I am the bamboo craft of Orissa, one of the oldest crafts known to man. This is my story.
The art and craft tradition of a particular region makes for a beautiful marriage of history and geography, of philosophy and culture. Being a part of Orissa’s cultural heritage has found me a special place amidst other local and vibrant art forms.
While the state is popular for its architectural delights like the Sun Temple of Konark and Jagannath Temple of Puri, the tradition handicrafts has not been forgotten, and I am one of its most important crafts. While the traditional practices continue to thrive, there are plenty of craftsmen and organizations working to use the traditional skill set to innovate and create entirely new products that are user-friendly in today’s modern times.
If one tracks my state’s long history, under the many different rulers who have reigned over the region, the arts and crafts of the state have undergone several changes. Yet the Orissan artists’ skill and meticulousness remains untouched, unsurpassed in the world of crafts. This is especially so when it comes to good old low maintenance bamboo, which is used extensively owing to its lightness, high tensile strength, and eco-friendly nature.
I find it fascinating to consider that India is the second largest bamboo producing country in the world, with over 13 lakh bamboo artisans. But like my brothers in Kerala or the North East, Orissa’s style, quality and designs are unique in their own way. The products made from me comprise of baskets, mats, ropes, string, brooms, toys, umbrella handles, dolls, musical instruments, furniture, rice containers, fans, candle stands, trays, wall hangings, vegetable strainers and others. These can be found everywhere in Orissa, with clusters like Paralakhemundi, Ganjam, Subarnapur, Lachhipur, Biramaharajpur, Koraput, Rayagada, Kandhamal and Kalahandi being heavily engaged in the production.
In most parts, basketry is the most popular form of the craft, with innumerable types, sizes and shapes being made, depending on the use. My makers are the men of the houseful, who weave the baskets by joining grass with grass and interlacing leaves with their hands and bare minimum tools. Each district has its own unique weaving style and appearance, but at large, the conical baskets are used as carrying baskets while square or round bottom ones are used for storage.
Another local specialty are the umbrella handles made of a special variety of bamboo called muli, which usually have designs of flowers, leaves, and geometric shapes intricately etched on them.
The process of creating me is as impressive as the handcrafted product itself, beginning with the collection of raw material from the forests. Once acquired, the stem of the bamboo is cut with a billhook or Dao into sizes of the desired length. This is further cut as per desired thickness using a variety of knives. Having done this, the thick bamboo is ready to be used for framing the object being made, with the thinner strips used for designing and binding. After heating the bamboo with a kerosene lamp to make it flexible, it is bent and joined with tape, nails or stitched with other strips, as per requirement. Finally, the product is cleaned with sandpaper and polished with varnish. Carving on the product and ornamentation using paper, shells, lace, or beads is also seen in some cases.
The above is broadly the general practice, but the process also differs from product to product. In coiled basketry, for instance, the basket’s base is constructed by coiling a cane round a central core, and building up spirally. The coils are then joined together by sewing strips of bamboo. On the other hand, creating a mat or chatai is much simpler, with bamboo strips woven one after the other to produce the desired length and shape.
Bamboo has been a part of our lives since ancient times, and earlier, the tribal clans dominated bamboo to earn their livelihood. But today, it is no longer confined to the tribal market thanks to its large-scale acceptability with government intervention and a more organized crafts sector offering this alternative livelihood source.
While the creation of bamboo products is heavily for local consumption, there is a steadily growing market outside the state boundaries, which is broadening the horizon for my craft. Bamboo products are important in the indigenous economy of a rural India, and famous worldwide, much to our delight, for their combination of utility, decorative value and excellent craftsmanship.
With the increasing demand for bamboo products, the craft too is evolving. With better exposure to new trends and proper marketing channels, new styles and designs are finally being explored. Bamboo is no longer being used merely for household items but being turned into innovative modern products like furniture, lampshades, even jewelry! The elasticity and sturdiness of bamboo as a raw material itself also creates potential for new applications.
Of course, not every rural artisan has access to education on the craft and its developments. Among other difficulties, procuring the raw material itself is a big hassle for many. The seasons can also cause inconveniences, both in terms of work load and procurement. While bamboo is supplied to the paper industry at a low price, the craftsmen are charged a much higher price and permissions are required for cutting bamboo in the State. Still, it is heartening to know of initiatives like the Odisha Bamboo Development Agency, which is aimed at integrating development of the bamboo sector in the state.
Moreover, with the possibilities being opened up thanks to the shrinking of the world, and due to the ongoing crafts revival movement in India, it is safe to say that my existence is not at stake. As the amazing Bruce Lee once said, “Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.” Here’s hoping the same applies to my craft, and the wonderful people who are keeping it alive.
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