Creeping up with the art

Ittu from Palli, coastal Karnataka, weaves baskets using wild vines.

Long before modern-day cutlery came into our kitchens, our ancestors may have used utensils and baskets made out of naturally available sources — mainly vines, tree trunks and other produce from the forests. However, most of these have vanished from our lives today and what remains is a handful of households that still make these utility artefacts.

Today, it is a sad state of affairs because this tradition of handmade baskets and utensils is slowly coming to an end. Any kind of artisanship at the verge of extinction, in fact, leads to an irreversible void in history. For, it is a representation of a culture and a community which has fostered it.

Knit a basket

Though there may be consumers who might seek these materials, there is hardly anyone from the current generation who can produce these utilities. But luckily, we came across Ittu, a 58-year-old man, living in modest conditions in a village named Palli in coastal Karnataka. Ittu has inherited the art of making materials of daily use from wild vines that grow in the forest patch near his home. He says that it was always his family business alongside daily wage labour, and he learnt the skill from his mother. His mother, Appi, says that she even recalls her grandfather making vessels and other utilities from the same vine, which they recognise as ela booru (in Tulu) or nela balli (Kannada). The skill was passed on from generation to generation, but sadly Ittu seems to be the last of its inheritors.

The process of making these utilities begins with Ittu going into the forest in search of the wild vine every morning, which he carefully picks from within large trees or sometimes even the ground. He says that the particular vine is known to possess medicinal qualities, and he and his siblings grew up consuming the extract from the same vine as a healthy supplement. Ittu is well acquainted with the forest. He knows which vine to pick for his craft, and where it grows.

Once he has enough material for the day, he sets down to shearing the upper surface of the vine to reveal a fresh, brown layer underneath. This process takes a long time and the most effort, causing bruises on his palm. After that is done, he carefully knits the vines into one another and forms a strong and beautiful pattern that he continues to weave until the artefact is complete. The type of pattern depends on the size of the utility — smaller ones have intricate design while the bigger ones are made with larger repeating patterns. The utilities are strong and durable. The tool that Ittu uses other than the vines is a small sickle that shears the top layer of the vine.

The kind of utensils ranges from plates, bowls, baskets, larger storage units for vegetables, rice storing units, and even fishing equipment. The fishing equipment resembles a large basket with a big opening, which can be left in water overnight to find fish and crabs caught in this trap in the morning. Depending on the item, Ittu takes one to five days to complete one piece. He sells them at a price ranging from Rs 40-Rs 50, which is, in fact, a meagre price for the amount of expertise and efforts the work takes.

Artistic everyday

Despite that, Ittu has kept the art alive and there are people in the rural area who value his work and there is a significant amount of demand for his goods from them. That apart, it is believed that using these utensils made of natural elements has health benefits that other metal utensils do not offer.

Mohan Kumar, a retired forest officer, says that this livelihood activity doesn’t harm nature and is thus allowed under the law. ‘‘This is a minor forest produce and the forest-dependent communities are allowed to use them sustainably,’’ he adds.

Though there aren’t many people who can continue this art form in the vicinity, there are some who visit him to experience this skill. Ittu says that people come to watch and understand his work, and also sometimes click pictures of him at work. The skill hardly does much to sustain his livelihood, but the family has stayed true to its inherited practice nonetheless. These utilities might vanish entirely from rural livelihoods as well in a couple of years. But the art of making them is something that deserves to be recognised and remembered. 

Environmentalist Dinesh Holla, says, “It is one of the rare traditional crafts that has sustained itself for long. The advent of plastic and metal utilities, as well as deforestation, has reduced scope for this. But it remains to be a skilful art, that leaves one wondering how a weed gets transformed into something this beautiful.’’

We know that art and craft is an integral part of a location and it represents communities on the cultural map of the world. It is important that the skills of the artisans and their crafts are promoted so that it not only helps in sustaining their living but also in promoting their talent and fostering its growth. Government and non-profit organisations can always take up the task of showcasing rural craft on various platforms and ensure it gains visibility and is not lost over time.

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Creeping up with the art

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