On a cold December afternoon in Bihar, Padmini and I were doing our best to keep ourselves warm. Our back-packs did not allow for elaborate winter clothing and we hoped to get by wearing multiple tee shirts under a thin sweater. It was about 4 pm when we reached the Sikki Sangh, a women’s co-operative in Ratwa. Working with incredible speed and weaving multi-coloured baskets, these women seemed oblivious to the biting chill. Their fingers flew in a kind of rhythm that seemed to warm them while the constant banter distracted their minds away from the cold.
Over a sip of piping hot tea, I addressed the bunch of ‘didis’ (elder sister as we call them here). I gave them drawings of what I expect, the colour combinations that will work and the little details that could go in for the ‘wow’ effect. Using a battery operated emergency lamp, we pored over the designs. Working late on winter afternoon is not a great idea as the sun sets quite early in these parts. So coupled with the erratic power supply, the women prefer starting their day early to weave as many baskets as possible during the sunlit hours. Sometimes during the festival season, the orders are big and they weave at night in their homes. Since the weaving process is intricate, it causes a huge strain on their eyes.
Sikki basket weaving was previously a domestic activity. The women weave baskets from the locally availbale Sikki (golden grass) grass. Though most of the baskets are used to store knick-knacks at home, special ones are woven by the mother to be used as dowry boxes for the daughter.
Little toys are also made for children. The grass is available in abundance during the summer and winter months. Copious rains turn huge areas into swaps where this grass thrives.
Once the rainy season comes to a close, the slowly drying swamps yield piles of grass. This is then dyed with colours and then dried in the sun. Once dry, the grass is cleaned and cut into thin strips that are then woven into baskets, toys, trays, etc.
Some complex designs have been tried. This lamp here was designed by designers from the Jiyo project.
We left Rathwa just when the sun was about to set. It was the end of a long cold day and we were hoping the cheerful faces we left behind and some frantic texting would bring some warmth to our cold fingers.