As I was strolling past the myriad stalls at a recent handicrafts fair in Kolkata, I overheard a saleswoman explaining the merits of ‘sitalpati’ to a customer. Curious I drew closer and found the customer holding an overnight bag in her hand; it was made of shitalpati indeed. In the 1970s, when an air conditioner in a middle-income Bengali home was an avoidable luxury, I recall my grandmother rolling out a ‘shital pati’ during summer and urge us, her grandchildren, to sleep on it. Now, several decades later, I cannot say for sure if it was the ‘cool mat’ or her power of storytelling that put us to sleep during those hot summer nights. But the smooth and silky feel of the mat remained etched in memory.
A traditional craft from Cooch Behar in West Bengal, the sital pati is woven from the ‘muthra’ reed (Marantha Dichotoma). The green cane is soaked in water and then sliced into thin strips for making the ‘pati’, which is then woven in an interlacing pattern. The quality of the mat is determined by the fine texture of the pati and the smoothness of the weave. The mat was a common household item; used as a floor covering for sitting or lying down.
But like many other traditional crafts, the sital pati would also have faded away if it was not for some timely interventions, showing the craftspeople how to adapt their craft to suit modern tastes. Apart from making the regular mats, they now make bags with these mats -- purses, totes, office bags, overnighters, etc.
West Bengal is also home to another variety of mats, known as ‘madur’. In the earlier days, whenever a guest came home, especially in rural Bengal, it was customary to immediately roll out a madur for the guest to sit on. Once a flourishing cottage industry in the former Midnapore district of West Bengal, only a handful pursue it today. The madur is woven from a local reed (known as ‘madur kathi’) found in the swampy areas. Here the weave is different with cotton threads used as warp and madur kathi used as weft. This makes the mat more pliable and foldable. It was again the urge to survive that compelled the craftspeople to innovate and they now make table mats, table runners, curtains, wall hangings, letter holders with the madur.
My next stop at the crafts fair was another stall from Paschim Midnapore district. A young couple, oblivious of the crowd’s attention, wove and moulded into shape strands of dry grass. Hair clips, bangles, boxes and trays, plant holders, decorative pieces, they held forth an immense range of handcrafted items.
It was at the fair that I came across the ‘dhokra’ (not to be confused with the metallic dokra) for the first time. Basically, weaving of jute-based fibres in a rudimentary loom, this was a speciality of the women of the Rajbanghsi community of South Dinajpur district. The men are not allowed to weave. Here too, the women have learned to devise various products from the woven textile to stay ahead of the competitive curve – sling bags to totes to mobile holders, mats, throws, etc.
With craftspeople from nearly all the districts of West Bengal exhibiting at the fair, my bags were already overflowing with bric-a-bracs. But it was too much of a temptation not to stop at the stall selling products made of buffalo horn. The shiny black products, with a hint of brown here and there, ranging from decorative pieces to utility items, had already attracted a lot of crowd. Young students cleaned off the hair accessories even before I had a look at them. So I grabbed at the cutleries, especially the various designer spoons. Perfect surprise gifts for friends.
But there was one complaint that most craftspeople voiced – how to beat competition from mass-produced and Chinese artefacts. Handcrafting each item to perfection is a time consuming job and increases labour costs, which, in turn, increases the selling price. The younger generation is not attracted to these dying arts and crafts and senior craftspeople fear the skills will die with them.
Sadly, while we talk about using eco-friendly products to rid Mother Earth of plastic, these rural handicrafts, which could have reduced the use of non-biodegradable products in our daily lives, languish in anonymity.