Northeast craftspersons are touring the country to introduce their work to a wider audience

The sun visits their land before it touches the rest of the country, their trees stand outnumbered by their bamboo shoots, their lives revolve around the handicraft skills passed through the generations, and their memories evoke the insurgencies in their pasts. Northeast craftspersons Irungbam Becha Chanu, Sujit Biswas and Swapan Kumar Dey have been touring the country with several others to introduce their craft to a wider, eager market. Here in the city till April 1, they speak about their crafts, lives and issues.

Women do it

“There are 36 varieties of bamboo in the Northeast region and each has a specific strength and use,” says Becha Chanu, who was taught how to convert their traditional kauna grass mats into handbags, slippers, flower vases and baskets by a local NGO. Today, Becha Chanu employs 10 girls from her village Pungdongbam in Manipur in the unit she runs at home. Together they make anywhere between Rs. 30,000 and Rs. 50,000 in a month. “In Manipur, many women go to work while their men do household work and take care of the children,” she says, adding that the rampant drug abuse in the region might be at the base of this role reversal. Manipur also has the renowned Nupi Keithel, a market run solely by female vendors. The grass from the village Langmei Thek, she says, is the best in quality. Bought in bulk to last the entire year, each bundle of the grass costs Rs. 200.

The makeover

Though Swapan Kumar Dey from Dubapara village and Sujit Biswas from Sital Tilla village can trace their roots back to West Bengal, their families migrated generations ago to Assam and Tripura respectively. “Around 300 families in my village make handicraft items from Sital Patti, a type of grass that every family grows on its own patch of land,” says Swapan Kumar. Sital Patti, known for its cooling properties, has been traditionally woven into mats and with every family making its own stock the mats weren’t very popular or profitable, he says. “It was only after the design engineers from the Department of Handicrafts came along with new ideas that our Sital Patti mats were stitched into bags and indoor decorations.” Swapan Kumar’s family make around Rs. 10,000 per month selling their products wholesale, and they also sell their products at exhibitions across the country.

Venturing away from the regular handicrafts that are made out of bamboo, Sujit Biswas’ village carves faces out of bamboo roots. “We begin carving when we are small kids and by the time we are around 14, most of us can complete a whole face,” says Sujit. The regular carvings include tribal faces, Naga faces, Shiva-Parvathi, Ganesha and Tagore. The craftsmen use an extremely sharp knife that is, according to Sujit, available only within Tripura. “We use mature bamboo roots which cannot be carved without being softened by soaking in water for about 15 to 20 days,” he says. Since bamboo is everywhere, most of the families in the region work with it, though a few have started working at rubber plantations that have sprung up recently.

Stymied, yet real

While the insurgency has become a distant memory for even the elders in the villages of Sujit and Swapan Kumar, Becha Chanu continues to face economic blockades and strikes that hinder the movement of people and goods in and out of Manipur. “There is no other way to enter and exit Manipur but through Nagaland and that’s the reason why there are problems,” she says, “and often there would be a strike by the time you leave a market, though there wasn’t one when you came in.”

The craftsmen have displayed their handicrafts at exhibitions held at places like Chennai, Vellore, Madurai, Vishakapattnam, Hyderabad, Thiruvananthapuram, Goa, Delhi and Bangalore among other places.