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Ila Sonawala – designers of stained glass works in India

Ila Sonawalat - designers of stained glass works in India

la Sonawala is one of the forefront designers of stained glass works in India. Her company, TIFFILA Stained Glass is the pioneering company in stained glass works in India as this art was almost nonexistent in India when she started in 1985.

Mrs. Ila Sonawala

Ila was born in Surat, India on January 15, 1943. Surat, then, was a small town with highly conservative values. She had her primary and secondary education in an all-girls school, taught mainly in the local language, Gujarati. She was known to be an extremely creative young woman and excelled in arts and crafts. The extended family and the local community thought that she should continue to pursue, arts and crafts like the other girls in her class. “Why does she really need to study?”, would ask some of the extended family, “She should stay at home and cook for her family and do some arts and crafts to make her home better.”

Ila, though, was extremely hard-working and wanted to pursue a professional career. Ila excelled in mathematics and sciences at a young age and her love for sciences persuaded her to speak with her parents to study science. Despite the resistance from the local community, and with the support of her parents, she joined a science college and received a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and Physics in 1963 and later pursued a master’s degree in Organic Chemistry from Gujarat University. After finishing her education, she went on to teach the sciences at S.N.D.T. College, the leading all-women educational institution in Mumbai. Ila, then, followed her husband to America after her marriage in 1967 where she continued to pursue her career in science working as a research assistant in the food & nutrition department till she had her first son.

Though she felt extremely happy with how her career was going, Ila quit her job and decided to be a full-time mother. This was a sacrifice that she still believes was worthwhile as her family is the most important thing in her life and was, even then. This is when she decided that with her artistic skills, she could do something meaningful with her life whilst being a stay-at-home mother. She had already discussed with her husband that this would be a temporary arrangement till she felt that her children did not need to depend on her at home. Ila and her husband, Kamlesh, returned to Mumbai, India in 1970. She had her second child in 1972. As a doting mother, she continued to be home and take care of both, Aashish & Nimish as she felt responsible to give them a good education at home as well as a formal education at school. The art was developed into a hobby of painting and drawing and was augmented by teaching her children at home. In addition, she continued to impact the society that she was living in by donating her time to schools run by NGOs in the city where she taught science and math to underprivileged children.

A 40 sq. ft mural of horses

In 1984, with both her children, now almost teenagers, it was too late for Ila to start a career in sciences again. But she had developed her art and ability to draw and paint beautiful art forms. Ila decided to go to America again for a period of three weeks to learn the fundamentals of stained-glass art in Portland, OR. She needed her husband’s support to go and he supported her wholeheartedly, something she says, she really appreciated as, without this, her career would not have developed. She returned to India armed with abundant inherent talent, knowledge of techniques, skills to make stained-glass art, and the drive to, finally, pursue a professional career.

20 ft. diameter dome in a foyer

Even though she had the capability to create this art, it was virtually impossible to make this in India with it because the materials which were used for doing this art form were not readily available in India, and importing all the raw materials were not allowed in India. Import duties were high, foreign exchange was not readily available and hand-carrying imported items involved harassment at airport customs’ areas. Ila started experimenting, and then, perfecting the use of Indian materials to create stained-glass works. This entailed hours of walking through the side streets of Mumbai, looking for wholesalers of colored glass, negotiating with them about pricing, and ensuring timely deliveries, which also meant having her self-contracted delivery vans. It was a laborious task.

In 1986 her hard work paid off. Ila held her first solo exhibition of stained glass works in India. This exhibition was extremely well received by the public and she followed this up with another exhibition in 1989. The latter gave her a large exposure to interior designers and architects all over India. She was written about in a number of publications, magazines, and newspapers. TIFFILA was, thus, born!

In addition to being a fabulous scientist, an extremely talented artist, and a strong businesswoman, Ila is also a great humanitarian. She decided to use this business to help underprivileged women to become self-dependent by employing them in the making of lamps and windows.

The business flourished with the largest stained-glass order in the country to make a twenty-foot-diameter dome at the home of one of the biggest business tycoons in India. This is in addition to an eighty-square-foot mural of horses in Bangalore and other small and large stained-glass works.

One of two 400 sq. ft. murals of Lord Krishna in Nathdwara

In the year 2000, she learned about painting on glass which was a relatively new technique to create stained glass art and started to create new artworks by trial and error. This involved using paints to color transparent glass and then firing the glass in a kiln, making the paints more permanent. This new technique allowed her to create a larger variety of art, where she could make objects seem more three-dimensional and allow light to flow through layers of glass creating transparency for objects like clothing and flower petals. All of this could be created at a more affordable price as India was a price-sensitive market. She learned to hone her skills in this new technique by studying videos from DVD classes. This opened up a whole new market for Ila to tap into. She made small and large panels, doors, skylights, and windows. Like Churches in Europe with their large stained glass panels, she supplied a number of panels to religious centers in India not only limiting them to churches, but also Hindu temples, Jain temples, and Zoroastrian temples. The 400-square-foot mural in Nathdwara, in Rajasthan, seen here is one such example. There are two such murals in Nathdwara. These two panels are considered one of the most outstanding stained glass works in India.

Competitors in the market have grown in number and there have been a lot of different people whom Ila has mentored who want to get into this space, but she continues to remain the leader in this space despite having to close shop for two years during COVID. She continues to produce art of the highest quality which has been noticed, not only in India but even, in the United States and Singapore.

Ila’s drive to continually expand her business is worth mentioning. She continually evolves and incorporates new techniques, blending them with known techniques in the market. This includes things like using multiple layers of glass on which she paints different textures, which gives a three-dimensional effect and depth to her painting. Furthermore, she adds semiprecious stones which she fixes on the glass in the jewelry depicted. “To be a leader in the market, one must be innovative with our products, the products must be differentiated, and they must be the best, at a price point which the market can sustain.”, says Ila, “This and appropriate marketing activities ensure that I have the competitive edge over the rest of the competitors in the market.”

Ila Sonawala’s success story is one of overcoming challenges that are incomprehensible in the western world. In times when women were not allowed to come out of the shadow of the men in their lives, she has come out shining. She credits this to the love and support of her parents, husband, and both her children in the earlier years and now her daughters-in-law and grandchildren, who support her and continually encourage her. Ila continues to believe that the family comes first and having seen her husband become one of the pioneers in the information technology age in India in the 1980s and 1990s, her children become successful businessmen, caring husbands, and doting fathers, her daughters-in-law being creative artists in their respective fields and her grandchildren – model students, she believes that she has led a life of success. Success in her family and career which has not been seen very often; she has been able to balance all of this to lead the market even now, after more than forty years in the industry.

For more information please contact:

Ila Sonawala

Tiffila Stained Glass

Email: [email protected]


Monika Wassermann is a doctor and a freelance writer based in the UK who lives with her cat Buddy. She writes across several verticals, including life, health, sex and love, relationships and fitness. Her three great loves are Victorian novels, Lebanese cuisine, and vintage markets. When she’s not writing, you can find her trying to meditate more, weightlifting, or wandering around in town.

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