Bamboo woman shows the way

Changing lives of tea garden labourers : Bamboo jewelleries are priced between Rs 10 and over Rs 10,000
Last Updated : 25 June 2016, 18:39 IST
Last Updated : 25 June 2016, 18:39 IST

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Rahima Khatun comes from the impoverished rural area of Tezpur in central Assam and till a decade back didn't know how she could become self-reliant. The only thing she knew apart from doing household work was to make small baskets out of bamboo. But that was not generating sufficient revenue for her. Since in rural areas of Assam, every other woman can make a basket out of bamboo.

Khatun’s unassuming skill of bamboo craft got chiselled into profession when a lady with a mission transformed her life. With the ideology of transforming life, 48-year-old Neera Sarmah, a strong-willed women from Assam, started her journey in bamboo craftsmanship and turned many like Khatun into ace artisans. Her idea was to provide employment opportunity to every person she met by training him/her and then purchasing the products and selling them in the market.

 Among all forms of art, the cane and bamboo crafts of India are popular across the globe for their functional and aesthetic appeal. The north-eastern region of India is a rich source of bamboo cultivation and an important source of livelihood for the natives. There is a famous Japanese saying that “The bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists.”

 Sarmah, who is working for the poor women since 1990, acts as a bridge between the artistes and the art lovers. According to Sarmah bamboo is called the poor man’s timber but now it has become a rich man’s fancy. Sarmah calls herself as designer for poor as she gives training to the poor to make articles from bamboo.

 “Neera Sarmah gave me a new vision. She came and told me that you already have skills; you just need to hone them. I started attending her workshops and soon I gained in confidence and easily picked up some new skills. Today I am myself training others,” Khatun says.

For Khatun, Sarmah is a game-changer. Over 2 decades she has been instrumental in giving bamboo craftsmanship a new lease of life in Northeast and beyond. “ I lived in the tea gardens as my husband was a tea planter. I was moved by the living conditions of the workers. Those in their family who did not pluck tea leaves would go inside the jungles to cut trees. Back at the labour lines the alcoholic husbands would beat up their wives. I saw this as a great menace. On one hand they were being ill-treated by their family members and on the other they were cutting the trees at will and harming nature,” Sarmah recalled.

In the tea garden, Sarmah would every day notice that many villagers  carrying wooden logs on their heads and carry them to the local markets so they could sell them.

“Sometimes I saw them carrying vegetables and fruits such as jackfruit, tamarind, jamun, star fruit and plums from the forest. I would talk to them and buy fruits and vegetables. I tried my best to explain the ill-effects of wood cutting, but they told me that cutting wood was their only source of income as they did not own any farm land. After deep thought, I came to the conclusion that people who did not have their own farm lands were the neediest ones. They had no other alternative except to cut trees and sell them in nearby towns and in the monsoon their conditions got worse,” Sarmah said.

Soon Sarmah found out that the women in labour lines need alternative earning then only there will be some fresh hope for the down-trodden people. She found out that they cannot earn livelihood through anything which would be very expensive to make and thus she turned to bamboo, which was cheap and easily available.

“The poor tribals in Assam who had no farmland would cut trees to sell as firewood to make a living. I started teaching them how to convert bamboo and other locally and abundantly available natural resources into beautiful and useful products that could fetch money,” Sarmah added.

Now she is not only a master craftsman in making bamboo jewellery but also uses all naturally available materials like seeds of plants, fallen branches of trees to turn them into masterpieces which are exported. Seeds of various shapes and sizes lay strewn around. Under the guidance of Sarmah and her helping hand, the trainees soon converted them into beautiful jewelery.

Happy and satisfied

Apart from Assam, Sarmah has worked extensively in Tripura. She has worked in north India and West Bengal, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and in central India. “I am happy and satisfied that I could serve these people who were in need in various aspects of life--the young widows, lonely and neglected-old parents, unmarried sisters, orphans, hearing impaired, visually challenged and differently abled persons whose paths I crossed, and who could not afford their treatment became my first priority, to make them self-reliant and happy in an easy way. At most times, I did not really bother about my personal welfare,” Sarmah said. 

Media has given her the sobriquet Bamboo Lady of Northeast. In New Delhi,  she had even displayed her products to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “In our state bamboo is grown in abundance. We go to the forest and cut it. We have got traditional knowhow of bamboo craft but it was losing lustre. We were not able to get our younger generation attracted to bamboo craft since it did not have money. When  Sarmah came into picture, our perspective changed and she also brought in new skill sets. We now earn a lakh from one bamboo,” said Renubala Debbarma of Tripura where Sarmah was a consultant to the state government’s initiative to give new life to its dying bamboo crafts.

These days Sarmah is a regular invitee in several national and international craft events held in metros. She had many international queries. For Sarmah there is no business model. It is a mission. Thus she has never thought of starting her own company. “I actually don’t believe in sobriquets. I am laughed off as the ‘bamboo lady’ several times. People still don’t realise the importance of bamboo. They see it as a low grade,” Sarmah lamented.

Over the years, things have really changed for Sarmah and her artisans. She has trained over 2,000 artisans who now have their own units or work through self-help groups.

Sarmah has developed a model called “One bamboo one lakh Rupees”.  “The idea is simple. We will produce variety of designer and handicraft products so that from one bamboo an artisan can earn Rs 1 lakh. We were able to first implement this model in Tripura,” Sarmah said.

The bamboo jewelleries are priced between Rs10 and over Rs 10,000. “We still have issues of market linkage. It would be good if we could brand our products. Having said this, the entire idea was first to transform lives. Also judicious use of bamboo and other similar available material is important. Neera Sarmah has dedicated her life for this cause. Now we will take her work further,” said Khogen Nath, one of the master trainers from Tezpur who has been hand-trained by Sarmah.

“Her work is also inspiring the younger generation. As young media professional from Guwahati, I was touched by her mission. So I decided to work along with her,” said Rhea Das, who is now trying to build a team of young professionals around Sarmah’s projects.
The Bamboo Lady’s work is catching up among celebs as well. Her artisans have received orders from  Bollywood big names and Sarmah has recently designed a set for Tina Ambani.

Published 25 June 2016, 17:11 IST

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