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Sweeping in Change

Craft, Handloom, Art

Sweeping in Change: The Broom-Makers of Madhya Pradesh

Sethi, Ritu

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As one travels across the highways and byroads of the country the  trees, plants, grass, fruit and flower change according to climate and topography, soil and rainfall. As we zip along we tend to forget that even vegetation that appears to be a wild, unkempt or waste  provides food, fodder, medicine and employment to those who have a knowledge of the properties of plants. The variety and uses of wild and cultivated plant matters and its use to thatch homes, build fences, feed livestock, make mats, fashion products from furniture, toys, jewelry to brooms and other innumerable uses is a time honored and enduring practice across the country.

The craftsperson’s knowledge and their judgment ontensile strength, adaptability and durability transforms plant matter into structural constructions and shapes that form part of everyday life and living. Expressed with immense diversity by the many communities involved in the making craftsperson’s with their innate understanding of the properties of terrain specific species and their skills in handling the raw material using the most basic of tools translate the vegetation into objects of utility, strength and beauty.

Recently the most modest of grass and leaf products – the broomstick – has been in the news with the levy of the GST tax on it. While the GST has been levied on a diverse range of handmade crafts and textiles I have chosen to pick out and speak of the humble broom as its making represents in a microcosm what lies at the very core of the word of handcrafting.

From the in-depth knowledge of the material and its possible applications, the no-wastage mantra, upcycling and recycling of what others may considered waste to its skillful dexterous crafting using the most minimal of tools. In additionitsmany adaptations to suit usage from dusting, outdoor and indoor cleaning to its magico-ritual aspects that are deeply ingrained in regional beliefs and customsthat include its use as an instrument to banish evil spirits and demons to its creating spotless spaces thatwelcome the Goddess of wealth and prosperity. The broom is furthersubject to taboos that include the oft repeated one of never walking over it (for some unspecified reason);  are just some of the many reasons for my choice.

While the commonly used flowered-broom/phul-jhadu (Thysanolaenamaxima ) is commercially made on a large scale it is  in villages across the country wherewomen, usually belonging to the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society, supplement meager household incomes by making brooms. Hawked by local vendors at the most nominal of prices the women remain vulnerable to not only low prices for their hard work and the pervasive substitution by plastic machine-made brooms but now additionally by being taxed.

Made-up of locally available waste grasses and leaves likethe flowering ends of wild plants, dried coconut leaves, spliced bamboo tosweet cane/Munj grass ( Saccharummunja)  in Madhya Pradesh the leaves of the Date-palm or Khajur tree (Phoenix dactylifera)is the preferred leaf. A tree known since antiquity it is believed that the world heritage city of Khajuraho derived its name from the date-palm, similarly named the town of Chhindwara or the abode of palms lies in Satpura, Madhya Pradesh.In villages where the Khajur tree is a cash crop that sustains the agriculturists the leaves of the Khajur   sustains communities of  women who gather the branches, dry the leaves, and fashion them into the most charming brooms.

The leaves are sourced from the surrounding forests and are collected in the dry months of the year usually from October to April. The tools are basic and include a knife and a sickle/ darati that is used to cut the leaves of the central branch. The leaves are dried in bright sunlight for at least a week to ensure that all moisture is drained. Once dried these now pale greenish-gold leaves are then beaten flat and each leaf painstakingly split into thin strips. This splitting or chirna is engineered with a thin, needle sharp tool, the chirni. The leaves are then grouped according to their length and bunch of even lengths segregated. These are bundled together and tied securely with a leaf-strip that is wrapped liked bangles several times around the bundled leaves and firmly knotted. A strong knot ensuring that the broom remains usable for a longish period of time. Brooms can be in sizes from between two feet and two and a half feet in height and dusters can be in lengths of 6’’ to a foot.A variety of designs decorate these brooms  additionally serving to further strengthen them from date-palm leaves in the shape of a tulip that hide the ungainly knot with an added lace-like patterning to handles that are gaily tied with coloured thread. For further decoration nylon cords of varied colours are used to hold the leaves together.

Craftswomen like KantaKharse of GramPindira, Tehsil – Nainpura inMandlaZillasell their products in weekly haaths/village bazaars and sometimes get the opportunity to move out and travel to urban fairs to find new markets for their most modestly pricedproducts. But they need more. They and others like them need a change in our perceptions and in our manner of seeing. They need recognition of their skill, expertise and knowledge as these and other humble broomstruly invitethe labels of heritage, traditional,sustainable, recycled, waste management, creativity, handmade and craft.

First published in the Sunday Herald.

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