My journey is my destination
On December 20th, 1996, I had the good fortune of meeting one of India’s most primitive communities, a day that has been forever etched in my memory. I was invited by the Bharat Seva Ashram Singh to visit its centre at Samanpur village of Nimdih Block in Saraikela –Kharsawan
District, Jharkhand. I was rather curious to meet the Sabar tribesmen and understand their culture.
Prior to my meeting with the Sabar tribesman, I had heard about their age-old history, rich culture and patriotism. They had offered a strong resistance to the British colonial forces and hence are among the 68 de-notified tribes of India who were booked under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, a colonial-era law.
I accepted the invitation and reached the village of Samanpur. It was about 60 kilometres from Jamshedpur and the village was surrounded by hills and forests. The village was not accessible by road and we had to walk down to the village. When we reached, I was moved beyond words to see the pathetic condition of the Sabar tribesmen. Although the village was located only 60 km away from an industrial city, its people had not seen the benefits of civilization and were living in abysmal conditions. I could see that a paradoxical situation of abject poverty prevailed in these prosperous forests. I was told that they lived in small huts of three by four feet, which they could enter only by crawling into them. I was also told by a member of the Sangh that they supplied food for the tribes.
However, when food could not be supplied to them on time, they survived on dead animals and birds.
I was taken aback when I learnt about this frightening truth. However, there was a ray of hope when we saw a woman weaving a basket of Kanshi grass in one of the many petty dwellings. I saw massive potential in this intricate craft that rested in the hands of these primitive people. On enquiring, I was told that these articles had an unorganised market with meagre incentives to sustain a decent living. The whole experience of meeting these people compelled me to meet them whenever I found the time. I soon developed an emotional connection with these people. Their faith and respect for me, demonstrated by kind gestures in return for the small and insignificant help I had rendered, kept me tied to the community. In due course of time, this relationship grew stronger.
Setting up shop
Since their creativity possessed a certain degree of mettle, I thought of taking this forward when I was transferred to the Bihar State Export Corporation (Delhi Office) in 2000. Here, I had come to know that there was an office only for the development and welfare of crafts and craftsman. One day, I took one of the boxes, weaved with Kanshi grass and left for New Delhi, to show it to the Development Commissioner (Handicrafts), Ministry of Textile. He was impressed with the work and we discussed the various schemes in which a training program could be chalked out for these indigenous natives, so as to further refine their weaving styles and improve the product varieties. Since there were no takers for this program, we volunteered to set it up. We consulted the prestigious National Institute of Fashion Technology (Delhi) and requested them to help us in organising Design Development Workshops in Saraikela-Kharsawan District. Consequently, five designers simultaneously started five separate workshops, imparting training to 50 artisans from Makula, Samapur, and <g data-gr-id="118">Bhangat</g> villages. The designers stayed lived in these remote villages for a month. The first such initiative in Jharkhand was inaugurated by the State’s then Minister of Welfare Arjun Munda.
This initiative delivered promising results and in a month’s time, these local artisans improved their skills and became adept at making many articles of great utility and ornamentation, ranging from CD covers and night lamps to designer hats and beautiful wall clocks. Soon, orders started to pour in. However, since it’s a slow craft and only 50 trained artisans at our disposal, we could not meet the big orders. Thus, the next challenge was to increase our production base. A group of ladies working as voluntary social welfare organisation also expressed their interest in working for the cause. We helped them register as an NGO called “Ambalika”, which can be loosely translated into “a mother, who works selflessly for her children”. This was a group of dedicated ladies who offered their services by looking after the workshop operations and taking care of tribal artisans. Their association and contribution to this program is of great significance. But due to the paucity of funds, the outcome was not as significant and the artisans again resorted to wood-cutting. Some migrated to cities, as they did not see any benefit in continuing with their traditional craft.
When I was made in-charge of Jharkhand state’s pavilion in the India International Trade Fair (IITF) 2011, under the capacity of Joint Director (Industries), Government of Jharkhand, I found an opportunity once again to provide a platform for these crafts handmade by those 50 artisans. The response from the visiting crowd was encouraging. As luck would have it, Ranjan Chatterjee, posted as a senior consultant for the Planning Commission of India and in-charge Jharkhand State affairs, also visited the pavilion. He wholeheartedly applauded the work done by artisans, recalling his visit to the workshops at <g data-gr-id="113">Chilgu</g> village of <g data-gr-id="114">Chandil</g> Block, when he had toured the State for a review of the Integrated Action Plan program. He emphasised the fact that not only do these products possess market potential, but also carry the potential of bringing back these relinquishing tribes in Maoist-affected areas into mainstream society, besides allowing them to preserve their traditional crafts.
Chatterjee soon asked me to come up with a similar proposal of providing workshop-based training programs for design upgradation of handicrafts. I was happy to present a proposal and his approval led to the creation of such workshops. These workshops employed 350 households for eight months, further sharpening the skills of these artisans. It was a successful effort which fetched good results.
An immense sense of pride and dedication to their craft was apparent among the Sabar tribesman during the workshop. They kept on churning out useful prototypes with the help of NIFT-based designers. The enthusiasm displayed by the Sabar was rather palpable.
The spirit of teamwork
Another important contribution of this workshop was teamwork. Earlier, artisans from one village were totally ignorant of the work being done by their counterparts in another. Teamwork and exchange of art and craft were totally missing. The workshop brought together artisans from nine villages and inculcated important lessons of teamwork and mutual cooperation amongst them. If this spirit continues after the conclusion of the workshop it will immensely benefit the artisans and their timeless craft, besides improving their skills and efficiency. With an improvement in efficiency and upgraded modern design and technology, the craft caught the attention of one and all and was highly appreciated in fairs like IITF, Dilli Haat and other exhibitions. This rekindled the interest of the young Sabars in their age-old craft and established a deep-seated commitment among them to preserve and protect their art form too.
The prototypes developed during the workshop had the potential to become viable alternatives to cheap and hazardous plastic goods. Natural resources like palm leaves and Kanshi grass – available in abundance for free or at very low price – were used as raw materials for all the prototypes. These products reflect an ethereal beauty and are very cost-effective as well. Needless to say, the marketing and adoption of these products will go a long way in checking environmental degradation caused by plastic goods.
Tackling the militant menace
Militants from the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) are quite active in Nimidh, Chandil and Lchagarh Blocks of the West Singbhum Districts. They feast on the frustration of the Sabars, at the administration’s failure to improve their lot and encourage them to join their ranks. The poor Sabar tribesman fall prey to the false hopes and promises made by these militants. It is hoped that the workshop will help them earn a good income and allow them to join the mainstream. This, in turn, will eventually put an end to the nefarious designs of the militants. Under the guidance of a senior official Snehlata Kumar, who was then the MD of TRIFED, their products were bought for test marketing.
However, a lot needs to be done and the journey has just begun. Basic Infrastructure such as a common facility centres (CFC) are required in their villages where craftsmen can work in groups and showcase their products, besides acquiring regular training. Also, a market needs to be created for their products so as to assure a continuous and sustainable business model. In addition, development needs to arrive in this area. Improvement of basic amenities such as roads, drinking water is long over-due. An orientation towards a better living with adult education and health awareness programs needs to be generated, besides linkages to the latest technology. We need to do whatever we can for the upliftment of such people who have been left behind. This is just the beginning of a glorious page in the lives of these intrepid people. As for the indomitable spirit of this supremely talented tribe, their promises are endless and they have miles to go before they sleep.
The author is the Joint Director (Industries), Government of Jharkhand. The views expressed are personal.