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Combining traditional skills with modern needs to 'promote' bamboo craftsmanship

Sunil and Nirupama Deshpande
By Moin Qazi*
Melghat is a forest tract nestled in the Satpura range in eastern Maharashtra. It is inhabited by indigenous people like the Korkus, Gond and Bhilalas, who are bravely defending their verdant world against the ravages of modern commerce. Melghat has been in the news for several years for its lethal malnourishment, which had been claiming lives of hundreds of children year after year.
The social landscape has now bloomed like the surrounding lush forest and tribals now enjoy better social indices. The harbinger of this change is the work of an impressive range of social warriors, who have helped build resilience of local communities.
Sobered by recurring disasters, the people, too, have honed their instincts and have taken charge of their lives. Among the people who are leading this revolution is a home-grown social crusader couple, Sunil and Nirupama Deshpande.
An opportunity arose in the 1990s for the Deshpandes to make social service a calling. Melghat was declared a severe malnutrition zone in 1993, following the death of 500 children, and the region soon became a challenging arena for development workers. It was in this sombre environment that Sunil’s social chromosomes fired his imagination to do something useful.
That vision had been years in the making. He was always stirred by a desire to do more with his life and that of others. When his enterprising wife Nirupama, herself finely honed in a social mould and an academically-trained social worker, nudged him to follow his heart, Sunil turned his back on his urban upbringing and decided to pursue his passion: Empowering the tribals.
“Giving up city life was inevitable…not that it was appreciated by everyone, but my mind was made up,” recalls Sunil. The mission resonated with both of them and germinated their dormant social seed. The couple picked a remote village, Lavada in Melghat region, as their home and set upon a lifelong romance with tribals.
They decided to make bamboo the medium of economic regeneration of local tribal communities and founded Sampoorna Bamboo Kendra in 1996. It was followed by an artisans’ cooperative, Venu Shilpi Industrial Cooperative Society, in 1998 with just 15 tribals. The society is the marketing platform of the bamboo production centres, which have now increased to 37 sites across the country. As many as 450 tribal families are dependent on the society for their livelihood.
When I first came in contact with Nirupama, I was heading my bank’s state operations in micro-finance and she was a frontline campaigner of the self-help group (SHG) movement in Maharashtra. I realised that the couple’s moment of epiphany was an inevitable milestone. Sunil was introduced to bamboo craft by another acclaimed bamboo enthusiast Vinu Kale. 
The main benefit of bamboo is its amazing strength and enhanced aesthetics as compared to wood, metal and steel. The structure of bamboo, with its long tubular fibres, densely packed and bonded with starch, gives it amazing durability.
Wherever it is available, bamboo is much cheaper than higher-grade timber. There are a number of positive attributes of this grassy material. Since it has a unique rhizome-dependent system, bamboo is among the fastest growing and most adaptable materials on the planet. It can grow up to 24 inches in a day or more.
Sunil decided to use it to bring prosperity to the tribals. His attempt was to push the possibilities of the material, primarily its inherent tensile strength, and bring it out of its cast of a rudimentary material, the urban conception of which might be limited to the bamboo ladders used in construction. He is vigorously promoting bamboo craftsmanship by integrating traditional skills with modern needs, making the craft a vehicle of emotional, aesthetic and economic fulfilment. Sunil’s experiment merges traditional and contemporary creativity.
Tribal areas typically face several developmental impediments: Small land holdings; low savings and capital formation; limited market access; low levels of human development; paucity of resources like skilled labour, reliable power supply, connectivity, transport and a young population alienated from farming and other rural occupations. They need solutions tailored to their needs and contexts. The causes of rural distress are manifold and the root cause is lack of skills and economic opportunity. As a consequence, the youth is migrating to cities. 
The main benefit of bamboo is its amazing strength and enhanced aesthetics as compared to wood, metal and steel
Filial piety has been a tenet of tribal values, helping to ensure that traditions are passed down from one generation to the next. While this sense of familial duty has ensured the survival of local traditions, so far it’s not clear if it’s going to be enough. Times are changing and not all young people want to take over their parents’ old jobs, nor is it easy to attract new people to enter these trades. Sunil’s intervention has been able to reignite this bond and now the youth is enthusiastically on board his mission. 
Sunil and Nirupama understand that interventions for regeneration of the tribal economy cannot be played out in the same way that society perceives the poor: Desperate citizens who need to be rescued by the elite. 
“We have to understand the local challenges to improve their composite livelihoods,” avers Sunil. According to him, it takes local entrepreneurs, empowered to adapt easily to the nuances of local culture, to create and drive change sustainably on the ground.
The bamboo kendra undertakes training, research, organisation and design development and so far, 5,000 tribal youth have been trained here. A whopping 150 items are made here, the most popular being rakhis (wrist bands) and coasters. “We are unable to make furniture as the power supply is meagre and means of transportation don’t exist.” The couple is also focussing on agriculture and plantations. The duo has also taken up a project for building bamboo bathrooms for women.
They have established a village knowledge centre where students are taught traditional and cultural knowledge to ensure that they live a successful practical life in co-existence with the environment. No student is awarded a degree or a certificate in this institution, they are only imparted knowledge and for free.
Their skill is their strongest credential for livelihood employment. Gram Gyanpeeth or ‘rural university’ has nine ‘gurukuls’ where students learn art and crafts like pottery, stitching, making of bamboo, stone, metal and leather handicrafts. Later, these skills can be used to earn a livelihood.
Sunil is engaging the students at both the craft and philosophical level. The traditional spirit of creative work in tribal communities is rooted in bold experimentations, open and limitless interactions, collaborations and dialogues. Sunil has tried to retain this flavour in the knowledge systems at his centre.
The artisan is not only a repository of a knowledge system that was sustainable but is also an active participant in its re-creation. The artistic achievements of these craftsmen are contextualised with objects and art works that encapsulate bamboo’s long-standing appeal. They also highlight the material’s natural beauty and its versatility.
One of the most successful initiatives of the Deshpandes is the concept of eco-friendly bamboo rakhis. Aptly named “Shrushti Bandha” — to signify the human bond with nature — these rakhis use wafer-thin bamboo shavings cut into stars, triangles, pyramids, and so on, as a base, which is then combined with other locally-sourced decoration material.
“It is a simple technique that uses ordinary tools. Five days of training can get any tribal to produce beautiful rakhis,” says Sunil. The centre has been producing more than one lakh rakhis and of this, 50,000 have been exported to the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and Singapore.
“About 450 adivasis work for three months, using the simplest of tools and produce about 50,000 rakhis. Each person earns between Rs 150 and Rs 500 per day depending upon the number of rakhis produced,” says Sunil.
It has been a long, arduous trek for the Deshpandes, whose small sapling has grown into a banyan tree. They have encountered several challenges but their determination has sustained them and the tribals they work for. In a world where social issues are proliferating and where governments are looking inward instead of outward, hope comes from social entrepreneurs whose commitment and creativity are driven by a purpose far bigger than their own identities.
Most revolutionary solutions were evolved by people who looked at the familiar landscape with fresh eyes and believed that expertise was sterile without passion. The Deshpandes saw promise where others saw hopelessness. That has made all the difference.
---
*Development expert

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