Fruit of labour

Pushed to the edge, Tantubai women from Bengal’s weaver community take to making bael malas to support their families, finds out Jimmy Arora

Fruit of labour

Pushed to the edge, Tantubai women from Bengal’s weaver community take to making bael malas to support their families, finds out Jimmy Arora

Jharna Lakhan, 30, was finding it difficult to run her household after her husband lost the family livelihood almost six years ago. Belonging to the Tantubai (Tanti) community of traditional weavers, for generations they had survived on handloom weaving. But as powerlooms and factories replaced traditional looms, Jharna’s husband Bachan Lakhan also lost work. Burdened with thoughts of hopelessness and glum, he began to spend time indoors at their home in Kenjagoda village of Bankura district in West Bengal, which is around 250 km from the state capital. With each passing day, it became difficult for them to run the family and manage the education of their two children.
Rather than sitting at home and cursing their fate, Jharna decided to do something to earn the daily bread for the family. Cut to the present, she not only manages her household, but also bears the educational expenses of her son and daughter.
She is not alone to have achieved economic prosperity. But thousands of villagers, majority of women, have changed their lives and gained economic freedom, thanks to a fruit which has brought a drastic change in their lives. The women are engaged in making garlands from the woody shells of Bengal quince, or Japanese bitter orange, commonly known as bael fruit in this part of the country. The fruit is eaten either freshly from trees, or after being dried while the juice is also strained and sweetened to make a drink similar to lemonade. The woody shells, which are normally dumped after extracting the pulp have come in handy to change the lives of over 8,000 villagers in Kenjagoda. Women like Jharna make beautiful garlands out of the wooden shells, “The business has changed the scenario of the village,” she says while busy making a garland at her tinned-roof house. “We belong to the community of weavers, which had virtually become bankrupt after the power looms began to emerge. It was difficult to arrange two square meals a day. But the bael fruit has given us a new lease of life and has brought economic prosperity in our village.” Her nine-year-old daughter, Arpita, also assists her in the work after returning from school. Chanda Lakhan, another artisan, says that the womenfolk were quick to learn the art because it doesn’t require much expertise, “It was an easy thing to learn for illiterate women like us in the village. We were trained for just a few days after which we began the work in our households.” She goes on to explain the art of making beautiful garlands out of the shells, “The shells are first dropped in water for a day or two which reduces their hardness. They are then taken out of the water and held tightly between the toes while small holes are drilled into them with sharp-pointed objects. The small dust particles that fall after the drilling are in a shape of tiny balls which are then pierced into the string with a help of a needle,” she says while explaining the process of making a Bael Mala as they commonly call it. The garlands are made of different lengths depending on the orders placed. A skillful artisan can roughly earn around Rs 100 a day after spending almost seven to eight hours at work, “We utilise our free time when the men are away at work and children are at school.We remain glued to work instead of wasting our time in the afternoon hours. This has helped us to contribute to our family’s income,” she adds. Villagers say that the shells of the fruit are provided by the middlemen who shoulder the responsibility of bringing the raw material and carrying the finished products. “The shells and other raw materials are supplied by the middlemen who sell the finished goods to the traders. The advantage is that the women do not have to go out of their houses to look for buyers,” says Tushar Chatterjee, member of Gosaidihi Astha Welfare Society, a non-profit that has played an important role in changing the picture of the village. “We aim to help women stand on their feet. We have created a platform for them where they can meet the buyers and negotiate the prices for the products. We are working to offer similar work facilities to people in nearby villages.” The credit for the economic revival goes to 76-year-old Saroj Chatterjee, a retired school teacher who was moved by the plight of the handloom weavers and decided to do something for them. “The village had been the home of traditional tantua community for years. But the power looms changed everything and pushed them to the brink of poverty. The handloom products were losing market and the weavers were facing economic crisis. I was moved by their woes and began to think of ways for their economic revival,” says Chatterjee, while sitting inside his spartan house. He finally zeroed upon the idea of making garlands from the shells of bael fruit as similar work was done at Shusunia village, barely 21 km from Kenjagoda. In 2013, the septuagenarian formed five Self Help Groups (SHGs) and began to organise training sessions for women in the verandah of his house. “The artisans came from Shusunia to train women in the craft. We started to train five-six women which increased within a span of few days as they desperately needed work to run their household. Soon, women from other communities, apart from Tantubai, also began to learn the art,” he says, while sounding happy to have scripted a change. The bael garlands, however, don’t have a local market and the finished products are taken to Rajasthan where they are embroidered in sarees and other clothes, “We do not have a local market and the products are being normally taken to other states. We want the Bengal government to create a market for them as the state has a huge potential for the products,” he added.

Kajal Das (30) rues that the intermediaries eat up most of their profits while leaving very little money for the workers. “We normally end up earning around Rs 100-120 per day after the grueling job of eight to nine hours. It takes two to three additional people to complete a garland. The novice earns much less as the work is time consuming and often they end up making just a single garland in a day. The work also causes strain in our eyes and leads to eyesight problems. The long hours of work takes a toll on the health causing back pain and other health problems.” She is assisted by her mother Sabitri Das (62) who helps in weaving the garland.
The artisans strongly advocate the building of clusters to enable them good price for their goods. “The clusters will help them to interact directly with the buyers. It will not only create more markets, but would also bring more profits for them,” added Tushar Chatterjee. Amitava Bhattacharya, founder of banglanatak.com, a non-profit working for the revival of traditional art of Bengal, said that he plans to make the village a tourist destination. “The village has huge potential to become hotspot for tourists. We plan to upgrade the skills of the craftsmen and connect them to main market.” As the sun sets behind the mango grooves, a thought crosses the mind that these women have already set an example for others who think themselves inferior to men and refuse to shed the patriarchal mindset by remaining confined to the precincts of their houses.

 

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