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Growing from the grassroots

Sasha is set to re-launch itself in Bangalore, to help build livelihoods and explore trade-based approaches.

IT'S THE unfolding natural fibre curtain that catches the eye at first sway. Its scalloped top with cloth trim has a delicate appeal. Its fabric-piped folds are a pleasing contrast.

The curtains, a variant on the madur or grass mat traditionally woven in West Bengal's Midnapore district, are just one of the innovations presented by Sabang mats for the Child and Social Welfare Society (CSWS), a grassroots level non-government organisation (NGO). They are on display at the ongoing exhibition at the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishat from May 3 to 9, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., initiated by Sasha, in association with 17 other affiliated organisations.

What is Sasha? The Kolkata-based organisation, launched in 1978 as the Sarba Shanti Ayog, has been working with over 160 women's groups and crafts people to provide livelihood opportunities and to revive neglected crafts and eco-friendly products. All set for a re-launch in Bangalore following the closure of its former Indiranagar outlet about two years ago, its goal is "to help build livelihoods and to explore trade-based approaches to supporting sustainable development by sourcing crafts, textiles, and herbal products from socially and economically marginalised producer groups and communities."

A case in point are the madur grass products from Midnapore from the basin of the Kaleghai river and its tributaries, a natural habitat for the Cyperus Tagetum Roxb, the botanical name for the grass. CSWS, registered in 1977, engaged itself with making mat-weaving technology less labour-intensive, and finding ways to use shorter lengths of the grass, which were often sold cheaply or burnt as fuel.

Its mat-weaving project, supported by IIT, Kharagpur, today supports over 300 women or families. The Sabang mat range boasts of bedcovers, foldable floor mats, sofa covers, wallets, roller blinds, picnic or beach mats, and unusual square table mat sets. The madur grass has come a long way from the essence of a mere mat.

Equally exquisite are the creations of Salim and Shipra, Rahmat chacha and Gouri, and others like them, who man the stalls at the exhibition. Among their ware are exquisite cane and bamboo ware from the Ramkrishna Mission in Kolkata, including intricately patterned black-and-cream modas or stool seats and low-backed chairs. Baskets and winnowing trays, containers, and wall ornaments enhance their range.

Other groups linked to Sasha display other diversities. Such as vegetable dyed saris and yardage in unusual shades from the weavers' village of Phulia in Nadia district of West Bengal, in the process of reviving its traditional natural dyes as an eco-friendly answer to the chemical dye onslaught. And deep berry red and rust knobby, khadi-textured yardage and chaddars from the tribal area of Kotphad in Orissa's Koraput district. On another wall hang reversible fine silk dupattas from West Bengal, patterned in rivulets and fish-scale like ridges by kantha embroidery.

Weaves akin to those from Sambalpur and textile lengths appear from a cooperative near Cuttack. They include a sari with distinctive vertical woven panels in primal hues, celebrating fish, prancing lions, and trellises of buds and blooms on its pallu, completed with a yellow-green rudraksha border.

Equally distinctive are intricately appliquéd multi-coloured wall hangings and pouches rich with people and motifs by women's empowerment self-help groups from Orissa's Khurda district. "They have modified their traditional appliqué skills for this craft," explains N.K. Mahapatra of Sasha Exports. "Originally, they used chain stitch, which has today been replaced by stitches unique to the craft in Gujarat." Adjacent to the partially-glazed black-edged terracotta glasses and beakers, ellipse-shaped bowls and serving ware, throng finely-crafted folk paintings on cloth and palm leaf from Raghurajpur, the craft village that draws crowds 10 km. from Puri. The hairline figures drawn in pen and ink recall mythologies and epic scenes with finesse and artistic lines honed by centuries.

By and by, the roving eye chances upon a beauty products stall. What's this? A range of herbal beauty products from Rasa (Ruro Agro Services Association), a trust launched by Sasha, in 1991. Its range includes a bamboo milk facial cleanser, an intensive care cream which contains eaglewood, olive oil, neem, deodar and basil, and a hand and body lotion derived from apricot oil, red sandal, vetiver and licorice, among other ingredients. It also has a range of gourmet spices, including Vegetable Kebab Masala and Murgh Musallam.

Like other groups affiliated to Sasha, Rasa is committed to fair trade practices and ecologically sustainable development. That explains its common ground with Anvil from Kolkata, with its sleek wrought iron candleholders and photo-frames.

The eye rests with longing on a red and green embroidered tribal chaddar on a cream ground from Orissa's Raigad district. "Traditionally, tribal girls embroidered these chaddars by hand over four to five months," explains Mahapatra. "They were given as gifts to their boyfriends."

The return of Sasha to Bangalore is a welcome phenomenon. It could spell new directions in marketing information, sharing managerial and design assistance, craft research and development, producer awareness and communications networking. That's long overdue from an organisation which "believes its success is dependent upon its relationships with artisans." What do Salim and Shipra have to say to that?


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