With its whimsical, artistic and functional creations, Kuppikali is giving glass bottles a new life.

Author: Ganesh Vancheeswaran

Sometime back, Abigail Rodrigues, a content developer living in the Indian city of Mumbai, realised that she had a few empty liquor bottles at home. She didn’t want to throw them away or give them to the raddiwala (someone who collects waste materials, often going door to door to do so). She wanted to repurpose them, thereby giving them a new life. An idea struck her. She contacted Nikita John, another resident of Mumbai, whose Instagram page she had been following. She’d seen Nikita post interesting designs she had created with glass bottles. These designs had caught the fancy of a number of people, including Abigail.

Telling Nikita about her bottles, Abigail asked her if she could create repurpose them into something else. Nikita said she could. And that is how, a few weeks later, Abigail received a couple of beautiful lamps and planters made from those bottles.

“I didn’t want my bottles to be just painted on. I actually want something done with them. I didn’t want something that would just be a showpiece; it had to perform a function.”

This is just an example of how Nikita, through her venture Kuppikali, is giving new life to glass bottles by upcycling them into objects of utility and aesthetic value. Across India, several people have got their glass bottles upcycled by Nikita. Upcycling is the process of converting discarded or waste objects or material into something of higher value. Planters, electric lamps of various kinds, diyas (wick lamps), matchbox holders, handwash/sanitiser dispensers, snack platters…Nikita has made a wide range of items from glass bottles. She gives each of her creations an interesting name – Pipe Lamp, Monk Head, Match Kuppi, Canvas Kuppi and so on.

Though she didn’t realise it then, the seeds of her venture were probably sown years ago, when she was about to leave home to stay in a hostel. Her sister, Neema John, gifted her a bedside lamp made from an empty glass jar. Neema had filled the jar with fairy lights that emitted a lovely glow in the dark. Fascinated by the lamp and curious, Nikita got Neema to teach her how to make such lamps and spray-paint them. “The first few lamps I made were using glass jars, as gifts for friends or cousins,” Nikita tells me. Around the same time, she noticed some liquor bottles her mum had kept aside to throw away. That was a moment of revelation. “It was like I was seeing those bottles for the first time! They were gorgeous. Their curves, tints, shapes, colours – they were too beautiful to discard.”

Nikita started making pieces of décor with those bottles and gifting them to friends. What started as a hobby in 2012 became an Instagram page in 2015, when she decided to showcase her work to the world. She named the page Kuppikali, which, in Malayalam (her native tongue), means “play with bottles”. Kuppi means bottle and kali means play. Orders for upcycled bottles started coming in through this page, but she couldn’t focus on growing her venture because of her demanding job as an advertising copywriter.

It was in end-2019 that she took a leap of faith by becoming a fulltime entrepreneur and focusing on Kuppikali. But soon thereafter, Covid-19 hit. And she had to shelve her plan of having a dedicated studio for Kuppikali. Hopefully, the fog of the pandemic will lift soon and she’ll be able to forge ahead with that plan. For now, she works out of home (“It sometimes feel like I live in a studio!”). Most of the time, her clients give her their bottles to work with. Finishing her work, she has the bottles delivered to them safely, taking care to avoid transit damage.

Kuppikali is an Instagram-first brand (page link: https://rb.gy/a8nz0l); its Instagram page is its chief window to the world. Apart from showcasing her work here, Nikita takes orders through the page. Occasionally, she shares her thoughts on upcycling and sustainable waste disposal, so as to educate her audience and spark conversations. The page now has nearly 2,000 followers, all acquired organically. Nikita says that deciding to focus on Instagram has proven to be a great decision.

Nikita sees Kuppikali as a small yet significant step towards helping reduce the burden of waste on the environment. Studies have found that it takes a million years for a glass bottle to decompose. This is far more than the time a plastic bottle takes (about 500 years). Glass can be recycled, but this process is fraught with challenges in a country like India. It includes several steps, such as the collection of bottles, breaking them down to cullets, decolourising, decontamination and so on. Apart from an inadequate capacity to recycle all the bottles in use, a big challenge is collection, which is heavily dependent on unorganised methods. As a result, only about 45% of glass in India finds its way to recycling plants. The rest goes into landfills, where it remains forever. Not just that. Recycling glass bottles consumes a lot of energy; it has a heavy ecological footprint. “So every bottle we upcycle is a bottle saved from the landfill,” is how Nikita sees it. She has about 500 bottles at home. She plans to deposit every bottle she doesn’t use at a recycling plant.

Kuppikali attracts a steady stream of ecologically-conscious clients like Abigail. Naz Dharamsey is another such client. “Wastage is a huge problem. The whole culture of letting anything go to waste bothers me. I’ve wondered how I can do something to help solve this problem,” says Naz, a Mumbai-based brand consultant. Which is why she has got a few of her bottles upcycled by Kuppikali. One of these came from Absolut Vodka’s Absolut Love collection. It had the word “love” written all over the bottle in different languages. When Nikita received this bottle from Naz, she converted it into a cute lamp by inserting a heart-shaped bulb into it. Today, the lamp adorns a corner in Naz’s home. When switched on, the word “LOVE” lights up. Naz got a few other bottles repurposed, including one of Bombay Sapphire gin. Converted into a planter with a personalised message written on it, this made the perfect gift for her husband Alekh’s 40th birthday.

Abigail says Kuppikali is not about just painting something on a bottle or tying a rope around it and hanging it from the ceiling. She likes the fact that a lot of thinking and engineering goes into the work. “The great thing about Nikita is that she has the tools to work with glass in a way that’s not easily available elsewhere. She has a creative, artistic bent of mind, but is also good with the science involved in the whole thing.”

Naz adds that, when it comes to taking requests from her, Nikita was very accommodating. That apart, she was interested in hearing the story of each bottle. This helps her bond better with each bottle, understand its uniqueness and craft something special with it. Co-creation is another of her strengths. “I’d send her an idea of what we could do with a bottle, and she’d come back with a better idea, building on what I had said.” Abigail and Naz also like Nikita’s excellent workmanship, her finesse.

Nikita acknowledges that her sister Neema has been a benign and constructive influence on her. From teaching her to upcycle glass jars in the early days to handling social media for Kuppikali today, she has been a rock of support, all along. Her father, Jainu John, has been another source of support and guidance. An electrical engineer by profession, he is the go-to person for Nikita for all things electrical, connected with her work.

Receiving a few bulk orders and being featured on several Instagram platforms have been the high points of Kuppikali’s journey. Apart from the ecological impact of her work, learning different techniques to work with glass and cracking new ideas on what to do with bottles are Nikita’s chief motivators. Her short-term plans include diversifying Kuppikali’s online presence, learning new skills and setting up an ecommerce platform. In the long run, she wants Kuppikali to become a brand that ships across the world and keeps several bottles out of landfills. 

Artsy, whimsical, thoughtful and personalised, Kuppikali’s creations have seamlessly become a part of several homes across India. They are small but meaningful steps towards an ecologically sustainable lifestyle. Naz sums it up beautifully when she says, “Don’t think because your effort is small, you shouldn’t do it at all. Or that it doesn’t matter.”

Pictures: Ganesh Vancheeswaran