Sikki, the golden grass of Bihar, grows in the wet and marshy areas of Madhubani district. Meera Thakur, a skilled sikki artisan, and one who practises the craft as a profession, says that the grass is collected by harijans in savan (or the rainy season), and is dried by them before being sold. The grass is also sold by the traders at the weekly haat or market and by itinerant door-to-door sellers. The rate varies but interestingly, sikki is not sold by weight, but measured by the fist. A fistful comprises of between 30 and 35 split stalks and costs around Rs. 1.50. Meera learnt the craft form her mother, Gucchi Devi, who, in turn, learnt from her mother. Although Meera’s father worked alongside her mother in making sikki products, this is dominantly a women’s craft. Traditionally, and even now, sikki grass products are made by the women of the household, especially brides-to-be who take these products to their husbands’ home(s) after marriage as part of their dowry. Sikki containers and boxes, filled with dry-fruits and auspicious commodities are also gifted to daughters at the time of marriage.
PROCESS AND TECHNIQUE
Sikki grass is first cut from near its base and then dried. The upper portion of the flowering stem is discarded. Each stalk is then split into two, and these finely sliced strips are used for making the products. The technique used for making products from sikki is the ancient and time-honoured coiling method. Interestingly the actual form is shaped with munj (succharam munja), raffia grass or khar, which is much cheaper and more abundant. This provides the basic shape and gives additional strength to the product. The munj is completely coiled and covered with sikki; it is not visible through the sikki encasing. There are no specific knots in sikki-making. The only tool used by the women is a six inches long needle-shaped iron object called takua with a rounded head, made of lac, which is used to grip the needle while coiling the grass. The object being made is held firmly, while the right hand is completely free to wield the takua. No threads, cords, or any other materials are used. The sikki is lightly wet to make it more pliable as it is coiled around the munj. It is coloured by the women by boiling it in dyes to the shade that they require. Meera Thakur states that she buys the colours from the local market, where they are sold in powder or pellet form. The grass is boiled in the colour for couple of hours. The colours that are most popular are purple, deep blue, bright yellow, magenta pink, green and red, all of them combined with the natural golden to make the final product appear a complete riot of colours.
Crafting sikki products involves not only skill but also a lot of creativity. Each item is a personalised expression. There are no standard shapes or design, though pots, bowls, platters, boxes and masks are common. Innovation is rife. A brightly coloured paperweight made by Meera turns out to be grass coiled around a stone. An open-faced fruit bowl can be converted into the base for a narrow-necked, broad-based jug. The products made with sikki are not only utilitarian, but also decorative and ornamental, and often have a religious significance. For instance, Salhesh Pooja, the only festival celebrated by the Moosahar tribe in Bihar, involves items made dominantly of sikki. Large natural-coloured platters, rimmed with brightly coloured grass, and holding small boxes, lamps and fruits, all made of sikki, are used in this festival. Equally, for other religious festivals the women make the figures of the deity to be worshipped whether it be Ram, Lakshman, Sita, Ganesh, Durga Devi, Hanuman, Saraswati or Laxmi. These deities are put up in the home for worship.
The women make containers to store grain, rice and lentils, boxes to keep their clothes and jewellery, baskets to store sweets and keep betel leaves and nuts, and containers to store their masalas (spices). Sikki products are also closely connected with the marriage ceremony and the bride-to-be is given a large collection of items in her dowry. The women also craft beautiful bangles for themselves. Masks, mobiles, and other toys are made for children. For urban markets the women make coasters, hand-held fans, bowl and boxes of all types and sizes, mobiles and three-dimensional figures. Boxes with their lids made in the shape of elephant or a peacock are popular. Two-dimensional images of birds and animals, trees and figures are also beautifully crafted. The range of products, from traditional Ganesh masks to cases for mobile phones, is astounding: a slender mirror-frame was one of the very interesting items made by Meera Thakur. Some craftswomen are now experimenting and making products only in sikki grass without the traditional munj base. The products include tablemats, pencil boxes and other items that can be used in the urban home, these products have a greater delicacy and pliability and the natural colour of the sikki gives them a pale gold glow.
For several women artisans, like Meera Thakur, making sikki products has become a full-time occupation/profession. Meera and her mother both handle large orders (usually accompanied by samples). To fulfil these orders, they mobilise the women in their community into making the products. Gucchi Devi, in fact, teaches harijan women to make products from sikki, collects these from them, sells them at exhibitions and fairs to which she is invited, and then pays the women for their work, thus providing them with additional income, if not sources of livelihood. Form her base in Umri in Bihar (north India), Gucchi Devi has travelled to cities as far-flung as Mumbai (western India), Chennai (south India), and Guwhati (north-eastern India). This wide network is important since there is hardly any local market for sikki– even women who do not make sikki products for sale, craft for themselves whatever items of everyday use they need. Though most women to make and sell sikki products as a profession, they are more than willing to earn a little by making these in their spare time for women like Meera Thakur and Gucchi Devi, who organise the sale of the products crafted. Housework comes first for most of the women, who do not enjoy the kind of support that Meera Thakur’s accountant husband gives her. With a bright smile, Meera explains how he is very proud of her work and often assists her in getting invitations to fairs and exhibitions as well as in procuring orders. Neither does he mind her travelling. Although few spouses match this kind of support, Meera says that a lot of the men are keen on the additional income that their wives earn by making sikki products-as long as household chores, the home, and the children are not neglected. Meera also enjoys teaching the craft. She is paid by the state and central governments to run teaching centres, some of them a year long. Her average (net) income from sikki is about Rs. 25,000 annually. Meera Thakur and her mother hope to teach the craft to many, and to make sikki visible, both in India and internationally – a long journey indeed for a humble grass from the interiors of Bihar.