All that Ajitha, 48, needs to weave a basket is a kathi (knife). She begins by placing a few strands of bamboo at right angles across each other and then weaves a single strand through it. She continues until the circle is of the required diameter for the product she is making.
“I started learning [the craft] at the age of 16.” says Ajitha, who dropped out of school after Class 10 as her father, an agricultural labourer’s earnings were not enough to sustain the family who lived in Kuttichira village in Chalakudy block of Thrissur district.
Today, with some help from her husband, Ajitha crafts a variety of bamboo products, including lamp shades, pen stands, flowers made of bamboo placed in glass bottles woven over with bamboo, fans and baskets of all shapes and sizes.
“A basket takes about one and a half days to complete. It takes a day to finish it and then half a day to pick away the fine strands of bamboo hairs and make it smooth – the more strands you remove, the more of a glazed surface it gets,” she explained. A lampshade takes about two days to complete, while a bunch of 8 to 10 flowers or five pen stands can be made in a day. Weaving bamboo around a bottle is a very detailed process and takes almost two days.
Scattered around her are the bamboo products she has made and they have a glow to them. “Bamboo already has a glaze, depending upon how dry it is. The drier, the better,” she said. Ajitha uses varnish only sparingly as she feels it ruins the bamboo in the long term.
Bamboo is available at the Bamboo Corporation depot in Chalakudy, about 10 kilometres from her house in the same area. Once a month, Ajitha either goes there to collect it or they drop it off when they are passing her home. She buys around 100 stems a month at the rate of Rs. 30 per stem roughly 10 metres long. The people who deliver the stems from the depot help her carry it to her storage shed where they must be protected from rain.
In 2015, Ajitha registered her company, Sreedeepam Handicrafts. Her husband and son (a scooter mechanic) help with delivering the finished products and her daughter is employed elsewhere, but helps out when she can.
“Once the pandemic struck, all of us in the bamboo business suffered very badly. Our incomes were mainly from exhibitions and from supplying to event organisers and restaurants,” Ajitha said. The Kerala-based Manorama Fiesta and the annual bamboo festival hosted by the Bamboo Mission offered regular annual state-wide sales but even they were cancelled due to the lockdowns in 2020. “I used to earn [pre-pandemic] a profit of around 30,000 to 35,000 rupees each month; now I make around 20-30 per cent less,” she added.
Before starting her company, Ajitha had worked for 20 years with a Chalakudy-based a cooperative society called Seraphic Handicrafts that makes bamboo products such as baskets, trays and lampshades.
E-commerce platforms have mushroomed but Ajitha is sceptical and feels they won’t handle her products well. “My products are very thin and fragile,” she says, bending a thin and long bamboo strip to show how fragile it is. “Although it is very strong when wound tightly at the base, it can still get deformed if handled improperly,” she explains. “I don’t have the resources or the backing of a large society. The loss from a damaged product is a big hit to my earnings, so I can’t afford my products getting damaged,” she adds.
Glancing at the numerous lampshades and baskets she has made, Ajitha says, “When I do this job, I don’t consider the fact that I can earn more money from working elsewhere. I do it from the dedication and love I have for this job and craft.”
This story is part of a series on lives under lockdown. The team at PARI Education would like to thank Akshara Pathak-Jadhav and Perrie Subramaniam, professors at St Xavier’s College (Autonomous) Mumbai, for leading this collaboration.
Dawn Philip is a second-year student of Mass Communication and Journalism at St. Xavier’s College (Autonomous), Mumbai. As part of his college course in collaboration with PARI Education on lives under lockdown, he chose to explore the impact on bamboo artisans in Kerala. He says, “This project with PARI helped me deepen my understanding of small-scale industries and the troubles that people with these occupations faced during the pandemic. My attempt at documenting Ajitha’s story made me appreciate journalists a lot more for accomplishing such a complex task so efficiently."