Shashi Ahirwar cuts a formidable figure as she lets me in to her home in Bamnai village. “Two kills in two days!” she exclaims. A second-generation forest guard in the Ratapani Wildlife Sanctuary, she has been closely tracking a tiger’s movements. Her day shift in the jungle has ended, and now she prepares for her other job – running a women’s self-help group. The Bamnai village, located on the fringes of the Ratapani jungle, is home to the Barela tribal community. Shashi leads a craft initiative where tribal women make beautiful papier-mâché products in a wholly self-sufficient way.
The women gather in the courtyard of Shashi’s house and create papier-mâché elephants, turtles, masks, and lamps all from waste paper. Colourful designs adorn the walls of her home, along with certificates from the Forest Department celebrating her achievements as a van rakshak (forest guard). She pulls out a catalogue with designs and size specifications of all their products.
Formed in 2007, the group currently consists of around 15 women. They are mostly uneducated, Shashi tells me, and she is happy that they now have an alternative means of livelihood, which reduces their dependency on the forest. I had first seen their unique masks on display at the nearby Ratapani Jungle Lodge. They also display their wares at the annual van mela in Bhopal, which is a large fair for forest produce from across the state, usually held in December.
Getting There: Bamnai is 48km/80 minutes from Bhopal by road
Visit: Ratapani Jungle Lodge (54km away) can organise a visit to the village to meet the self-help group and purchase their products.
Ratapani Jungle Lodge
Address: Kolar Dam, Panchayat Veerpur Lawakadhi, Madhya Pradesh
Tariff: Starting from INR4,000 (Doubles)-; inclusive of breakfast