Technology should not replace age old traditions. On the other hand, it should complement our heritage through efficient and environmentally friendly practices!
K H Prabhu, our next pathbreaker, Founder & R&D Head at Natural Dye House, develops sustainable, green and eco-friendly natural dyes for various speciality natural functional finishes using textile wet processing technology.
Prabhu talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from the Interview Portal about always being keen on taking forward his family business in a more scientific way by equipping himself with a PhD (Herbal Colourants for Eco-Friendly Textile Processing) from ICT, Mumbai and embarking on an entrepreneurial journey.
For students, never forget your roots and always look for ways to revive traditional businesses through technological empowerment !
Prabhu, tell us about Your background?
Hi everybody, i am Dr. K. H. Prabhu. I was born in Chennai, Tamilnadu, INDIA. I did my early education till 10th standard in Kendriya Vidyalaya, Karaikudi, Tamilnadu, INDIA. Then, I moved to Alagappa Matriculation School, Karaikudi for my 11th and 12th standard. My major was in Chemistry, Physics and Biology subjects. Karaikudi is the best town for education and extra circular activities, mainly sports, like cricket.
During school days, I was always involved in sports activities, mainly cricket. I was a right arm off break opening blower. I represented Sivagangai district from my 7th standard to 11th standard and also the kendriya vidyalaya south zone. I love drawing.
Traditionally, I belong to the silk dyeing and weaving community called “SOURASHTRA”, popularly known as “PATTUNULLKARAR” in India. I was keen on taking forward my traditional business, “Silk Saree Weaving and Dyeing” in a more scientific way and thus studied Textile Chemistry.
My father Mr. K. R. Hari is a retired mathematics professor and my mother R. Padmini is a retired BSNL employee. I have a Sister. My parents gave me a lot of freedom and support to create my own path. I got married to Dr. K.S. Shyamala, Govt. Assistant surgeon and got settled in Coimbatore, Tamilnadu. Shyamala is my heroin and always inspired me to become a successful human being, she always supported my work and provided all possible help in shaping my research and business career.
In 2019, I and Mr. Raaja Rajan together started a company “NATURAL DYE HOUSE” (NDH) (www.naturaldyehouse.com) at Tirupur, for dyeing cloths using only natural dyes instead of synthetic colourants & chemicals.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I graduated with a BTech in Fibers & Textile Processing Technology from Institute of Chemical Technology (formerly University Department of Chemical Technology), in 2003, from Mumbai, Maharashtra, INDIA.
I did my Master’s degree (MTech) Programme at ICT Mumbai in 2005.
In 2011, i was awarded a PhD degree in Fiber and Textile Processing Technology from ICT, Mumbai INDIA.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
My journey into the world of natural dyes started during my PhD project studies, funded by the World bank “TEQIP” scholarship program. The program was focused on applications of “HERBAL TECHNOLOGY” in the textile field. This program was the first influencer in my life which was instrumental in shaping my vision towards natural dyes. I started doing a lot of literature work and research work on natural dyes. Most of the time, what I found from literature work is that everyone talked about natural dyes only for academic purposes and not for commercial feasibility purposes. Further, I came to know from literature that though there was an abundance of natural dyes in India, not much work had been done on the natural fixing agent which is a very important ingredient. Hence, my quest for natural fixing agents started. My mentor, Dr. M.D. Teli, gave me lot of freedom to work on this topic and provided lot of inputs from his past experience about natural dyes and its application on textiles, which really helped in shaping my work.
On the other hand, before the invention of the first synthetic dye “Mauvein” by William Henry Perkin in 1856, the whole world was wearing cloths dyed using natural dyes. This made me think a lot about natural dyes, their advantages, and also the way to approach it in a commercial way.
“The major turning point was the birth of my first daughter. The moment she was born, she was covered with clothes dyed with “Synthetic chemicals and colourants”. That was my day and my moment of reckoning when I decided to work only on natural dyes and nothing else in my life.”
Since then, natural dyes has been the most engaging field to me, since I saw an opportunity to do something that directly serves the well being of humankind and also saves “EARTH”from the effects of pollution.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about your career path
I did my BTech, MTech, and PhD, one after another in Fibers & Textile Processing Technology from Institute of Chemical Technology (formerly University Department of Chemical Technology), Mumbai, Maharashtra, INDIA. Mumbai is a cosmopolitan city and though it was not my dream, I was very eager to learn textile chemistry, which was spurred by my traditional roots. I am proud to say that I was a hostelite and I have lot of friends. In hostel, friends used to call me “Prabhuda”, and a few others used to call me “DON”. During BTech, I was a playful and jolly person, and although i didn’t take anything seriously during theory classes, i never missed the practical sessions of chemistry, physics and more importantly textile dyeing, which gave me a lot of confidence in handling practical work and understanding the outputs of the process.
