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Mahalis of Birbhum – the tribe that weaves bamboo wonders

27 May, 2021 10:15:39
Mahalis of Birbhum – the tribe that weaves bamboo wonders

In ancient times, the region that constitutes Birbhum now, was part of Rarh region (land of red and laterite soil) and a fringe area was in Vajrabhoomi (land of the thunderbolt), which was the eastern part of Chhotanagpur Plateau. It was in 1798 when the British formally set up Birbhum (‘Bir’ meaning brave and ‘Bhum’ which means land), the land of the brave. ‘Bir’ in Santhali means forest, so this could have been derived from Santhali language as well since the Santhal tribes have been living in this tract since pre-historic times.

About 25 km from Siuri, is a small hamlet Kochuighata, home to Mahali tribe. Locals identify the village as Mouli Para. The Mahalis originally hailed from Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh but relocated to Bengal and since then, have been living there for generations. The word ‘Mahali’ is derived from the Santhali word, ‘Maad’ (bamboo).  In India, basket weaving is an ancient art. Indigenous communities developed special shapes and patterns of baskets based on their local traditions, needs and techniques.

The Mahalis are artisans and craftsmen who have been excelling in bamboo craft. They have been weaving bamboo baskets and other household items including items like mats, kulo, Jhanpi etc. Their conical baskets are used for carrying and square or round bottomed ones for storage. The jhanpi is a traditional sun-shade that continues to be the most well-known of bamboo items. Kulo is a bamboo tray used for separating chaff from grain and also used in almost all traditional Bengali festivals and occasions from wedding to pujo, from rice ceremony to Jamai sasthi. The Mahalis are equally adept at making stunning and innovative bamboo craft items. 

There are sub-classes among the Mahalis based on their area of specialization and include Banshpada Mahali, Patar Mahali, Ghashi Mahali, Salyunki Mahali, Tanti Mahali, Munda Mahali, Oraon Mahali and Kol Mahali. Although their mother tongue is Mahali, which is very similar to Santhali, they are apt at adapting the local language and speak fluently in Sadri, Mundari and Bengali. Although the Mahalis celebrate their specific tribal rituals and festivals that include offering prayers to Borpahari and Manasa Devi, they are Hindus. Through generations, the Mahalis have relocated to different parts of the country over generations and have been flexible to changes, blending with the local culture, rituals and language.  

As you enter the Mouli Para locality in Kochuighata, you will see both males and females are preoccupied dabbling with bamboo. The production of cane and bamboo articles involves the cutting of whole stems with a hack saw and slicing them into splits of various sizes using a bill hook or dao. Men usually handle this. The bamboo is then sliced longitudinally along the length of the densely packed fibres. Some are seen heating the cane on a slow fire for flexibility. 

The craftsmen make objects in two different forms: some coil bamboo and cane for baskets and some weave painstakingly for mats. In coiled basketry, the foundation of the basket is built first by coiling a cane round a central core. It is built up spirally and gradually the width is increased until the desired height is attained. The coils are joined together by sewing strips which can be attached in two ways: each stitch passed over the new portion of the foundation coil. Thus coil material is sewn with the strips and a basket is made. Even the kids hover around their parents and playfully get their early training from the experts.  

There are about 10 to 15 families, engaged in this craft. The Mahalis work in the agricultural sector for sustenance and hold on to their traditional craft. Phoolrani Mahali, an expert bamboo craftsperson says, “People admire and praise the bamboo products made by us. People from the cities also appreciate our craftsmanship. We make bamboo items not just as a means of livelihood but also because we love the craft. It gives us a feeling of fulfilment because we are keeping alive an ancient indigenous craft form through our work.” 

Leading artisans are making diversified products which are marked by finesse and have good market. The craft has huge potential as it is eco-friendly, presentable, relatively cheap and light weight. However, due to lack of supply of raw material and easy availability of substitutes like plastic, the demand for bamboo products in the national and international market is quite low.

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