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Handicrafts, made of bamboo, are yet to catch on
Lata Medar sits on the floor in a room in Boiwada. There are stacks of paper toasters, plates, placemats, trays, lampshades, dustbins and hairclips, all made of bamboo, placed at one side. She belongs to the Medar community as do her colleagues Rupa and Vijaya. With the help of the NGO, Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA), they have set up a co-operative to make and sell bamboo products. So far, there are only five volunteers even though when you step outside, there are 200 families of the Medar community living nearby. The Medars, who are originally from Karnataka, have been bamboo weavers for generations but they only make fish baskets. The community fell into hard times when plastics entered the market in a big way.
“It is a conservative community,” says Rohit Shinde, field convenor for Chaitanya. “The womenfolk are supposed to stay inside. It was with great difficulty that we managed to convince the parents of these girls to send them here.”
Before these girls started making these products, they received training from the Industrial Design Centre (IDC) at the Indian Institute of Technology, Powai. “They are trained to make bamboo strips in uniform size, using small gadgets like width sizer (a small machine),” says Prof. A.G. Rao of the IDC. “Following that is the treatment of the bamboo. This is done by boiling bamboo strips with borax, boric acid and alum. The idea is to prevent insect attacks and fungus.” Training is given on the use of moulds, which can give exact shapes and they are also taught quality control. “For example, if a strip is bad, they will not throw it away,” says Rao. “The whole product becomes a waste, because of the poor quality of just one strip.” They learn how to estimate the materials required for a product and how to use colouring with natural dyes like haldi, katha and tea. “We have also introduced them to the concepts of packing, modularity, transportation and costing,” says Rao.
The products have been kept in shops in Colaba, Dadar and Bandra. “The sale has been consistent,” says Bejoy Davis, programme co-ordinator for YUVA. “People have liked the products.” Asked about what problems the cooperative faces, he says the cost of the products are high because it is made by hand. “It is only a small segment of the population that accepts bamboo as a handicraft option. But in places like Colaba, people are not worried about the price but the quality.”
Rao has been involved with the propagation of bamboo craftsmanship for the past 20 years. He has travelled all over the country conducting workshops where tool kits and other supports are given to the participants. As he takes me around the workshop where various products are up on display, I express shock at the prices he mentions: Rs 150, Rs 200, Rs 300, all the way up to Rs 800. Seeing my reaction he says, “Nowadays, people don’t mind paying Rs 200 for a pizza. We should not look at handmade things as a cheap alternative. It has to be seen as a cultural asset. If we pay low prices, these craftsmen will not survive.”
Suitably chastened, I nod quickly in agreement. “What we are finding is that the market is there but we are unable to supply the requisite number of items,” he says. Rao tells the story of how, for a seminar, an official wanted a supply of 1000 bamboo pens. “We did not have so many pens in storage.” On another occasion, when he was in America, he met an Indian businessman who sold gift packs of perfumes. The professor suggested to the businessman he could put the perfumes in bamboo baskets. The businessmen agreed and immediately placed an order for 2 million baskets. “I looked at him amazed and he said that I had a lot of ideas but I needed to organise myself first before canvassing for orders,” says Rao, with a smile. “The irony is that sometime earlier, I was in Tripura and the craftsmen were complaining they had no orders and here I had an order for 2 million. So this is one gap, which has to be bridged.” To that end, he is planning to set up a company and like most people, he realises that salvation lies abroad. “There, they value handmade work,” he says. “In Europe, they no longer want industrial, mass made products. The world over, they are looking for bamboo items. Small countries like the Philippines, which is just the size of Orissa, exports $1 billion worth of baskets. We need to innovate and organise ourselves.”