It's all in the basket

It's all in the basket

The crafts of Tripura are truly indigenous in nature, and have evolved over a millennia. Basket weaving is one such craft which manages to inspire awe through the skill with which it is practised, and the variety it produces, writes Swapna Dutta.

I have rarely come across baskets made with such exquisite skill, taste and finish like the ones made in Tripura. In fact, the crafts of Tripura are completely indigenous, ranging from cane and bamboo craft to handlooms and baskets. Basketry or basket weaving is an important craft of Tripura. Most of them are woven out of split bamboo, by the rural folk, in their own households — a cottage industry in the true sense of the term.

The beautiful state of Tripura is full of rich forests densely covered with cane and bamboo. The people of the state make full use of both, creating a lot of products that are both useful and artistic. In Tripura, bamboo forms the core of local tradition. There is a popular saying that goes, ‘If you are born in Tripura, you cannot survive without bamboo’. The local markets always have a fascinating array of cane and bamboo products which are also in great demand outside India and are exported in large numbers.

Basket weaving is one of the oldest crafts in the history of human civilisation. The oldest known baskets, discovered in Egypt, are said to be between 10,000 and 12,000 years old. Being made of perishable materials, the baskets themselves have not survived, but the imprints of woven baskets are found in clay pots belonging to that time. Originally, baskets were mainly used for storing and carrying things. With time they came to be used for a lot of other things as well. Baskets were in great demand in factories for packing and delivering things during the Industrial Revolution. During the two world wars, thousands of baskets were used to transport messenger pigeons.

There were special balloon baskets, baskets for carrying shell cases, and special baskets used for air-dropping supplies of ammunition and food to the soldiers. The technique of weaving baskets has been passed on from one generation to the next; re-discovered, expanded and improved upon with the passage of time.

Variety within bamboo

Tripura has always been known for its elegant cane and bamboo work including furniture, pencil holders, lampshades, trays, low stools called mudahs, vases, simple and decorative fans, window and door screens, shopping bags, purses, hats and table mats among other things. They come complete with beautiful weaving and attractive designs. The styles are unique and are practiced by different tribes and communities belonging to a particular area. For example, it is the menfolk of western Tripura who weave vegetable baskets, kula and dala. They last very long because the particular weaving technique makes them really tough and strong. The cane and bamboo to be made into baskets are made ready for weaving by splitting them vertically into fine and uniform strips. They are then cut to the required length by using simple tools.
The baskets made in Tripura are of various kinds. For instance, dulla is used for carrying fish while pathee is used as a shield against rain. Then there are open-weave carrying baskets made by different tribes.

The jamatia firewood basket is used for carrying firewood. It is made entirely of bamboo outersplits that are around 7 mm wide and 1.5 mm thick. The basket has a square base and a height of 540 mm. The sides of this basket get a little narrow at the centre, flaring out towards the outer rim. The closed-weave carrying baskets include the riang carrying basket, mainly used for general marketing. Varying in size, the ones used by women are usually smaller and made entirely from bamboo splits. These also have a square base and are woven in a twill pattern.

Others include shallow baskets such as the tukri from Agartala. These have a flat, square base but are round in shape. The karawala tukri looks the same as a tukri but has four strong handles made of split cane. These are normally used for carrying building material. The laii is a small bamboo basket used for washing rice. It is made by interlacing wide splits of bamboo. This too has a circular rim and a square base.

To store

Then there are many kinds of small storage baskets. There is the sempa khari shaped like a square-based prism for storing small articles. It is woven from coarse inner splits of bamboo using the diagonal weaving method. Special date baskets are made for storing dates which are carried suspended from the waistband. These are also woven from the coarse bamboo inner splits. It looks like a pouch that is open at the top with a straight base and bulging sides. The turi is a small semi-circular basket used to store puffed rice.

Tripura is also known for a variety of large storage baskets. The most important of these is the one used to store grains. It has a large square base with the sides tapering out to a large circular rim. These baskets are made by professional craftsmen. The baskets are plastered with a mixture of cowdung, clay and rice husk before they are used. Finally, there are the multi-use baskets made of bamboo that primarily serve as fruit baskets among other things.

All handwoven baskets of Tripura make use of traditional tribal weaving patterns. They are so unique and pretty that they bring with them a touch of class and distinction wherever they are used.

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