Sweeping in change

Sweeping in change

As one travels across the highways and byroads of the country, the trees, plants, grass, fruits and flowers change according to the climate and topography, soil and rainfall. As we zip along, we tend to forget that even vegetation that appears to be wild or waste provides food, fodder, medicine and employment to those who have a knowledge of them. Wild and cultivated plants are used to thatch homes, build fences, feed livestock, make mats, fashion products such as furniture, toys, jewellery and brooms. This is a time-honoured and enduring practice across the country.

A craftsperson's knowledge and his/her judgment on tensile strength, adaptability and durability transform plant matter into structural constructions and shapes that form part of everyday living. Expressed with immense diversity by the many communities involved in the making, craftspeople, with their innate understanding of the properties of terrain-specific species ,and their skills in handling the raw material, translate the vegetation into objects of utility, strength and beauty.

Recently, the most modest of grass and leaf products - the broomstick - has been in the news with the levying of GST tax on it. While GST has been levied on a diverse range of handmade crafts and textiles, I have chosen to pick out and speak of the humble broom as its making represents in a microcosm what lies at the very core of the world of handcrafting.

The making of date palm brooms involves many processes: an in-depth knowledge of the material and its possible applications, a no-wastage mantra, upcycling and recycling of what others may consider waste and skilful dexterous crafting using the most minimal of tools. In addition, a broom has a multitude of applications: from dusting to outdoor and indoor cleaning to religious rituals. It's used to both banish evil spirits and create spotless spaces that welcome the goddess of wealth and prosperity.

While the commonly used flowered-broom or phul-jhadu (Thysanolaena maxima) is commercially made on a large scale, it is in villages across the country where women, usually belonging to the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society, supplement meagre household incomes by making brooms. Hawked by local vendors at the most nominal of prices, these women remain vulnerable to not only low prices for their hard work and the pervasive substitution by plastic machine-made brooms, but now additionally by being taxed.

Made up of locally available waste grass and leaves like the flowering ends of wild plants, dried coconut leaves, spliced bamboo to sweet cane/munj grass, (Saccharum munja) in Madhya Pradesh, the leaves of the date palm or khajur tree (Phoenix dactylifera) is the preferred leaf. It is believed that the heritage city of  Khajuraho derived its name from the date palm tree. Similarly named, the town of Chhindwara or the 'abode of palms' lies in Satpura, Madhya Pradesh. In villages where the khajur tree is a cash crop that sustains the agriculturists, the leaves of the khajur sustain communities of women who gather the branches, dry the leaves, and fashion them into the most charming brooms.

The leaves are sourced from the surrounding forests and are collected in the dry months of the year usually from October to April. The tools are basic and include a knife and a sickle (darati) that is used to cut the leaves of the central branch. The leaves are then dried in bright sunlight for at least a week to ensure that all the moisture is drained. Once dried, these now pale, greenish-gold leaves are beaten flat and each leaf is painstakingly split into thin strips. This splitting or chirna is engineered with a thin, needle-sharp tool called the chirni. The leaves are then grouped according to their length and bunches of even lengths are segregated. These are bundled together and tied securely with a leaf-strip that is wrapped like bangles several times around the bundled leaves and firmly knotted. A strong knot ensuring that the broom remains usable for a longish period of time.

Brooms can come in various sizes from between two feet and two-and-a-half feet in height and dusters can be in lengths of six inches to a foot. A variety of designs decorate these brooms additionally serving to strengthen them. So, you could find date palm leaves in the shape of a tulip that hides the ungainly knot with an added lace-like pattern to handles that are gaily tied with coloured thread. For further decoration, nylon cords of varied colours are used to hold the leaves together.

Craftswomen like Kanta Kharse of Gram Pindira, Tehsil – Nainpura in Mandla Zilla sell their products in weekly haaths or village bazaars and sometimes get the opportunity to move out and travel to urban fairs to find new markets for their most modestly priced products. But they need more. They and others like them need a change in our perceptions. They need recognition of their skill, expertise and knowledge as these and other humble brooms truly invite the labels of heritage, traditional, sustainable, recycled, waste management, creativity, handmade and craft.

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