Plant Material in our daily lives : Glimpses from Rural West Bengal

Since time immemorial, rural communities have creatively responded to the challenges of their environment by transforming locally available natural fibres to create a large variety of objects necessary for their survival.

The ingenuity of community artists created a great variety of natural fibre products. By interlacing strands of grass or reeds or slips of palm leaf, cane or bamboo or any other natural fibre in different ways, a thing of beauty was created, inherent in its simplicity.

The products range in both scale and form; from large architectural creations of homes and shelters, bridges and fences to smaller objects: baskets, mats, hand fans, other utilitarian products and much more.

Bamboo bridge across River Singimari in Cooch Behar – the only way to get to Sitai.

Even a child automatically picks up the family’s traditional occupation. Aranya Byadh, all of two, expertly wields a knife, to strip a bamboo. The marginalized Byadh community, also known as Bedh, are a little-known community living in the Nadia, Burdwan and Murshidabad districts of West Bengal. Originally hunters, they now try and eke out a living through basketry.

The intensely beautiful Kash flowers serve a very utilitarian purpose. In addition to cladding exterior walls of huts framed with bamboo) in regions like Cooch Behar in North Bengal, Kash grass is also used to weave baskets.

Tribals use a variety of grasses to make their attractive brooms - some use Bena grass, others Chor Kanta, the leaves of the date palm (Khejur), as well as Sar Kathi grass.

Hogla/bulrush/elephant grass is used for making rope, mats and baskets.

The renowned Shitalpati is made from Murta cane (Maranta dichotoma). Other than mats, bags and baskets are also made.

The soft madur kathi reeds which grow in the swamps go into the making of both everyday mats and the fine, textured masland mats once produced under royal patronage in Paschim Medinipur.

Unlike some regions where every field of dried harvested paddy is burnt, the Santals use dried stalks or rice straw to weave thick sturdy ropes for domestic use.

The Birhors, a nomadic, extremely poor tribe, who live in central and eastern India in the states of Orissa, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, and Jharkhand are intrinsically hunters and gatherers. They are the primary suppliers of ropes from the chihorlata vine to the peasant communities, so both groups depend on one another and have a stable exchange relationship. But the Birhors have been quite disrupted in recent decades due to deforestation and government attempts to settle them into permanent agricultural villages.

In addition to basketry and mat weaving, palm leaves together with wild seeds have also been used to handcraft jewellery.

We need to remind ourselves that there are vast numbers of marginalized artisans who solely depend on the marketability of these energy saving, eco friendly natural products for their livelihood. These are people who not only live among nature, but treat it with sensitivity and respect.

By creating a larger market, both nationally and internationally, for these products, we may enhance the possibility of survival of a decaying environment as well as positively impact the livelihood of these anonymous craft persons.

And in that context, let us also stop haggling with these artisans. We wouldn’t try that in a mall would we?