Monday, April 22, 2013

Bamboo Crafts of Bengal

The long and lithe bamboo plants have
lent grace to the natural beauty of
Bengal. Our poets have sung of their
charm and elegance in lyrics and ballads. No
rural landscape of Bengal, nay south-east Asia,
have ever been complete without those quaintly
pleasing plants and their green leaves through
which winds blow, rains splash and sing metallic
Bamboo, botanically known as bambusa,
belongs, paradoxically enough, to the family of
humble grass, graminae. But what is more
amazing about this plant is the diverse role it
plays in the service of mankind, although it
grows in utter neglect.
One can find it everywhere either in its useful
role in a frugal household or rather uselessly
as showpiece in exhibitions and in the abode of
the rich art lovers. The writer tenders his
apology for emphasising on the latter role but
takes this opportunity to add, as Oscar Wilde
puts it, all art is useless.
Like a true friend it does not mind inattention,
grows wherever it finds out a space
for itself and continues to be useful. From the
much-feared rod to the charming flute, from the
large sprawling structure of a thatched house
to the small household utensil, all are its
In West Bengal, varieties of bamboos are
available. Each type of bamboo has its own
characteristics. The gonda, goda and genthe
bamboos are thick, heavy and knotty while the
beseni, muli and talta bamboos are light, thin
and hollow. The uses of different types of
bamboos vary according to their durability,
characteristics and appearance. The thick and
knotty bamboos are mainly used for structural
purposes, for making furniture and fencings.
The thin, straight and hollow bamboos are
commonly used for making containers, fish
traps, baskets etc. Bajali, a special type of
bamboo, is used exclusively for making flutes.
To study the history of the bamboo craft, we
have to turn Tripura state, once a neighbouring
state of ours. Dense clumps of long bamboo
plants are seen everywhere in the hilly regions
of Tripura. The hill tribes of that place use
bamboo extensively in their daily life. They build
their homes with bamboo poles taken from
adjoining bushes. They utilise bamboo for
making furniture and also for utensils. They
even take the inner portion of the bamboo
stipules as vegetable. The tribal people have an
artistic bent of mind and in their daily life, they
try to beautify their households by adding some
simple decorations. They make a special type
of colour, which they call Vishnu colour. They
paint their fold pictures with this colour.
Once the royal family of Tripura, a great
patron of the ivory works, used to patronise the
bamboo craftpersons of their state, too. Even
today elegant artistic works made of bamboo
by those craftpersons can be found in, say,
some neglected corner of the ruined palace. It
is a pity that the descendants of those
craftpersons, having lost the support of their
royal patrons, had to change their traditional
vocation. The Government of India in the
ministry of textiles, as also the Government of
Tripura, have of late shown interest in
development of cane and bamboo crafts. A
training-cum-production institute has been set
up there and the government is encouraging
people with aristic aptitude to avail of intensive
training and take up the craft.
There is an old saying in Bengali that when
one bank of a river breaks down the other
flourishes. Same here in the case of bamboo
handicrafts. A new aspect of bamboo, the
hidden beauty, so to say, has now been revealed
thanks to the creativity and craftsmanship of
the young artisans of West Bengal. Cute daily
use articles, made of bamboo, can now be seen
in the hands of the belles and housewives as
well as in parlours as art decor. Needless to
mention that the artisans had to struggle with
the stems and tolls for a long time to master
the technique of creating artistic handicrafts.
To talk of personal experience, since boyhood
I had an attachment with and inclination
towards arts and crafts.While I was a student
in the JJ School of Arts, Bombay (now called
Mumbai), an exhibition titled Hobbies and
Handicrafts was held at the famous Jehangir Art
Gallery there in the year 1952. I participated
in that exhibition. There were some throw-away
bamboo pieces on the terrace of one of my
relative’s residence. I collected those pieces and
made a few ash trays, lamp stands, bowls,
figrins with the equipment comprising hacksaw,
chisel, hammer, pliers, borers, straight choppers
etc. I gave special attention to keeping the
natural shape and motif of bamboo in tact,
which was hugely appreciated by the crafts
Coming back home in 1955, I set up a small
workshop (the Bamboo Handicraft Centre) at

