Mat weaving is an age-old cottage industry in India, with references dating back to the Atharva Veda (reference to kapisu or mats from grass). Indian folklore is also replete with incidental references in which the ancient sages were offered grass mats as seating. Mats made from grasses and reeds are abundant in India, especially in the more humid and swampy areas; local variations depend on the raw materials available and on other local conditions.
The madur mats – made from the madur kathi reed (Cyperus tegetum and C. Pangorie) that grows in the swampy area around Midnapore in West Bengal – are the most popular of the mats produced in the state. The madur kathi grass from which these mats are woven grows particularly in the area around Midnapore, the coastal area of West Bengal west of the Ganges. Pranabes Das who along with his wife Saraswati Das weaves madur mats, says that the particular extent of the flooding in this area creating a particular kind of swamp condition – is what allows the madur kathi to grow here and nowhere else, for this grass needs a fairly specific amount of water. The overflooding in the three to four villages around Midnapore is not conducive to agriculture, not even to growing rice (which needs a fair amount of water). Thus, madur mats are specific to the Midnapore area.
T.N. Mukherji in his book ‘Art Manufacturers of India’ published in 1888 states that “In an artistic point of view two kinds of mats are only important, viz., those made of Madur grass and of Sitalpati grass (Maranta dichotoma). Madur mats are employed all over Lower Bengal as a bed by the middle and the poor classes. Floors of European houses are covered with this kind of mat. A very fine kind of Madur, called Masland mat, is produced in the District of Midnapore. The finer the culms of the grass are sliced the softer and the more delicate becomes the mat. It is often striped red with sappan wood-dye, and sometimes ornamentated with silk and face work. Masnad is the seat of honour amoung oriental nations, and this fine mat being often spread over other rich floor-cloths on account of its coolness, it is called the Masland mat. The culms of the sedge are sliced into fine strips by men of the Baiti caste, which their women subsequently weave into mats”.
Process and Techniques
The grass grows to a height of 4 to 5 feet. It is cut in September-October, after the monsoon rains, and is then dried in the sun, usually for three to four days. Pranabes Das explains that each strand of grass, about 2 mm in thickness, is cut into three strands with a needle. The mats are woven on a simple bamboo-frame loom. The warp is cotton thread and madur kathi comprises the weft. Finely woven mats have 40 threads (jute sutlis) in the nine inches that comprise an average hand span, while less fine mats have 18 threads worked into the nine inches that comprise an average hand-span, while less fine mats have 18 threads worked into the nine inches. Three kinds of madur mats are woven, the thick (and more comfortable) doroknu (with a double madur kathi weft), the more simple (and thinner) ekrokha; and the very fine-textured masland. The striations on each reed (pale gold, light green, dark green) are used to create coloured textures, especially on the fine maslands. Otherwise, the green of the reed slowly fades to a pale gold as it dries with contact with air or with sunlight. Occasionally, natural dyes, made of mehndi leaves and other local plants are also used to created coloured borders; however, the madur mat weavers are so dexterous at creating colour vatiations and patterns using the natural colour striation of the madur kathi reed itself, that additional dyes are usually unnecessary.
Products and Marketing
Although mats are the most common other products like bags and hats are also made from the madur kathi, often on order. A regular size mat of the three feet by six feet is made in a day and a half, and costs, on an average, Rs 100. These mats are sold locally for a variety of purposes – to sleep on, as floor coverings, and as decoration. Centralised distribution mechanisms are also in place, so madur mats are also sold in areas quite distant from where they are produced Pranabes Das says that he sells through exhibitions and fairs, and has even exported an order as far as Canada. His income is enough for his family to live on adequately. The same, he says, is true for the 30-40 families (dominantly of the Mahisya caste) in the Midnapore area who practice mat weaving as a profession. Though this craft was initially practiced more by women (Pranabes Das learnt from his sister, who learnt from their grandmother), it is now a profession for the families in the Midnapore area who earn their livelihood from it.