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From ‘Surviving’ to ‘Thriving’, A Short Note on Sonipat’s Handicrafts

Need for preserving traditional crafts, and how the District Administration has been a helping hand to Sonipat’s artisans

As a nation, we are celebrating Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav. Our independence struggle was rooted in the cause of ‘Swadeshi’. The fight was for its land, diverse & multi-linguist culture, and traditions. While leaders like MK Gandhi believed in the strength of hand-production, the colonial experience attempted to destroy it completely. Several attempts were directed at preserving India’s craft heritage post-independence. Individuals like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay pioneered the craft movement in India, and several institutions like the Cottage Industries Board (CIB), All India Handicrafts & Handloom Board, the Crafts Council of India (CCI), the Crafts Museum, among many others, were established under her leadership.

With an academic background in History and Heritage Management, understanding Indian history, culture, and heritage have always intrigued me. Working as a Chief Minister’s Good Governance Associate (CMGGA) has provided me the opportunity to explore the rural landscape of Haryana. My work has further helped me understand the functioning of the district administration and to be able to connect with people from all walks of life. My interests particularly lie in strengthening livelihood opportunities for women through the Self Help Groups (SHGs) operating in the rural villages of Sonipat. While visiting a few villages in the district, I have observed a variety of crafts practiced by women as a means of their livelihood.

Sarkanda Baskets

Baskets made by Pyari Ammi from Tanda village, Sonipat

India has a long tradition of basket weaving and it is a very popular craft in rural India. Basket weaving is the process of sewing or weaving materials into a shape with a cylindrical, circular, or square base. The craft of basket weaving was (likely) introduced to Haryana by women of the Multani-speaking Audh community who had migrated from Pakistan during Partition and taken up this craft as a means of supplementing their meagre earnings. Traditionally, the raw materials were the locally grown date palm; phoos, a wild grass; and pula, thin leaves of the sarkanda plant — these were made into coiled baskets intended for domestic use by the womenfolk of the household. The products include a range of round-bottomed, cylindrical, and shallow baskets with and without lids. Some of the cylindrical baskets are nearly three feet high and have lids. The leaves are also plaited into strips and formed into bags and mats. The dry palm leaves, some of which are dyed so as to achieve a colored pattern, are wound around a bunch of phoos or pula and sewn in place by threading the leaf through the lower coil; a big blunt needle is utilized to push the leaf through. (Ranjan, Handmade in India)

‘’We feel empowered with our work and making these colorful baskets provides us with satisfaction. People love our work and appreciate the craft we produce,’ says Pyari, of Tanda village. She moved to Haryana from Punjab and has inherited the skills to make beautiful baskets from her mother. Pyari Ammi (called mother by everyone) shared her techniques to make them and how she innovates with the designs during the process.

The basic ingredients used for the craft include:
Sarkanda grass (a type of grass grown abundantly in Haryana during winters),
Khajur leaves (soaked in water overnight to make them soft),
Colored khajur leaves to create designs and unique patterns in the baskets.

Pyari Ammi making baskets at home

Asha Ji from Tanda village keeping the craft of Punja Durries alive

Punja durries were traditionally made in Haryana using intricate designs and patterns. However, with time, only the people in villages have kept them alive through various means. Many women have retained the expertise to create this craft using waste materials. Below is an example of a colorful durry created by Asha Ji from Tanda village, Sonipat. She has been using smaller bits and pieces of various clothing materials left at home to weave the durries by hand. The women themselves innovate with designs and patterns to make them. The Punja durries of Haryana that were once quite popular for its complex and intricate designs are now largely used at home.

Punja durries made by Asha Ji, Tanda Village, Sonipat
Visiting SHG members in Bhaira Bankipur village, Rai block, Sonipat District
Traditional Haryanvi Punja Durries at SurajKund Mela 2022

Traditional Charpoy for sitting and sleeping

A group of women are also involved in the making of beautiful pidha or charpoys used for sitting or sleeping. The group is based out of Gohana in Sonipat. Charpoys are a common object found in almost every rural household and have traditionally existed in rural India for centuries esp. in hotter geographical regions. Women engaged in this activity have skills in the art of rope weaving which is used to create interesting designs keeping the traditional usage in mind.

Charpoys are essentially made out of a wooden frame with four legs. The space in the middle is further filled with natural fibers such as cotton, jute, coir (material made out of coconut husk), etc. which are very tightly interwoven together leaving a visual design.

Charpai literally means ‘four feet’. It is a bed with a simple wooden frame onto which ropes are woven tightly. It is also called a khaat. Historian Ibn Batuta praised charpoy when he came to India. He said: “The beds in India are very light. A single man can carry one. When you lie on it you need nothing else to render the bed sufficiently elastic.”

Status Quo on Crafts

According to Prof Ashoke Chatterjee, who has served as honorary president of the Crafts Council of India states that ‘Crafts is one of the few sectors that is connected to more than 11 out of 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which are an indicator of the industry’s progressiveness. The new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can be read as a powerful case for artisans and their capacities. More significantly, no other industry offers sustainability as a vision that is economic, environmental, social, and political.’

That is where the District Administration came into play to support the artisans and their craft. To keep the cultural heritage alive, the Sonipat administration is considering various steps that promote handmade crafts and make them accessible to everyone at the local, district, and national levels. Numerous initiatives have been planned in this regard.

  1. Self Help Group (SHG) members are currently working and creating products under the umbrella brand called ‘Saarthi’. This will be promoted by the administration further to provide livelihood support to the SHG members in Sonipat.
  2. 1,000+ women who are part of the SHG network have started with some form of livelihood from a list of 60+ activities. Close to 90 women have been trained in artisanal/ handicrafts activities including but not limited to Jute products, Artificial jewelry making, Terracotta products, Soft toys making, Paper bags, etc.
  3. The idea for an informal market is being discussed that seeks to provide a space dedicated for handicrafts of Sonipat along with other livelihood activities.
  4. Sonipat Support Group has been formed which has volunteers from universities to support the implementation of initiatives for SHG women.
  5. The products are also linked to government schemes such as ‘One Block One Product’ which focuses on each administrative block to have one unique aspect of their area.
  6. As part of the Project Saarthi initiative, 40 women from different 19 villages were taken to Surajkund Mela as part of an exposure trip on 25th March 2022.
  7. A comprehensive action plan has been devised to provide quality training and marketing linkages in collaboration with Haryana State Rural Livelihood Mission (HSRLM).

Conclusion

According to UNESCO, creative industries and cultural infrastructure are valuable resources for generating livelihoods. This is especially true in developing countries that have a wealth of creative industries. As a result, to take forward the crafts that majorly reside in the rural villages or narrow slums in cities, new relationships need to be forged to raise the status of the people who are bearers of such creative traditions. New collaborations are required to move the crafts from the ‘sunset industry’ category and focus on a nation that values its history, environment sustainability, self-sufficiency, and well-being of its individuals. Proper training & adequate education for crafts is imperative for development in this space. That can only make us understand the value of our craft heritage and take it forward to build a sustainable future for subsequent generations.

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