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Skill Development Programme for Santal Women in Purulia

Making Ornaments From Natural Fibre : September 5-17, 2018

Ever since we began regularly visiting the Santal community in pockets of northern Purulia since 2015, we became painfully aware of the dire need for income generation opportunities among the people there, and especially for the women we had come in contact with. Even though Daricha Foundation’s primary goal is the propagation of traditional folk and tribal art, we realized we may have to shift focus to developed crafts if we were to provide any tangible assistance to these women. 

With this foremost on our minds, we groped for ideas for skill development programmes among Santal women in a few villages.  Our goal was to offer training on something that had a traditional link with the community, using material that the women were familiar with. The genesis of our plan came from the women themselves: A Santal family in Birbhum have for the past decade been crafting ornaments out of plant fibre and being a great fan of their beautiful, feather light products, I wear them most of the time. During one of my visits to Purulia, my earrings caught the eye of the Santal women in a village. They had never before seen products like these and were keen to be taught the craft. 

We quickly swung into action. We approached Chhabi Besra, the craftsperson in Birbhum who readily agreed to conduct the training.  Then came the difficult part – organizing funds. Being a tiny, resource strapped, not for profit, funding has always been our biggest hurdle. But some things are meant to be! Around this time, we were invited to come on board Small Change, a wonderful fundraising platform that works out of Bangalore. With their help, we put together a fund raiser and were able to cobble together the required amount thanks to the generosity of family, friends and some extraordinary individuals.

Unlike their counterparts in Birbhum, Santal women in Purulia are economically far more backward. In a region often devoid of rain and unable to survive on cultivation alone, women are often found doing hard labour, earning less than the minimum wage. Our plan was to train 20 women each in the villages of Bhurkundabari in Neturia block and Banshraya in Kashipur block. 

With hope in our hearts and money finally in the bank, our team comprising Smriti Gupta and myself set out for Purulia, accompanied by Chhabi and her sister, Bijoli Mandi. We carried with us all the raw material required for the workshop, barring the palm leaves. These comprised the tools – scissors and small pliers, along with the material required for the ear rings and necklaces, multi coloured wooden beads, lengths of copper wire in 2 gauges, cotton string for the necklaces and hooks for the ear rings. The workshops were to take place between September 5th and 11th in Bhurkundabari and from September 12th to 17th at Banshraya. 

Workshop I - Bhurkundabari

At Bhurkundabari, our Santal friends, the ever willing Laxmikanta Hembram and Bimal Baskey had already got the ball rolling. Space was organized at the Bhurkundabari Junior High School (which stands empty because there are no teachers available), 20 eager women had been selected and a kitchen set up that would provide lunch and tea for about 30 people for the next seven days. 

The trainers had taken the precaution of bringing with them dried date palm leaves so that no time would be wasted and after a short introduction, and training kits distributed, the training began. Two groups were made  - ten per trainer and excitement filled the air from the word go. The women crowded around their trainer, first learning how to identify suitable palm and date palm leaves. 

The date palm leaves were put out to dry and the women in the meanwhile, were taught the basics of weaving strips cut from a palm leaf into small pyramid like objects. Santal children often weave similar objects which they use as “watches” and so mastering the skill came pretty easily to these women. 


By the end of the first day, the women had got the hang of the weaving and were doing their best to create identical pieces of tightly woven palm leaf strips to be used as earrings. Meanwhile, our wonderful, enterprising handyman, Lalu Tudu, (who kept us entertained all through the seven days with his antics), quickly got to work, under instructions from Chhabi, and provided a steady supply of tender leaves off the palm trees that surrounded the venue. 

Most of the women had to return to their household duties by 4:30 and so, the plan was to end each day with a round of tea and biscuits around 4pm. 

By the end of the second day, the women had little piles of woven palm units of various shapes and sizes that would go into ear rings or pendants. The bits woven from fresh palm leaves had to be sun dried before they could be strung. They were also taught how to strip the bark of a palm tree, hammer it down and extract its fibres - a rather painstaking process. These fibres would be later woven into earrings and necklaces.

   


 

Meanwhile, the date palm fronds had dried and on the third day, they started weaving these as well. By the day’s end, they were taught to string the woven bits into necklaces or attach them to ear hooks, along with the coloured wooden beads that we had carried for them. 

Wooden beads are not locally available, but we used them as substitutes, since sourcing seeds during the monsoons would be difficult. However, the women were shown samples of seeds like kaath sheem (flat beans) and gunja (rosary pea), and were instructed to collect these and other brightly coloured seeds during the course of the year. 
                                
