A community of basket weavers has been working off Triplicane High Road for over four decades. Here’s their story
Twilight set in as the village buzzed with activity. Hundreds of years ago, the ancestors of 67-year-old Baby Amma who makes wicker baskets in Triplicane, prepared for their yearly temple festival. The women cooked their best for their goddess Gowri; they were to offer it to her the next morning at her temple. But something happened that night that changed their lives. Gowri appeared before the people; she said she wanted her feast to be served on a winnow. She directed them to the thickets around the village and asked them to make winnows out of bamboo. The people agreed. They followed the practice with diligence. Every year, they made beautiful winnows for their goddess. As years rolled by, this ritual became their profession.
“This is a story I heard from my elders,” says Baby Amma, as she splits bamboo with a thick knife on the pavement off Triplicane High Road. “We believe that this is how we started making bamboo products. It all began with the muram (winnow).” It has been 45 years, however, since she weaved a winnow. “No one uses them these days. Instead, we make baskets, plates that are used to strain rice kanji (stock), smaller ones that serve as a base to make idiyappams, and sticks around which cotton candy is spun.”
The road is lined with some 10 families who make bamboo artefacts all day. They are all relatives — Baby Amma points out that they have the same roots. “There were once 40 such families on either sides of the road. But most of them have moved on to other jobs,” she says. Mother and daughter duos, couples, and parents arrive here in the morning to set-up shop.
“It takes around two hours to weave a basket,” says Lakshmi, as her hands skilfully transform cream-coloured bamboo strands into a half-moon wicker masterpiece. She sells this for Rs. 50. The base or ‘adi’ is the most important portion of the basket. The craftsperson develops the structure around it using sliced bamboo they call ‘pandha’. Lakshmi’s husband Venkatesh pays around Rs.100 for one shoot of bamboo that’s around 7ft tall. This is sliced into varying sizes based on the product.
Rani is slicing bamboo into ribbons with a breadth of a little over a centimetre. “We call these ‘suppul’. They will be used to decorate carriages for the dead,” she explains and adds with a chuckle: “The same will be used to decorate chariots for gods.” Her left thumb has a blood-stained bandage around it. “I cut my finger this morning,” she smiles. “It doesn’t hurt much, I’m used to this.”
Some of these artisans have been working here for over 40 years — they learned the craft by watching their elders at work. But their numbers are dwindling. Maheswari points out that the youngsters in her family are educated and are employed at IT firms. “Some days we make up to Rs.300; on others, we may even go home empty-handed. Why should our children have the same fate?”
Vimala comes straight to her parents’ spot after school. “I sit with them till they finish work,” she says. The 12-year-old is not being trained in the craft by her parents. Instead, she spends her evenings observing the police constables on bandobast duty from her roadside vantage. “I too want to become a police officer when I grow up,” she says.
Eighty-year-old Malamma squats on a wooden plank as she brings down a heavy knife on a piece of bamboo. “My hands can’t remain idle,” she grins. Her family’s workplace is furnished with dust-coated water pots and wire baskets from which tiffin-carriers peep out. They have just finished their lunch of rice with keerai masiyal and karunai kizhangu varuval to the accompaniment of the jarring music of passing-by cars and buses.
Despite the unpredictable income and long working hours, the craft gives them freedom, says Malamma’s daughter-in-law. “And some of us don’t have a choice since this is all we know,” she says. “Feel my palms,” she says and extends her right hand — criss-crossed with abrasions, it is startlingly calloused.