the ground floor of my residence and started
production of both useful and decorative items
with cane and bamboo. At that time, I found
out, the craftspesrsons in West Bengal were
engaged in making only the conventional as well
as traditional items. I tried to break this trend
through design orientation. For this I of course
had to spend several days together with the
traditional craftspesrsons to learn the skill of
splitting the cane and bamboo and do weaving
with cane and bamboo splits through warf and
weft process. I also had to spend quality time
with the carpenters in order to study their
technique of handling different tools and
With all this behind me, I started doing my
experimentations by using different types of
bamboo available in West Bengal and Assam,
the Burma Giant variety, collected from FRI and
Deoghar along with the
muli and bajali
bamboos from Tripura.
For canes, which is not
abundantly available in
West Bengal, I used the
jati, hanna, sundi and
thick Andaman
varieties. I used both
bamboo and cane for
making new
basketwares. Bamboo
sticks were used in the
structure of the items
while cane splits were used for binding in a
particular decorative design on the top. Going
for designs, I took extra care so as to retain
the original character, shape and colour of
bamboo, for otherwise the items could have
been mixed up with wood crafts.
Over this period, I was immensedly helped
by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, the then
chairperson of the All India Handicrafts Board
(AIHB), New Delhi, and DN Saraf, the then
director of handicrafts, AIHB, who made certain
tools like wood working lathe, belt sander,
automatic drilling machine, circular saw
machine etc. available to me at a special 50%
subsidised rate. The AIHB was kind enough to
nominate me as a member of the Advisory
Committee for Cane & Bamboo Crafts in the
year 1963 and I continued to be one till 1979.
Looking back, in the year 1956, I set up the
Bamboo Handicraft Centre in my village
residence at Rajpur in South 24-Parganas
district with nine girl trainees and two sets of
tools. In seven years time, our centre got the
honour of being registered as an empanelled
supplier to the Central Cottage Industries Union,
New Delhi. At present, our centre is equipped
with six sets of tools, lathe machine, hacksaw
machine, four fret saw machines, belt sander,
automatic drilling machine, circular saw
machine, prototype Japanese tools etc. Over
this 50 year period, nearly 200 students
(including a few deaf and dumb boys) have been
imparted training at this centre, many of whom
have gone on to get government service in the
line of handicrafts while others are in to the craft
on individual enterprise.
Having said this, if there is one thing about
our centre that merits special mention, as its
director my call will be strict quality control. This
is not one of the easiest things on earth. Being
a hydroscopic item,
bamboo is always
susceptible to the
attacks of germs and
fungii. So it calls for
chemical treatment. At
our centre, the
matured bamboo poles,
after collection from
bushes, are first cut
into pieces by circular
saw machine and then
boiled in a large vat in
2% boric acid solution
and 2% borax in water. Then the nitrogenous
products, which ooze out of the cut outlets of
bamboo, are wiped out by torn blankets.
Afterwards, the pieces are dried under the sun on
the bed of sand. In this process the bamboo pieces
are made immune of the possible attacks of germs
and fungii. Despite all this, some bamboo pieces
are found to have been attacked by green and
orange fungii during the monsoon; in that case, they
are treated in a saturated solution of 1% sodium
pentachlorophenete in alcohol, which is applied by
brush. Thus, on this landmark of 50 years of the
Bamboo Handicraft Centre, I have every reason to
be glad at the fact that the institution is expanding
day by day and we are now in a position to impart
training to intending trainees and find out new
marketing channels for our products.
We firmly believe, the type of bamboo and
cane may vary according to the nature of its
product, but the quality of a finished article always
depends on the workmanship of the artisan.

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