Weaving of baskets in India is an art as ancient as the making of pottery. Even the nomadic food gathering cultures wove reeds together to prepare baskets. Later, different materials and cultures developed a variety of basketry for domestic use, as well as for ritual purposes. They developed special patterns based on local traditions and techniques.
Baskets as we know them are made out of twigs, bamboo, cane and the wild monsoon grass, and are covered with golden grass or the golden outer skin of the rice plant.
Punjab is famous for its sturdy spirally built baskets. Sarkanda, a wild grass which grows in swamps, is used for the basic form which is stitched together with the use of the date-palm leaf. Dyed date-palm leaves are worked in intricate patterns, similar to the geometric patterns of the phulkar.
The willow baskets of Kashmir are known for its intricate designs. The young fresh twigs of the willow tree are woven into intricate designs to make a variety of baskets which are used in homes, sold to tourists as picnic baskets and large presentation hampers. One of the finest objects made there is, however, for local use. This is the covering made for the Kangri – an earthen pot in which burning coals are kept on a bed of ashes. Small pliable twigs of willows are dyed with indigenous dyes. A coloured foil is pasted to the outer side of the clay bowl and an intricate lace pattern is worked out of the twigs, which allows the shining foil to be seen through. Tassels worked with coloured grass are suspended from the edges to make the finished object, a beautiful piece of craftsmanship and a present fit for a bride.
Uttar Pradesh has a tradition of making baskets out of a monsoon grass called moonj. Allahabad and the surrounding villages are famous for these baskets.
North Bihar has a special tradition of basketry. The coiled baskets are made with the local rough monsoon grass, which is covered with a golden coloured sikki grass, dyed locally in different colours.
Besides baskets, women of the area make a number of toys, birds and human figures out of the same raw material. According to local traditions, these are presented to the bride at the time of marriage. Probably poor peasants of the area, wishing to imitate the zamindars, rich landowners, who gave fabulous dowries to their daughters in the form of elephants and horses, got some satisfaction out of this custom. The peasant women lovingly created these forms in the grass, seeking to compensate their daughters. Today these women, with the encouragement given by the handicrafts board, have developed this form still further, by making exquisite sculpturesque forms based on the Geeta Govinda, recreating scenes of Krishna engaged in love play with gopis.
In the Terai area of Bihar, the semi-tribal community of Tharus carries on a tradition of basket making which is quite distinct from that of the Brahmins of Mithila in north Bihar. These baskets have a bolder form and are decorated with stylised human and animal figures. Special baskets decorated with tassels made out of shells are made for presentation to the brides. A bride uses these baskets to carry lunch to her husband while he works in the fields. The shell tassels tinkle in the breeze, announcing her arrival, so that the elders of the family move to another area.
Mysore district produces a large quantity of cane. The tradition for basket-making here is therefore based on the use of cane. The north-eastern region of India, which comprises of Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura has the finest example of cane and bamboo work. In fact one could say that their lives depend on this material. They even built their homes out of bamboo and cane. The bamboo creates the basic structure and the cane is used for lashing it together. Bamboos and cane are also used to make bridges. Even parts of the clothes worn by some of the tribal people are made out of bamboo cane. There is a split cane belt of the Apa Tani with a tall tail hanging behind; there are also the finely spilt bamboo woven ankle supports and the elaborately woven cane hats worn by the Apa Tanis, Daflas, Idu Mushmis and Gallongs which are structured to carry the decorative horns and long feathers that are used for rituals and special ceremonies. Until a couple of decades ago, the Konyak girls wore a grass skirt and carried woven bamboo rain shades.
All over the area fine quality bamboo baskets are made which are put to various uses. The finest bamboo products are the fish traps, which are exquisitely woven and have a complicated but functional structure. Whole bamboos are also used for making containers as the solid knots or nodes of the bamboo make it natural tubular containers. These are used to carry water, store liquids like rice beer, chang, store precious pieces of textiles and also to make the ceremonial drinking cups, which are carved with figures of warriors carrying human heads.
Konyak and Phom Poker work on bamboo is of very fine quality and is found only on personal objects such as tobacco tubes, combs, ear plugs or the sword and the shuttles used for weaving. Strongboxes, as well as rounded baskets with lids and steel hinges and edged with metal are prepared here and given as part of dowry to the bride.
Tamil Nadu is famous for the Chettinad baskets. They have intricate patterns made with the help of date-palm leaves. These patterns are as fine as embroidery and are the specialty of the Chettiar community of the area.
The bamboo baskets of Bengal are used for a number of ceremonial purposes. Kulas, which are winnowing baskets, are not only used for winnowing; but a special variety is made and painted with auspicious symbols and is used in the marriage ceremony.
Experts also prepare pitaras (oval boxes), Jhampis (oblong caskets), phul saji (flower baskets) and chhalnis (sieves).
First Published by National Book Trust, India