The ancient craft of basketry is alive and evolving in India as artisans handcraft a variety of functional and attr active objects.
The simple act of weaving supple slivers of grasses, plants and twigs is understood to have led to the emergence of the charming craft of mat-weaving and basketry in India millennia ago. Sourcing these materialsgrowing naturally near water bodies, in grasslands, forests and even in scrub regionsearly man is believed to have handcrafted mats and baskets. As the craft developed, an array of functional basketry objects came to be crafted. These range from containers to store and carry a variety of things as well as food; winnowing trays; netted vessels to sieve grain and to catch fish; fans for air movement; bags; headgear and umbrellas; footwear; ornaments; a range of furniture as well as beautiful baskets for ritual and ceremonial purposes and for holding gifts.
An Ancient Craft
While the origins of mat-weaving and basketry are traced to prehistoric times, there are no tangible remains of these objects due to the perishable nature of plant parts with which they were fashioned. “Museums of ethnology display shards of clay artefacts, shreds of textiles and occasionally shoes woven out of ropes made of tough grasses. Occasionally you will find a basket on display although it is actually among the oldest forms of human craft activity. While basketry has never been acclaimed or considered an important activity, it is perhaps one of the oldest and most basic crafts and is closely integrated with the daily lives of the people, spanning all classes, communities and religions. The weaver bird’s nest quite probably demonstrated to man the art of weaving both baskets and cloth” says Jaya Jaitly, Founder and President, Dastkari Haat Samiti, a national association of Indian craftspersons that promotes traditional crafts and arts including basketry.
In India, baskets have traditionally been crafted from a variety of materials. Using a knife, artisans split the material into fine strips and then coil or weave them to create baskets. Variations in the techniques (for instance, by bending the warp strands) create forms such as rectangular, square and circular as well as patterns (for instance by following different weaving types as plain, twill and herringbone weaves). The addition of handles, straps, legs, side strengthening and decorative elements, and the intertwining of different coloured strands enhance the strength and charm of baskets.
Different forms of baskets have been traditionally crafted in different parts of the country reflective of local landscape, culture, traditions and functional aspects (such as handles and corner strengthening elements). While baskets with a base that can be placed and balanced on the head are seen in the plains, conical backpack baskets that are narrow and deep and affixed with head-straps, are typically seen in hilly regions as they leave the hands free to walk up slopes. Reflective of local climate is the Kashmiri kangri that is crafted from willow twigs and has a base and handle. It is fitted with an earthen pot into which smouldering coals are placed, and is used for warming the body in the winter by placing it beneath loose clothing.
One of the most interesting baskets is the phiruk crafted in the north-eastern state of Manipur that is used for carrying fruits and sweetmeats at the wedding ceremony. It is a large basket with a square base that supports an expanding body and is capped with a domed lid. The basket has two separate weaves, one for the inner surface and the other for the patterned outer surface!
An Evolving Expression
As basketry artisans travel to cities for craft exhibitions, they experience the dynamics of city life, get an insight into urban lifestyles, meet buyers from India and abroad. All these interactions influence their craft and they use their centuries-old traditional skills to create baskets and basketry articles such as bread baskets, lampshades, magazine holders and table mats to meet the requirements of urban clients. “Today, women in Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are contemporising their works that sell at crafts bazaars and are displayed in exhibitions across the world. Innovative use of their techniques has created partition screens, jewellery, toys, lifestyle accessories in interiors and are finding a renaissance taking place in their little known skills, giving them respect and earnings for articles never considered of any value”, says Jaitly. In this way, the millenniaold craft of basketry is evolving and delighting craft lovers with its charming expressions.
Words: Brinda gill