Utpal Borpujari

April 13, 2009

Art of Chuneres: using water energy to carve wood

Filed under: Art,Culture,Deccan Herald,India,Media — Utpal Borpujari @ 5:01 pm
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By Utpal Borpujari in Corbett National Park

As the Sun tries to emerge from behind the mountains at the crack of dawn, Bishan Ram gets out of his makeshift leafy abode on the banks of the Kosi river abutting the tiger haven of Corbett National Park in the Himalayan foothills and walks to the middle of the river.


Bishan Ram is no Moses and the waters of the fast-flowing mountain river, like the Red Sea mythically did for Moses, does not part for him. Actually, it is late winter and the Kosi is just a small stream now, most of it a bed of rocky rubble waiting for the monsoon waters to submerge them making it a “river” again.


But what Bishan Ram and his fellow Chunere (or Chuneri or Chunar, as they are variously called) tribesmen are doing is nothing short of a miraculous use of the power that lays hidden in flowing water, which is usually harnessed as hydropower by erecting dams the world over.


He, along with a motley bunch of his tribes people are using – and have been doing so since probably time immemorial – the force of the river water to carve wooden containers of various sizes that are used to store milk products like curd, ghee and butter milk.


The Chunere tribe actually resides in the high mountains of Bageshwar district in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, and the people who do wood carving using flowing water as the driving force, according to Bishan Ram, come from a particular village called Sachai.


But since the particular variety of wood used in making these utensils are found only in the Ramnagar region where Corbett National Park is situated, they come down every winter to do their work, and return to the high mountains after a few months to sell their ware. “We use only the wood of the Sandhan (botanical name: Ougeinia dalbergioides) tree to make the containers,” say Bishan and his fellow wood carver Hiyat Ram, though they are unaware why only this particular wood variety is used or whether it has any specific medicinal or food preservation properties.


But more than the look of the containers, it is the process that is used to make them that is quite amazing. The Chunere people divert the river water into small streamlets in the river bed area itself, using the boulders lying there, converting them into fast-flowing gushes of water. This is then made to slide down a slope made of carved logs, so that it falls with great force on a spindle-like apparatus, at the other end of which a piece of solid wood is fixed.


As the spindle rotates with great force, so does the piece of wood, and artisans like Bishan, Hiyat and Pradip Chander use sharp-edged iron bars of various lengths to carve out containers of various sizes, all of them round-shaped for obvious reasons but of various designs and look.


“We carve out a few hundred pieces of these containers in the 3-4 months we spend here, and then carry them back to the mountains to sell them to people, who use them to store milk products that remain in excellent condition for long periods in these containers,” avers Hiyat Ram.


Unfortunately for these poor tribes people, who sustain themselves during the rest of the year by working in the small pieces of land they own back home and even as day labourers to sustain their families, their unique craft, which uses naturally-available energy from flowing water that otherwise gets wasted, remains unknown to the outside world.


The state’s forest department gives them – and only them, as they are the only practioners of this art form – the required licences to cut a particular number of Sandhan trees every year so that their craft remain alive in this age of metal and plastic containers. But the state’s role in keeping alive this art ends with that. “We are poor, uneducated people, and we do not know who to approach to get help to make our work known to the outside world,” says Bishan. The only occasional outside interaction for these people happens when tourists visiting Corbett Park come visiting, at the instance of local guides, to have a look at their craft and maybe buy a piece of two of their creations as keepsakes.


In a world where the stress is increasingly on harnessing non-polluting natural energy for the benefit of the humankind, the craft of the Chunere tribe doing exactly that has never been displayed in any forum outside. Nor has any study been done on whether such containers can be used in climates other than the perpetually-chilly environs of the mountains or whether there is any specific medicinal values the wood variety contains that allows milk items fresh for long periods in them.


But like typically-simple hills people, these craftspeople have no complaints. As Hiyat Ram says, “What we can produce every season gets sold off in the hills. Our only aim is to keep our traditional art alive, and we are content with what we are able to do, though our life is full of hardships as survival is a big struggle for poor people like us.” Bishan Ram adds to that, “Of course, if our work gets known outside, it will be good, but even now it’s ok.” But does that mean that a unique use of natural energy should remain unknown outside – especially when this idea could be replicated in other fields too?

(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 12-04-2009)



1 Comment »

  1. brilliant story. i hope the whole world come to know about this.

    Comment by asma — May 1, 2009 @ 7:52 pm | Reply

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