Sabai Grass is a fine natural fibre that has the potential to be dyed. The local people are dependent on the surrounding forests for livelihood – the collection of a variety of leaves and grasses has been their main source of income over the period. Traditionally, ropes were the only product made from Sabai grass.
The humble Sabai- found in abundance in forest fringe areas of West Bengal is now bringing about a silent revolution. By empowering village women, increasing their mobility and helping them to be independent, alleviating poverty and occupying the youth – a wave of innovation is slowly sweeping over the districts.
The grass grows in abundance in the forest fringe areas of 4 districts of West Bengal – Purulia, Bankura, Jhargarm and Paschim Medinipur. These districts have traditionally been deprived; there is water scarcity, scattered agricultural opportunities and extreme poverty. Livelihood opportunities are few and far between and the thick forest cover has effectively precluded any sustained form of industrial activity.
Rajagram is a tiny hamlet nestled within Kuchiya Gram Panchayat, in Purulia’s Bandwan block. The village has Dhadka in the North, Jhatijharna of Ghatshila (East Singbhum) in the South, Amlashol on the East and the beautiful landscape of Duarsini in the West. Mrigichami is a tiny village that lies right in the middle of a dense forest in Purulia district and is bordered by Golhuda in the North, Budijhor in the South, Barud in the East and Lukapani in the West. Paysagoda and Goyalapara are the other 2 villages under the Gram Panchayat of Barajagoda, Manbajar-II Block now a familiar name in the field of handicrafts.
In 2 small villages – Jalahari and Nadupara, in Gorabari Gram Panchayat of Khatra-II Block, the lives of the villagers has improved substantially during the past year, owing to the training and market linkage.
Mahishamura, a small settlement in Bankura district, is also known as the ‘Sabai Village’. It lies in the interiors of Ranibandh Block of the District. Nature has generously adorned these villages with trees, rivulets, water-bodies, rich forests, hills, Mango and Cashew plantations. A repertoire of alluring craft, festivals, folklore, myths and places of tourist interest blended into one, a visit to the Sabai Village -Mahishamura is worth an effort.
It is a recently carved district of West Bengal, lies between the River Subarnarekha and the state of Odisha and on its West is Jharkhand. It is part of the Chhotanagpur Plateau and lies beyond the Gangetic plains, close to the western borders of the state. The district is a Garden of Eden for nature lovers with its bountiful forests and its substantial wildlife. The area, also known as Jangal Mahal is rich in wildlife.
Chandabila, Narda, Raishol and Purnapani under the Gram Panchayat of Chandabila of Nayagram is surrounded by dense forests, these villages used to be regularly attacked by massive herds of marauding elephants. Mednipur has some ancient temples made of indrecible Terracotta designs. Tapoban temple attracts a lot of tourists for their ornate beauty. Rameshwar Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, is also in this area and the local belief is that it was built in a night using colossal chunks of stone.
Sabai grass is reaped during the Autumn. The villagers who traditionally made ropes by twining the grass are now (after Design & Skill Development Trainings) crafting beautiful home décor and beautiful utility products from the locally grown tufted grass.
Harvest,Cut and Bunch: The first step is to cut and bunch the grass. It is reaped then sun dried and then made into bundles.
Once this is done, the grass is first hand twisted and then a cycle ring is used to tighten the twists.
The rough edges are removed by rubbing it on the tree-trunks.
Some of the artisans use a twisting machine as well.
Once twisted, the ropes are then arranged into bundles.
The grass braids are handmade and the process is similar to hair braiding.
The rough edges are cut off and the braids are ready to use.
At this stage, the grass is also sorted according to its length and quality.
The craftsmen have a practice of dyeing the Sabai strands with natural and vegetable dyes. However they nowadays use Azo-free dyes to add vibrant colours to the weave. The process involves cutting the strands, making appropriate bunches, mixing colours in proportion and adding to boiling water, soaking the strands in the boiling water with the dye and then drying them in the sun.
Surrounded by dense forests, these villages used to be regularly attacked by massive herds of marauding elephants. The villagers lived a life of uncertainty. They were dependent on the forest resources for their livelihood.
With the scarcity of water, there is not enough cultivable, agricultural land and therefore cultivation does not suffice as the main revenue generator. Poverty is prevalent in these villages and migration to urban centres is very common. The difficult life here does not however deter the villagers from enjoying themselves. Indeed, the atmosphere comes alive with the beats of Dhamsa and Madal during festivals.
So far, the community mainly made ropes out of Sabai in their free time but has never explored the avenue of making diversified products with the same. It was observed that this raw material had major potential in making utility as well as fancy products. Several designers and craft retailers have expressed their interest in working with this resource as well as the community. Most of the community members worked as menial labour for income and never considered themselves as being creative and thus had no pride in their existence. Only a few eminent members had received some exposure from certain institutes as a result of previous small initiatives
It is a matter of great honour that several people from this community who could barely sign their names are stepping out of their villages, participating in fairs and festivals, earning a living as well as passing on their traditional skills to the younger generation. Mostly women who knew nothing beyond their village are far more exposed and know much more about current affairs. The whole event of them contributing to the welfare of the families has made them feel a great deal of self respect and gratitude.
The initiatives of the West Bengal Khadi and Village Industries Board (WBKVIB) – design development training and market linkage opportunities, have helped the people to come up with utility products, developed local initiatives and inculcated a spirit of self-reliance.