The Crafts Council of India was once told that the crafts sector was, in fact, a 'sunset sector', that it was a shame that had no place in modern society or the future. Had the CCI given up then and showed no faith in the intrinsically beautiful Indian crafts, we might not have had an industry that not only exemplifies Indian culture and heritage but also contributes very well to the development through livelihood creation, empowering women and marginal communities, reducing India's carbon footprint, promoting peace and security and articulating cultural identity in the age of globalization.
In fact, there is no industry better oriented than crafts to contribute to all of these objectives. Indian crafts are an embodiment of a muster of experiences, cultures, economies, lifestyles and religions. Each handcrafted product is made with consciousness and has bestowed upon it the touch, energy and experience of the maker. Just like the Indian languages, cultures, societies, geography, and ethnicity, Indian crafts also reflect the magnificent diversity that we belong to and intend to nurture.
Moonj is one entrancing craft amongst the many. Passed on from one generation to the next for almost a century now, it is practised by the women in Mahewa, which is a small town in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh.
It has become a major income source for the households there and is more recreational chore than a job for the women practising it.
"I learnt weaving the grass from my mother. I also remember my grandmother made Moonj baskets. I can't concisely trace back to the time when it began, but it feels like it has been here for a very long time now." Farmida Begum
Moonj & Kaasa is the prime raw materials needed for the craft. Moonj is found in barren lands and dry soils, whereas Kaasa is found eminently on the banks (wasteland) of the river Ganga and Yamuna. It is collected by hand from there and sold in bundles to the makers residing in Mahewa.
"Kaasa is available and grows throughout the year, but Balla (or 'Moonj'), is harvested in the month of November-December (winter), and it's growing season lasts only for two months before the harvest." Farheen Bano
Kaasa grass is used to provide a framework for the body of the products being made. It is strong and stiff in nature compared to Moonj and only needs to be dried out in the sun before it is ready to use.
On the other hand, Moonj is coiled around the Kaasa grass, is softer and more flexible and is responsible for endowing to the weaved products their durability and overall look. Unlike Kaasa, it has to be taken through a number of phases throughout its processing. The makers first peel the two outer layers (called Sarpat) of the Moonj grass and set the inner layer off to dry in the sun for more or less a week. Once dry, this layer of the grass is added to a large vessel filled with water, set to a boil. This is also when the dyes are added if the grass needs to be given a different shade than the one it naturally has. After the water comes to a boil and the grass has caught the colour, it is removed from the vessel and washed in running water, then once again, set to dry.
Later, each grass is loosely looped into a knot and added to a bucket filled with water just before it is weaved. This increases the grass's softness and flexibility.
"The harvested Balla that we buy has three layers. We remove the outer 2 and call it Sarpat, and use the one left called Moonj. This is also where the craft has gotten its name from." Taj Bano
The wild grass is now ready to embark on its journey to a work of art.
"My parents never had any sons to rely upon, only daughters. Alongside our education, we spend some of our afternoon and evening working with Moonj, and I am glad just because it is existent." recollects Farheen Bano
Something appreciable I came across from the many visits I made to this community of makers in Mahewa is that every single one of them is a woman who is supporting the livelihood of her family entirely by the skills she has procured with her care and efforts. Not just that, the process involved does not ensue any waste or byproduct that at all affects the eco-system in ways that could be hazardous. In other words, one can say it is a combination of easily and abundantly accessible raw materials with skill sets passed on from one generation to the next.
The women weave (coil, twin or plait) beautiful baskets, coasters, table placemats, casseroles, trays, home decors, and so much else. They employee floral and symmetrical designs and use an array of colors like shades of blue, green, yellow and red combined with its beautiful and subtle natural shade of cream. They require a pair of scissors and a Sirahi, which is a needle with a wooden handle, as tools while weaving.
With an amalgamation of design and craft, there is no doubt that these works of art can be further curated to satisfy current society's needs. Not only that, every handcrafted work brings us to the doorstep to the lives of those who are closer to nature, culture and the heritage that we belong to. It brings us a step closer to sustainable practices that aid in the development of the livelihoods of the many makers and recognizes and adds value to every single piece of work that the makers devoted themselves to.
If sustainability and replenishment is the need of the hour, then Moonj craft is one practice that brings us closer to sufficing that need.
Let us all not just talk about sustainability and development.
Let us all, also walk a step closer towards it.
Let us all, also do it.