By Utpal Borpujari
Bhogol, a craftsman from Manipur, was clearly one of the most popular participants at the recent 28th Indian Handicrafts & Gifts Fair in Greater NOIDA, neighbouring Delhi. At the fair targeted fully at foreign importers of Indian handicraft products, Bhogol was the cynosure of all eyes for something he has ventured into in recent times. Otherwise a craftsman specializing in making beautiful products out of Kaona of the famous water reed from Manipur, Singh is now an expert in crafting some unbelievably beautiful products out of the dried stem of – believe it or not – water hyacinth.
Otherwise considered a weed that suffocates water bodies the world around, water hyacinth (biological name Eichhornia Crassipes), said to have been “introduced” in India in early 20th century by a British Memsahib who got enamoured with the beauty of its colourful flowers in Africa, has suddenly emerged as a source for handicraft items as diverse as mats, mattresses, lampshades, baskets and even furniture, opening up an avenue to showcase the expertise of hundreds of craftspeople in North-East India, like Bhogol from Manipur and Dipti Saikia, Rita Das, Gita Amiya Adhikari, Rahul Das and Nilim Bhuyan in Assam.
Such has been the initial response to products made of water hyacinth that people who earlier used to give them away for free to anyone willing to take them and thus clean water bodies owned by them, are now charging as much as Rs 15-20 per kg of the plant. And the plant is now being sold in Manipur, where it does not grow as much, by people in Assam. This is the first time that water hyacinth is being used as a source material for handicraft products, but India is definitely a late starter in this as South-East Asian nations, from Myanmar to Malayasia, have been making them since years, cornering a large chunk of the global handicraft market.
In a better-late-than-never initiative, the North Eastern Development Finance Corporation Ltd (NEDFi), an arm of the Ministry for Development of North-East Region, has taken the task to mentoring and training craftspeople in the art of making handicraft items out of water hyacinth. And a key role in this whole initiative is being played by Industry Craft, a Bangalore-based organisation that has provided training to both trainers and craftspeople in the North-East on how to process water hyacinth making them suitable for craftwork.
Says Bhogol, “The response I got at the fair from foreign importers has been amazing. Everybody has been taken in by the strength of the material and the beauty of the products, and I have got trade inquiries from so many countries already.” Though they look docile, dried and processed water hyacinth stalks, which acts as the raw material for all this, are so strong that ropes made of it are used to tie up elephants in Thailand. Thai water hyacinth is also the best variety for crafts purpose since its stems can be much longer than its Indian cousin.
The idea that Pani Meteka, as water hyacinth, a menace in the North-East, is called in Assamese, could be used to start a virtual new movement in the already rich handicraft artscape in the region came when NEDFi officials saw furniture made out of it at an international fair in Bangkok. In fact, P K Saikia, general manager of NEDFi, got so enamoured with the whole thing that he has personally taken up motivating people to take up water hyacinth processing, and is said to be even occasionally visit interior areas of Assam to hunt of better quality water hyacinth.
Says Manoj Das, NEDFi’s deputy general manager stationed in Delhi, “After we assessed the potential of water hyacinth as a raw material for handicraft, we got Industry Craft of Bangalore on board, and experts from it came down to our R&D centre at Khetri near Guwahati to train 21 people who would serve as trainers to craftspeople in various parts of the North-East, apart from ten master craftspeople, on the drying process and treatment of water hyacinth so that they can be used for craftwork. We have till date trained around 100 artisans through a tie up with the DRDAs in five districts in Assam alone. And since these people were already experts in bamboo, cane and ‘sheetal paati’ crafts, it did not take much time for them to adapt to water hyacinth.”
After successfully coming out with products like bags, mats, basketry and stationary items, the craftspeople are now going to the next level, by taking up the task of making furniture out of water hyacinth. “I have just made one ‘Morha’ (round traditional stool) from water hyacinth, and though it costs Rs 1,200 because of the intricate artwork involved, there have been several inquiries about it at the fair,” says Bhogol. According to
Das, right now experiments are going on regarding whether natural dyes can be used effectively to make the water hyacinth products look even more beautiful.
“The response to these products has been huge, with buyers from Spain, the UK, France, Italy and the USA particularly showing keen interest in importing them. But our products will have to compete with the already established industries in South East Asia and China,” says Ashief Ahmed, marketing manager with NEDFi, who is completely focusing on water hyacinth product marketing. “The scope of water hyacinth is huge, as it can be used to make even garment, fibre and paper. We will work towards these targets sooner than latter,” says Das.
In fact, the way things are moving, those tracking the response to the products even predict that instead of ruing the appearance of water hyacinth in water bodies, people in the North-East could soon be cultivating the plant in the region’s vast water bodies. That the plant can reproduce itself at an incredibly fast rate under suitable conditions will ensure that artisans will get a steady supply of the raw material.