Basketry is as old a craft as perhaps pottery, practised by communities across the world using a variety of techniques and an array of materials. A typical basket is made of grass, and tightly woven into beautiful patterns using bright colours. These baskets (and other woven items) find use across homes for storing chapattis, flour and various grains as it offers a much needed air-tight storage (especially, when done in the ‘Bhadohi’ weave). In India, different states including Punjab, Bihar, Kashmir, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, the North-East states, Bengal and of course, Uttar Pradesh are home to this craft.
‘Moonj’ of Allahabad
Having spent my formative years in Allahabad, I have a soft spot for this place and for the purposes of this post, I will begin my basket sojourn from here. Allahabad (and its neighbouring areas), along with Bhadohi, Gorakhpur and Behraich in India have a tradition of making baskets out of a monsoon grass called ‘Moonj‘. This ‘Moonj’ is harvested in the winter months and then it is left out for a few days for drying. The dried grass has a much lighter colour too, which makes it easier for it to take on other colours for the end-product. Using basic hand techniques and very elementary tools, stunningly beautiful ‘Moonj’ crafts are created mostly by the women folk. Tradition calls for the mother to pass this skill and associated techniques to her daughter.
Social aspect of making ‘Moonj’ baskets, boxes & trays
A family house help was telling us tales about how her and the women in her home, weave baskets whilst simply chatting and relaxing with family over chai; using natural dyes in ‘karahi’ in the house and just creating hundreds of pieces. She bought over a couple of pieces to show how the ‘neatness quotient’ was better in the ones she had done compared to those of her in-laws…nothing wrong with some good competition, I say!
The ‘Hows’ of creating a ‘Moonj’ craft
Let’s have a look at how some very ordinary wild grass is turned into the most beautiful object for home. Read and give it a go (well, if you can get hold of this wild grass, that is!):
- The picked ‘Moonj’ grass is dried first
- You choose a colour (a raw colour ). Worth noting that red and green appear to be the most popular colours
- Boil water at a high temperature in a container (typically large aluminium vessels are used) and then the raw colour is added
- The dried grass is now coloured in the above mixture
- The coloured grass is then dried in the shade (away from the sun!)
- ‘Moonj’ is the outer layer of the grass which is peeled and knotted, that is made into small knots referred to as ‘Balla‘. Infact, I believe that in some places the craft itself is referred to as ‘Balla’
- The motifs in the product are created by adding coloured grass in between (cleverly woven)
- The next step is Coiling but before this can be done, the ‘Balla’ has to be made flexible and this is achieved by soaking it in cold water for hours
- Both ‘Kaasa’ (another wild grass) and ‘Moonj’ are used for Coiling, and the coil is then used to make the base of the basket, after which the sides of the basket are made, using exactly the same technique.
- All the coils are then neatly stitched together and if the handles (if at all used) are stitched with grass!
‘Moonj’ in pictures
Quite a few steps, for something that serves as a recreational and a social activity too! I am in awe, are you?
How environment-friendly, how natural the whole process is! Why can’t we get more of these? Maybe, something can be done to give these artisans a better price for their skill… Have a look at some ‘Moonj’ crafts:
Not so long back, there was an initiative by IIT, Kanpur to help revive this craft. Read about it, here. I wonder if it is still alive..If you know of anyone, or you are associated with this basket weaving craft, then do let us and the crafting world know.
Please do your bit to revive crafts…Be Notjustashopper!