded by books, the ocean and the fish. I recently went diving in Andaman and did my certification. It was a life altering experience. I have always been in love with the water but experiencing the world under the ocean was surreal. When you swim with the multitude of fish that accept your alien presence without protest, something inside you shifts. Whenever I try to explain the feeling, I fall short. Words are too limiting. I was missing my camera, though capturing that beauty and magic is way beyond my skills. But I do want to take my camera underwater and shoot. It is more fantastical than any of Enid Blyton’s worlds.

It is Born by Pablo Neruda
Here I come to the very edge
where nothing at all needs saying,
everything is absorbed through weather and the sea,
and the moon swam back,
its rays all silvered,
and time and again the darkness would be broken
by the crash of a wave,
and every day on the balcony of the sea,
wings open, fire is born,
and everything is blue again like morning. 



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Neha Rungta worked in films for fourteen years as Creative Producer, Executive Producer and Associate Director. Her films, Antaheen, Anuranan, Aparajita Tumi and Bunohaansh, have won national and international accolades. Anuranan and Antaheen both received the President’s National Award. Neha further explored photography at the School of Visual Arts, New York. Her work-in-progress, entitled “Conversations with the Sea,” has been featured in the American Photographic Artists gallery. In 2016, Neha founded Kopái – Paar, a startup which collaborates with the handicraft community in India to create unique handcrafted pieces, with the belief that helping and supporting crafts, artisans and artists must be a conscious decision.

Kopái – Paar identifies talented artisans, collaborates with them on designs and innovation to create unique handcrafted pieces and brings this to the discerning customer. Through Kopái – Paar, Neha hopes to create awareness and value for quality handicraft work in an increasingly mechanized world, as well as ensure a fair return for the highly skillful work done by artisans, using know-how passed down generations as part of their livelihood and inheritance. As a part of this journey, Neha is documenting and photographing the crafts, the processes and the stories behind them, which she hopes to evolve into a narrative documentary feature honoring the beautiful, timeless traditions of rural India.

Kopai is the name of the majestic river, which runs through the culturally vibrant district of Shantiniketan in India. It was here that the poet and author, Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, spent most of his creative years, penning timeless works that have inspired generations.

The traditions and cultures across the country are so rich yet they are dying. We won’t see much of them fifteen years from now. It’s very urgent to have a record of these beautiful things. I take photographs and document as much as I can. I want to have a blueprint ready to get funds and put a documentary series together. I see a lot of potential in it.

Majuli is a small island in the middle of the Brahmaputra in Assam. It is the largest river island in the world and a number of tribes live there, still holding onto their culture. One community has been making masks since the 17th century. As a part of their tradition, they wear their masks and perform stories from epics like the Ramayana or Mahabharata. Mask making itself is beautiful but the drama, the performance, the costumes and expressions are as integral to the experience. Imagine, this is just one small space in the entire country.

I met a woman artisan who lives in a village in Bolpur. She comes from an orthodox community that is highly skilled in the craft of kantha work. This woman decided to make a business of her craft and refused to get married. She wanted to live life on her own terms and chose to stand up to her family and her village. She now travels around the country, holds exhibitions and runs a little workshop where she’s training other women of the village in the craft. She’s also bought a house and land from her own hard earned money. She looks after her brother and his family as well as cares for her ailing mother. That is a story that inspires.