Then, I continued my Master’s degree (MTech) at ICT. During MTech, my core research focus was on developing textile dyes which have dual properties like providing colour to the fabric as well as value added specialty properties like water repellent, anti-microbial activity. During this time, with my guide’s help, I was able to publish scientific research papers in reputed international journals focused on textiles. During this time, my interest towards research started to increase and i continued my PhD (Doctorate of Philosophy) under the same guide, Dr. M.D. Teli. My core research focus was on development of natural mordants for the fixation of natural dyes and produce wide gamuts of shades in a commercial industrial way. I was awarded my PhD in 2011. During this whole educational journey, I published 20 review articles (in national and international journals), 10 scientific research works as well as a book chapter in National Publishers. After spending half of my life in hostel for my education, the Mumbai ICT hostel became my home and Matunga, my dream place.
After completing my education, i initially worked as an Assistant Professor at Sona College of Technology in their Fashion Technology Department for 6 months. I really didn’t enjoy the teaching job in Tamilnadu. My next stint was at M/s. Wool Research Association (WRA), Thane, Mumbai as a Trainee Scientist with a small stipend. My job was to learn about wool processing and identify innovative ways to convert wool for sports textile applications. Over a period of years, I slowly progressed to the position of a permanent employee and took the responsibility for setting up a Centre of Excellence for “SPORTS TECH”, a technical textile division at WRA. I was focused on setting up lots of testing instruments employed for specialty fabric testing and their evaluation. This allowed me to work along with different technical textile industries, and at the same time allowed me to learn the skills for realistic business management. In 2014, I joined M/s. L’Oreal India Pvt. Ltd., Mumbai R&D Center, in the Hair Care & Instrumental Evaluation Department as an Associate Scientist. This was a pure R&D job which was different from the job at WRA, since the work was on human hair (a protein fiber similar to wool & silk) and shampoo products evaluation. This job helped me understand that my interest was in the field of research rather than its applications.
In 2015, I joined South India Textile Research Association (SITRA), Coimbatore, Tamilnadu, INDIA as Scientific Officer (SO) for a period of one year and performed effectively and reached a permanent position as Senior Scientific Office (SSO) within short time, in their Textile Chemistry Division and worked till November 2019. This was my perfect job, as I got exposure to the real world of the conventional textile industry located in and around Coimbatore, mainly areas around Tirupur, Erode, Karur. I worked closely with the textile industry where no systematic protocol is employed for the colouration of textiles using chemical dyes. My focus was on water consumption studies and also R&D projects, to develop natural dyes dyed baby wear garments with inbuilt medicinal properties. Further, two government projects were sanctioned successfully. One was funded by SERB, Department of Science & Technology and another by Ministry of Textiles, Govt. of India & an Industry Sponsor from SIPCOT, Perundurai. It was a challenging time for me to do all the projects in a systematic way and deliver the results on time. I was credited with the evolving of greener & novel dyeing technology for reduction of both synthetic indigo and natural indigo dyes without using hydrose and caustic in the yarn stage.
These projects gave me a lot of strength, confidence and understanding about natural dyes and its up-scaling process. At each step during this job, my focus was on natural dyes, and that helped me shape my unique journey into this field. Moreover, I used every opportunity I got throughout my education and jobs to build my network. I connected with people in my field and also out of my field whenever I attended conferences, exhibitions etc. On seeing my work, a few textile industry people who wanted to take forward the natural dyes into the market started to approach me. One fine day, I took the decision to start my own journey to prove and show the world that natural dyes is the only solution for the betterment of humankind which provides pollution free products to consumers and helps in saving this planet. Thus, my journey, Natural Dye House started in 2019.
How did you get your first break?
It was through networking, my first break happened when I met Mr. Raaja Rajan, who is an engineering graduate with masters in Marketing. He hails from a family of weavers who were also pioneers in the cotton spinning industry. He has extensive experience and involvement in the entire cotton manufacturing process right from ginning to the finished garments. He worked extensively in natural dyes product development for more than 10 years. On seeing my work, he appreciated and showed interest in collaborating with me for the knowledge ofachieving textile colouration using natural dyes in commercial industrial ways. After successfully completing my entire project work, I resigned my job and started my journey with him through our company,“NATURAL DYE HOUSE” (NDH), Tirupur.(www.naturaldyehouse.com)
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
With respect to the conventional textile processing industry, the major problem is pollution created by the effluent water released by these industries. Although they have effluent treatment plants, a large amount of synthetic chemicals are employed for the de-colouration process which in-turn results in high capital investment and maintenance costs. Also, there is an accumulation of large amounts of toxic sludge and dry toxic waste which have really no way of getting disposed off or handled in an eco-friendly way. All these issues are resolved by using natural dyes which are obtained from plants like flowers, fruit waste etc. Thus, it is a POLLUTION FREE process, where the effluent water can be directly employed for irrigation purpose.
