It is said that “the best teacher one can have is necessity” and no doubt, man has learnt from nature the beautiful art of inter working indigenous materials to create objects for his personal use and existence. Stretches of tall grasses growing all over the world and providing sustenance to animals, birds and insects also stirred the imagination of man who, taking a clue from innumerable examples offered by Mother Nature through the intricate weaving of nests by birds, gossamer webs by spiders, the natural criss-cross weaving patterns of branches of trees, leaves and twigs, and the intertwining of grasses and reeds, saw possibilities within the reach of his nimble fingers to use the abundantly growing vegetation to make baskets, mats, ropes and what not.
The origin of weaving can be traced back to a period earlier than the origin of pottery – one of the earliest creations of man. Archeologists claim that there is evidence for the use of woven baskets in Faiyum in Upper Egypt more than ten millenia ago. This has been a primitive folk craft common to every region – whether in hills or in jungles, in uplands or in marshes people have preserved the tradition and art of basket-weaving to the present day to meet the needs of people.
Of the lesser known weaving grasses in India, is the Sabaii Grass, scientifically called Ischaemum augustifolium, mostly found in the Mayurbhanj area of West Bengal, and in Northern parts of Odisha. When we talk of weaving grasses, what comes to our mind are the traditional ones like – willow of Kashmir and Ladakh, Kauna of Manipur, Sarkanda grass of most plains of Central and North India, Sikki grass of Bihar and Madhubani, Sitalpatti of Assam, Madhur Grass of West Bengal and Kora grass, screwpine and palm leaf of South India. These are just to name a few. There may be many more weaving grasses and techniques prevalent in some of the interior areas in the country, which are not recorded.
The use of Sabaii Grass was discovered by the British, during their rule in India. This strong and durable natural fiber was perfect for their military use, and, therefore rope making out of Sabaii grass became the occupation for some people in and around Calcutta. This craft that was promoted in jails, slowly spread to other communities as a means of earning money. But the major thrust that Sabaii grass weaving received for its commerciality, was about ten years ago, as a result of a Poverty Alleviation program by the World Bank and Ford Foundation. Now this craft provides regular employment to nearly fifty thousand people in the area.
This grass that used to grow wild is now harvested every three months, the peak season being from November to January. The technique of processing the grass to render it fit for weaving into products has been improved a lot. The grass is collected from the fields and then is boiled with some natural preservatives and sun dried on the roads. The color turns from green to ochre, and it is then that the grass is separated into various qualities depending upon the fineness. The finer, the better. The grass then comes to the market, or the mandis, where it is sold in bundles. This is then either turned into ropes, or plaited and then woven into products like table mats, or bags or floor mats. Incase of dyeing, the grass is dyed before plaiting it. In some cases, rope, too is dyed. Dyeing is carried out in the traditional method, in the degchis, and then washed normally by leaving them in the pukhri, the local domestic ponds, for a while. The dyed grass is then sun dried on the tiled roofs, a typical scene in the villages of Odisha and West Bengal.
The grass which was earlier used for making only rope, has now found its use for more attractive and appreciated products by the city dwellers, in the form of fashion bags, table accessories, floor coverings, and furniture. With the intervention of various designers and design stores, sabai grass products have found a notable place in the international window as well, giving an impetus to the craft.
But now, due to other options available, viz synthetic materials for weaving, to the local inhabitants, the existence of this craft seems to be under threat, in some areas. Also, the history and tradition of almost all crafts show that patronage of arts and crafts by the wealthy has been the main reason for their survival and prosperity. Take for example, the timeless traditions of weaving of the zari and brocade of Benaras, kaanjivarams, ikat, chanderi, and chikan. The basket weaving, on the other end, has remained restricted to communities fairly low in status, due to the very simplicity of the material and the task. And thus has never received the kind of attention that other traditional crafts have. Also, Sabaii grass weaving has a social rather than an exotic historical or spiritual context to it. This was developed as a supplement income generation for the tribal and the local inhabitants in the below poverty areas. To keep this craft skill alive, it has to be brought to people in a more contemporary fashion. Also, facing a tough competition from the south Asian countries, globally this would die out if it is not upgraded in terms of design and quality.
It will not take a tsunami wave, but our own ignorance to gnaw away the sole means of survival of half a million people in the East Coast of India, along the Bay of Bengal, who depend upon sabaii grass for a living… Let us weave a dream wherein every species has a future, every skill has respect, every pair of hands has work and every mind is creatively active…