This story was originally reported and written in Bangla. PARI Education works with students, research scholars and educators across India who report, write and illustrate for us in a language of their choice. 

“We used to weave mostly in the winters. The leaves would be clean and fresh in the early mornings,” says Devi Malik. “In summers, the excessive heat and dust cause the leaves to turn brown and black, and to avoid that, we would fetch them early in the morning.”

Seated on the floor, surrounded by khejur pata (date palm leaves) that are being woven into a chatai (mat), she tells me “No one taught me. I learnt everything by watching my mother and grandmother.”  

Craftswomen like 65-year-old Devi Malik, still weave coconut husks and date palm leaves into small and large mats used in their homes. She lives in a region adjacent to the Sunderbans – the wetlands east of Kolkata, lush with coconut and date palms. This is an area of 12,500 hectares of land covered by water and sewage ponds where the residents breed fish for sale. Fish breeders, fishermen and farmers live and work here (read A fisherman in the Kolkata wetlands to know more). 

Devi Malik is my grandmother, and I am watching her as she weaves and stitches at our home in Saintala. My name is Sastika Malik and I live in the South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. I live with her, my grandfather, Premanando Malik, my father, Kamal Malik, my mother, Asima Malik and my 10-year-old sister, Suchitra Malik. 

My grandparents used to grow vegetables and rice, but they no longer work on the land. My father, Kamal, earns about Rs. 7,000 a month buying fish from a local fish auction market and selling it in Kolkata.

‘Thakuma’, as I refer to my 65-year-old grandmother, does other craft work: kanthas (embroidered quilts) and woollen items. She has taught these skills to many women in our village.

The days I work with her, I wake up at dawn to join her in gathering large-sized leaves, each measuring between 6-12 feet in length – twice as tall as me! We need roughly 40 leaves to make one full-sized mat.  

“I cut the leaves and let them dry again in the sun [on the terrace]. I use the dried leaves to weave the mats,” thakuma tells me. 

I watch as she splits each dried leaf into half, and then twists each half in an intricate over-under criss-cross pattern. Soon she has created strips of woven mats that are as wide as my palm. Thakuma says these individual strips will be sewn together with thick white cotton thread and a big needle. The leftover leaves are used by my grandmother to make brooms with which we sweep our homes. 

“It has become difficult to find good leaves as there are fewer palm trees. So weaving work here is less now,” she says. Lamenting the loss of palm trees, she adds, “You can use so many things from the trees.” One of those things that Thakuma is referring to is the delicately scented khejur gur (jaggery) that is made from the sap of date palm tree stems. She says the sweet smell of boiling date sap, once abundantly made in Saintala during the winter, used to fill the morning air in their village. 

Narkel chobra is the coir made from the outer husk of the coconut. It is used to make household objects such as brushes, strings and narkel dori (rope). Thakuma uses it to pad mattresses during the cold weather and to weave mats. These chatai are used for a variety of purposes, but mostly to dry rice and cereals such as masoor and moong dal, eaten widely in our village.

Apart from weaving mats, thakuma is also skilled at knitting handicrafts and accessories with wool. She makes woollen scarves, fruit bowl covers, pullovers, caps and many other things. Some days, instead of weaving mats, she knits. “People had to buy [woollen items] from Kolkata which was very expensive. No big shops or markets that sold these items in our locality,” she says, explaining why she started making them. 

Thakuma says that there is no demand for locally hand-stitched or knitted crafts, and perhaps that is why they are no longer available at the village shops, where we now find mass-produced items sourced from Kolkata. 

Mats are available at weekly local haats that happen twice every week in specific areas and then rotate. Here too there is a lack of demand; only one woman collects woven mats from different houses and sells them at nominal prices. 

My thakuma was one of eight siblings. “Both my parents used to sell fish in the market. With time, they got old and could not visit the market regularly,” she says. When her mother, Manju Panja, found it difficult to work at the market, thakuma, being the eldest, had to step in. “In those days, women were welcome to sell fish in the market. It’s only now women aren’t allowed,” she says. She would accompany her fisherman father, Prabir Panja to the market and sell his daily catch. 

“The money we earned from selling fish fed us, but it was not at all easy,” she says, remembering days the family struggled to get a meal. They depended on saak (leafy vegetables), saapla (water lilies), and kochu (taros)  – found easily in the wetlands – for their daily sustenance. 

Devi fondly remembers how sap from date palm tree stems (being extracted in the image) was used to make jaggery. Photo by Sastika Malik

After her marriage to Premanando, my grandfather (who I referred to as thakurda), she moved to Saintala in Kheadaha gram panchayat from her home in Ranabhutia village in Sonarpur block. That was 40 years ago. After she moved here, she recalls, “Many of my friends wanted to learn weaving from me. We used to weave chatai [sitting mats] and asanas [stitching rugs] and use them in our homes.” These chatais were handsewn from old, torn saris.

“We did kantha [a kind of embroidery] on these asanas to decorate them. Sometimes, we also added old sari borders for some colour,” she says.  Thakuma still makes small-sized sitting mats and embroidered handkerchiefs.  

“People were impressed by my skill and would offer to buy [what I made] but I never asked for the money,” she says, making it clear she did not see it as a business. However, the earnings from those one-of purchases would help run their home. 

Thakuma believes learning these skills is both useful and will ensure the craft lives on. 

The Disappearing Dialogues Collective (dD) works with and within communities, using art and culture as a medium to bridge gaps, start conversations and build new narratives. The idea is to add value and assist in the preservation of existing heritage, culture and environment.

This article is a compilation for Jol-A-Bhumir Golpo o Katha | Stories Of The Wetland, a project implemented by India Foundation for the Arts under their Archives and Museums Programme, in collaboration with People’s Archive of Rural India. This has been made possible with part support from Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan New Delhi.

Editor's note

Sastika Malik is a student of Class 10 in Kheadaha High School in West Bengal. She has an interest in learning skills from her grandmother. She says, “It was interesting to be able to share my thakuma’s work and its link to nature and my surroundings.”