With respect to natural dyes, there were many challenges. Firstly, the awareness about natural dyes is very less among Indian consumers. Very few who work on truly organic textiles or buy organic food were able to understand the concept. Next challenge was that there is always a geographical change in the raw materials which we use for colouration, such as water change, soil change, etc which results in slight colour change from lab scale to pilot scale to bulk scale when the order is converted after few months of initial sampling trials. This may contribute to around 5-8% colour difference. Addressing this change to the customer is the biggest challenge. At NDH, we explain the whole concept to customers by getting connected directly with the end customer. Sometimes we are in touch with the middle man, where we face more difficulties to convey the concept since some of the communication is not addressed effectively to the end customers. There is no right solution for such situations.NDH has more positive energy as compared to all other natural dyers since we do our R&D on a daily basis and understand natural dyes from a scientific perspective. We strive to deliver the right product to the market without adulterating the process. Also, cost is a very important parameter which customers look into. At NDH, right now, we believe, we are providing the best price in the market for natural dyes related work. We are still working on various parameters inorder to make the process more comfortable and energy efficient.
Tell us about your work at NDH
I now work at my company, NDH, Tirupur, as a “Colourguru”, taking care of R&D activities. I develop new shades based on customer requirement and also for various natural textile materials namely cotton, silk, wool, hemp etc. without using any synthetic chemicals in-order to create pollution free textile clothing.
First important skill required for a career in any field is “Respect” to that field, next comes the knowledge about that field. I developed my skills by giving respect to natural dyes and secondly, due to my strong academic background obtained from the knowledge i gained at ICT, Mumbai. My research and soft-floor experience also prepared me for this role.
I travel daily from Coimbatore to my factory located at Tirupur by bike for an hour and start my work by planning the colours to be dyed for the customers. Some of the other works include finished goods inspections, managing packing activities as well as documentation and coordination with clients for the receiving of goods. I also coordinate with my chief of operation officer, Mr. Raajan for many things namely inventory, raw materials, meetings, planning of bulk goods processing etc. End of day, I start back to home again by bike. This is my typical day routine.
There are no words to express aspects of the work we do at NDH. The product which we deliver gives us immense happiness and satisfaction that natural dyes dyed textile garments save the earth from pollution. They also have medicinal properties that provide a healthy life to the wearer.
How does your work benefit the society?
The following are the benefits of natural dyes output to the society:
Medicinal Properties: Most Natural dyes are made from medicinal plants. They intrinsically show high levels of anti-microbial activity. Garments made from natural dyes cause very less or no skin irritation. They prevent body odour since they prevent the growth of unwanted bacteria. Garments also provide a relaxed and comfortable feel which helps in better sleep.
Benefits to the Environment: Natural dyes are made from naturally occurringmaterials and they are non-toxic and non-hazardous. They leave no residue in the environment during the full life cycle of the product. This means there is no impact during the dyeing process, during usage and at the end of life of the product. There is no pollution to any water bodies due to the compostable or biodegradable nature of natural dyes.
Economic Benefits: Firstly, many farmers can have an additional sources of income by growing natural dye plants. Many tribal societies can benefit from some of the natural dyes that are harvested from forests as minor forest produce. It has the ability to create a new source of income for everyone involved without the destruction of natural resources.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
Almost all the work I do at NDH is memorable work. The most memorable work was dyeing of cotton shopping bags using three colours namely indigo blue, madder pink and marigold yellow. Dyeing was perfect and the shades were lovely during the sampling stage though we later faced a few challenges in bulk dyeing. But the challenge was resolved later and the dyeing was nicely done. The output of this work gave me a lot new thoughts and confidenceto develop more energy efficient processes and beautiful shades. This particular order was really memorable because the client truly appreciated the work done by NDH for the same.
Your advice to students based on your experience
Truly from my heart, I never give advice to anyone. I prefer giving suggestions, since everyone doesn’t like advice. So, my suggestion is first give respect & be honest to your work, second never give up and third, do hard work.
I would like to suggest to the new generation to choose a career which is more eco-friendly, heals nature and also innovative in providing quality products to the consumers.
A true success formula is “Keep trying plus failure (X times) plus hard work”. Never think you’re the only one doing the respective work. Knowledge is everywhere, you may be the first to touch that respective point but anyone else can touch upon it if he or she works constantly on it to achieve it. Thus, never stop your R&D on any field you choose, this will always makes you a front runner over others, eg. ELON MUSK. Final suggestion is never underestimate anyone in your life and try to understand your inner potential.
I love to continue my work on only natural dyes colouration and the future plan is in expanding the industry with higher production capacity and also more energy efficient process. I want take NDH to be one of the leading world class natural dyes dyeing industry in ASIA.