> Development > Handicraft  
Dr Roli Misra and Parvin Sultana
Date of Publish: 2015-12-31

Assam’s ‘cool’ craft


A peek at the exquisite sitalpati craft of Goalpara, now in need of a fresh lease of life


Dubapara is a small village in Assam’s Goalpara district. But its ‘smallness’ is easily overshadowed by its highly artistic people. The village is home to the exquisite sitalpati weavers. For the initiated, sitalpati (literally,cool mat) is a mat woven from thin reeds that grow on marshy and water-logged areas, a fine skill apparently brought to the belt by the British from neighbouring Bengal which, over the decades, has become a proud addition to the bouquet of the State’s crafts.

These mats are a one-of-a-kind variety not only for their excellent motifs, natural texture and the ability to act as a cooler alternative to traditional beddings in summer time, but also because weavers follow an indigenous procedure to make them.An unusual feature is that the colours used in the mats do not have any chemical compositions and are carefully prepared from the seeds of tamarind leaves, hibiscus flowers among other natural things.

Since the beginning, the production of sitalpati has been purely a cottage industry in the district. Generally, men prepare the reed slips while women do the weaving. In Dubapara too, we typically find women engrossed in weaving mats of varying sizes.

One such weaver is 65-year-old Kalpana Dey. Besides making mats, she also makes bags and mobile covers from the mats, an attempt by some weavers to add innovation to the craft to meet the present-day market demands.

Kalpana says if two women work together the whole day, they can finish weaving a mat in a day for which they are paid Rs. 35 each. It is certainly much less than what they can get if they bypass the middlemen who come to collect their finished products to sell them in the local market. But they typically don’t do so as it is difficult to break the well-oiled linkages of middlemen with the market.

“Mat weaving involves a lot of meticulous work but the profit for the weaver is very little. The middlemen take away most of the profit. I had two bighas of land which I mortgaged with a bank for a loan of Rs. 80,000 for some work but I have not been able to repay it through my job as a mat weaver,” she relates her life as a professional mat weaver. Frequent floods destroy the reed plantation too, adding to her woes.

Walking around Dubapara gives a clear picture of the state of the craft today. It brings us close to heart-rending individual and collective efforts at keeping mat-making alive in this artisan village but also bares open the urgent need to link the weavers to better markets to give a bigger boost to the craft.

We meet 58-year-old weaver Ranjit Kumar Dey, a National Award winner (2002). Dey has visited countries like Thailand, France, Sri Lanka and England to display his sitalpati art. A winner of the Seal of Excellence by UNESCO in 2004, he has been a part of guru-shishya-parampara scheme (a scheme  initiated by the government where the participants are taught the craft)  through which he passes the expertise to the younger generation of artisans. Along with son Prasonjit, he runs a reed farm to produce the raw material for the craft.

Though sitalpatis don’t fetch much money in the local market, Dey knows they have a demand outside the State. While Bengal also produces sitalpati, the reeds in Assam are softer which helps weavers produce quality better mats. These positives, however, don’t take away Dey’s worry about the future of the craft in Goalpara.

“It is a time-taking craft. One person can’t produce more than seven mats in a month. Since their demand is only in summer, they don’t fetch money throughout the year. Also, because a piece costs about Rs.800 in local market, it is usually made as per order so that they have less shelf life. And then, lack of innovation, no governmental thrust on export and to provide the weavers a market for the entire year, are increasingly dissuading youngsters away from taking up the craft as a profession,” he says. The youngsters’ waning interest in the craft is leading to shortage of labour. Dey though adds that his son, an engineer by training, is keen to take it up in a commercial way “so that he can set an example for other youths in the area.”

Individual initiatives aside, a collective effort to keep the craft going in Dubapara is seen through Goalpara Patishilpli Pratishthan Samabay Samiti Limited, a cooperative society formed in 1952. Govind Nandy, the Samiti secretary, says 150 weaver families are registered with it as members who pay a nominal annual fee. The Samiti owns 56 bighas of land where it grows reeds. The reeds are equally divided amongst the members who deposit the final products to the sale counter of the Samiti. After keeping a small amount of profit, it divides the money among the members.

Sridaam Nandy, a weaver, has been benefiting from the Samiti sale counter. Sridaam says the mats are in high demand during the melas in nearby areas because of their affordability. Also, with many Muslims occupying the chars or low lying areas along the rivers in Goalpara and surrounding areas in the last few years, the popularity of the mats has gone up. “They like to use it for namaz,” he says.

According to Sridaam, Britisher John Graham came to Dubapara in 1950 to operate a sugar mill. After seeing the reeds growing wild, he brought a man from Kolkata who was an expert in mat making. The man taught the skill to the locals, who took it up as a means of livelihood. The village residents are mostly Kayasthas, a caste not otherwise traditionally known for taking up a craft as a profession. 

The reeds that produces the sitalpatis are called Murta (clinogynedichotoma),which typically grows in marshy areas and need three to four years to mature. Murtas have no visible joints, which makes them ideal for pati weaving.

The process begins with washing of Murtas with sodium bicarbonate. After washing, they are first spread out in the open to dry and then divided into equal halves lengthwise with the help of a dao(billhook). The divided halves are subdivided into four splits of equal length and breadth. The boka (soft inside portion) of the slips are chopped out with the help of a chip (a chopping tool). This process is locally known as aushani (planning). The next step is nawkhani (sizing) in which all the pieces of the splits are sized to equal breadths throughout the whole of their length. A pati is generally woven in twill or chequered patterns with slight variations here and there.

Colouring of the splits is done with indigenous methods. White (ivory) is obtained by boiling the splits in water. To get different colours, the splits are dipped in bhatar-phen (the juice of the boiled rice), mesh of amrapatafowers (hibicussafdariffa) and tamarind leaves.To get black, the splits packed into bundles are wrapped in the barks of mango trees and kept under mud for about seven days. Only to get red do the weavers boil the reed splits in water mixed with Mezenta, a kind of chemical dye.

Five qualities of sitalpati are available in Goalpara market. They come in different sizes, such as 7 x 8 feet, 4.1 / 2 x6 feet and 3.1 / 2 x 6 feet.

Sridaam says nearly 200-300 Murtas are needed to produce a single pati. But procuring them is not as easy as before. While floods wash away the Murtas many times, the scarcity of land to cultivate the reeds because of increase in population has also affected the craft. At times, the weavers have to procure Murtas from Dibrugarh in Upper Assam. “But the price of a mat can’t be increased in relation to the overheads. The middlemen don’t agree to it. In such a scenario, the weavers suffer because they are not directly connected to the market,” he points out.

Both Dey and Sridaam echo what Kalpana states to us, “The cost of living has increased over the years; the income from the pati weaving can no longer sustain even the most simple of a lifestyle.” In such a scenario, only time will tell what awaits the future of the craft.

Dr Roli Misra and Parvin Sultana

( Dr Roli Misra teaches Economics in D.B.S College, Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. Her interest areas are Gender and Migration.  Parvin Sultana is working as an Assistant Professor in P B College in Gauripur, Assam. Her research interest includes Muslims in Assam, Development and the Northeast, Gender etc.)


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