The next few days passed in a virtual kaleidoscope of colours. The women came up with all sorts of fantastic combinations of colours and weaves and the joy and excitement among them was palpable. 

And finally they were taught how to perfectly finish their products. By the 4th day, the self- imposed “palm leaves down” was forgotten and women stayed on till six pm even, trying to maximize on their learning!

Word quickly spread and school children and random villagers kept dropping by, a look of wonder on their faces. One youngster from a nearby locality (Bhurkundabari has a few non-tribal families) sorrowfully enquired if the programme was only for “scheduled tribes". Husbands of the women and the teachers from the primary school next door too turned up to admire the work being rapidly churned out. 

Many took photos and some told us of their intention to sell these in arby Jharkhand as soon as the women had perfected their skills. Young girls kept trying out the ornaments and taking selfies! Even our Santal assistants, Bimal and Laxmikanta, could not resist trying their hands at it. We also had 4 legged creatures dropping in seeking protection from the rain. 

By the end of the Bhurkundabari workshop, all the women had learnt the basic skills and will only need to practice for two or three months. And the icing on the cake was that they not only loved the products they were making, but were greatly encouraged by the enthusiastic response all around.

 

We left a beaming group of women with a promise to return and check their progress in afew months. 










Workshop II – Banshraya

The venue for the 2nd workshop was at the community hall at Banshraya village, Kashipur block, which is 22 km to the south west of Raghunathpur. The villagers here depend primarily on whatever little cultivation they can manage for their sustenance. Some also make a living collecting sal leaves from the forest. The women who participated were all members of SHGs and two women from each of the 10 groups in the village were invited to participate. At first, the women here, used as they are to numerous training programs offered by the local government, did not expect much beyond the mandatory 4 o’clock “tiffin” and yet another certificate to be “collected”.  

They were restless and kept dropping out, while random people kept joining in. We realized that these women are used to being doled out training programmes, whether they need it or not - actual "learning" is not mandatory. So it took them two days to settle down, with the help of some firm “talking-to” on our parts. They were quite surprised to see us so determined and serious about actually ensuring that they properly imbibed the skills. Thus, by the time they caught on, the chosen 20 were regretting that they had refused to train on a Sunday, as is usual with government organized programmes. (So we went back to Bhurkunda - giving the women there an extra day.) 
                                                                                                                                                                  
But despite the initial hiccups, the workshop was a great success. The women, now greatly enthused, wished we could have stayed on for a few more days and regretted that they had not paid sufficient attention in the beginning. Here too, as in Bhurkundabari, by the end of the programme, children gleefully modelled their mothers’ creations and then stood expectantly in line to be photographed; the men who turned up were happy to try out as well.  

The women took down details with respect to pricing and resolved to contribute Rs 100 or Rs 200 each year so that our team members from Bhurkundabari would be able to procure the necessary raw materials (other than the leaves so plentifully available) for them. But we also observed that of the 20, there were 2 girls who would not be able to spare the Rs 100. Everybody was requested to dress up in their traditional finery on the last day, but these two youngsters did not even have a traditional sari between them and had pretty much worn the same clothes every day.   We decided then and there that we would definitely go back for them and give those two girls some special lessons.

After the certificates were handed out, the women happily posed for the camera with their certificates. They even clapped as the certificates were being presented on cue. They were obviously quite practiced. The leader of the group, while thanking us, provided some unintended entertainment by referring to us constantly as Disha Furniture! On this last evening, they were in no rush to return home and to their chores. The sun had set long back and as the crickets chirped loudly, a lovely song by the women provided a sweet warm ending to the programme. 

To our amazement, the women had already started selling to friends and relatives - even as we cautioned them to master the finish first. Some of the men too bought earrings and necklaces for themselves, while others looked forward to buy in readiness for their great festival Dasae, where the men dress up as women. 



The trainers, Chhabi and Bijoli were very impressed with the remarkable progress the women had made, though they were hardly surprised. All in all, the workshop was a roaring success and the products, a grand hit. The sparkle in their eyes and the buzz of excitement that lasted from when we first showed them the products they were going to make till the end of the programme made the experience hugely fulfilling for us. 


It was also thrilling to see how some of the women took off with their own ideas! Santals are natural born artists and they are used to weaving with palm leaves for domestic purposes like mats etc. The trainers and our assistants being Santal too, I, in fact, was the odd one out and had to keep pleading for translations in Bengali!   

 



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