Moonj Basketry of Eastern Uttarpradesh
EAST UTTAR PRADESH
The art of making Moonj Baskets have a history that dates back to almost a century in Prayagraj ( Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh). The craft gets its name from the Moonj and Kaasa grass - wild grasses that abundantly grow near the banks of the river Yamuna and Ganga and in and around the vast areas of Prayagraj. These wild grasses are harvested by hand and then skillfully processed to be woven into exquisite baskets.
While the Kaasa grass is available and grows throughout the year, the Moonj grass grows for only two months and it is usually harvested in the winter months ( around October- December). The Kasa grass due to its strong and stiff nature doesn’t need to be processed much and is just kept to be dried in the sun before use. It is used to provide a framework for the body of products to be made.
However, the Moonj has to undergo several phases through its processing. First, the two outer layers ( called Sarpat) are peeled off, and the inner layer is set off to dry in the sun. The dried Moonj grass is made into small knots which are locally referred to as “Balla”. To add colors to the balla, which in turn aids in the making of colorful motifs in the finished products; artisans dye it with locally sourced artificial raw color powder ( Kaccha rang). They boil the dye in a large aluminum vessel and add the knotted moonj grass to the mixture. After it has caught color it is rinsed in running water and set to dry again.
The Moonj Baskets are made using a traditional coiling method. The dried balla is soaked for a few minutes in cold water to ensure flexibility and is wrapped around the dried Kaasa to make coils. These coils are winded in a series to make the base of the basket. The same technique is used to make the walls of the baskets. To further strengthen the structure, these coils are stitched together. The Motif patterns of the baskets are created by incorporating the dyed grasses into the knotting pattern.
The process of making moonj baskets is time-consuming and laborious. It has always been traditionally practiced by women. The finished products were usually gifted to women during ritual functions and weddings. They were also used to store a variety of goods. Now, this generational craft has evolved to become a source of major income for some families. The finished products are not just limited to baskets, the artisans have gone on to adapt the coiling pattern into making various products such as trays, coasters, table placemats, earrings, home-decor items, and much more.
In the present day, other than Prayagraj, the major centers that are engaged in Moonj Basketry are Gorakhpur and Bahraich. There is an increasing demand for products made from Moonj as they are aesthetically pleasing and sustainable. Moonj products are highly durable and last for a considerable period. Furthermore, in the process involved in its making, it is ensured that no waste or byproduct affects the ecosystem. As such it is a truly versatile craft that is noteworthy.