Bamboo crafts of the northeastern region of India have developed over centuries to reach a high level of structural and aesthetic sophistication. This is amply illustrated by the vast range of products currently being made and used by several tribes living in this region. A study of these products reveals a vast repertory of forms, structures, and techniques. The product range inc ludes large structures such as bridges, houses, fences, gates, and bullock carts besides storage bins and a wide variety o baskets both tor carrying and storage. In addition, devices for fishing, hunting farming, and weaving as well as products for household use such as furniture, toys smoking pipes, combs, hats, and musical instruments are exquisitely crafted fro bamboo.
People of the Northeastern RegionOrder now
The population of the northeastern states is composed of several different tribes and ethnic groups. Although similarities may be seen at the general level, a great many differences exist between tribes and even sub-tribes in the manner in which they use bamboo and in the type of products made. The people of the northeast can be broadly divided into two groups, namely, settlers of the plains and settlers of th hills.*’ Strategies evolved for the promotion of crafts in this region will need to reco nise these differences The skill of working with bamboo is extremely widespread, with a large perce tage of the ethnic pop lation capable of refined craftsmanship in this material. Although for most craftsmen this is not an exclusive occupation, the distrib tion of skill and an understanding of the properties and limitations of the material is a valuable resource for the formation and expansion of a craft-based industry.
The Material Bamboo
Is a collective term used to identify the culms (stems) of any of a group embracing many different kinds of grasslike woody plants. The characteristics of bamboo vary considerably from species to species.4 Mature plants are charac terised by rapid growth which generates long fibres in a homogeneous struc ture. It can be used whole, split, or flattened into sheets for a great many structural applica tions. Splits of various sizes can be obtained, and can even be twisted to form ropes. Bamboo can also be pulped to produce excellent paper and rayon. The northeastern region has an immense standing resource of bamboo. Distribu tion of species is linked to variations in terrain, altitude, rainfall, and soil composi tion, to name only a few criteria.4 Some species occur all over the region whereas others may lie found only at spec ific locations. Some of these cover large* tracls of forest land in continuous groves. A lew species are cultivated in the plains of Assam and Manipur, grown as clumps beside rice fields and around houses and ponds.
Bamboo is a collective term used to identify the culms (stems) of any of a group embracing many different kinds of grasslike woody plants. The characteristics of bamboo vary considerably from species to species.4 Mature plants are charac- terised by rapid growth which generates long fibres in a homogeneous struc ture. It can be used whole, split, or flattened into sheets for a great many structural applica tions. Splits of various sizes can be obtained, and can even be twisted to form ropes. Bamboo can also be pulped to produce excellent paper and rayon. The northeastern region has an immense standing resource of bamboo. Distribu tion of species is linked to variations in terrain, altitude, rainfall, and soil composi tion, to name only a few criteria.4 Some species occur all over the region whereas others may lie found only at spec ific locations. Some of these cover large tracts of forest land in continuous groves. A lew species are cultivated in the plains of Assam and Manipur, grown as clumps beside rice fields and around houses and ponds.
There is a fairly well established industry which supplies finished products to hand icraft emporia in the metropolitan cities. This industry is distributed over several locations in Tripura, Assam. Meghalaya, and Manipur. Most of these emporia-type products are sold as curios which are far removed from any functional context. Perhaps this factor has contributed to the degeneration in the aesthetic and struc tural quality standards of these products. An excessive preoccupation with decora tive detail which has no reference to material properties or traditional form is also responsible for this degeneration. It is painful to see such products being promoted by state corporations and government development agencies. Perhaps the best strategy would be to help local craftsmen to select the best exam ples from among the vast range of traditional products and help them see afresh the strengths inherent in these products. Produc t diversification should be firmly rooted in the traditional wisdom expressed in these products if quality standards are to be maintained in the face of change caused by market pressure.
Among the traditional products there are many that would find substantial markets outside the region if they are systematically exposed and promoted. Potential mar kets exist in urban centres in India for well-made trays and baskets which could be used in urban households as functional or storage containers. There is also a large market for authentic collectors, items such as tribal products and basketry, which includes carrying and storage baskets, fish traps, headgear, smoking pipes, etc. The marketing of these products can be greatly enhanced if information relating to source, function, significance in tribal life, and other interesting features of each product are provided along with the product. In addition, a range of new products could be developed based on simple mod ifications of existing product types. One such product line could lie architectural interior elements such as screens and partitions made from the split bamboo mats and flattened bamboo elements presently being used for house construction by tri bal communities. Another product line could well be based on the exotic technique of heat flattening of bamboo into veneer-like sheets used to make storage contain ers. Several tribes in Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, and Arunachal Pradesh make flattened bamboo containers in a variety of shat>es for storing and serving food pre parations. These could be extended to the production of contemporary products such as salad bowls, serving dishes, and trays intended for both urban upcountry and export markets. Similarly, other traditional techniques could be applied for generating a variety of contemporary products. The suggested development strategy of extending traditional products for new applications is based on the assumption that it would prevent the rapid degenera tion of quality control norms usually associated with the introduction of an alien product line. With the establishment of a continuously performing production and marketing infrastructure it would be possible to further diversify product lines. This would be linked to the introduction of improved tools and processes, limited mechanisation, and lamination with sophisticated adhesives. The possible new applications could be in the area of sports goods, toys, and furniture, to name only a few. In this effort it will be worthwhile exploring the role of bamboo is substituting rapidly declining timber resources.
Notwithstanding the tremendous scope for the growth of bamboo handicrafts, today there are also many problems inhibiting its development. As already men tioned, entrepreneurial attitudes and skills need to be developed among local craftsmen. There is a serious lack ot precise data on the structural and mechanical properties of various bamboo species. Although local craftsmen have an intuitive understanding of these properties, there is a need for such information to be exter nalised and classified in a scientific manner. There is also a lack of systematic botanical information on the growth and propagation of species suitable for handic rafts on a region-to-region basis. Bamboo handicrafts an* usually Ixilky and rela- tively low priced. The existing volume-to-cost ratio attracts a disproportionately high transportation cost, especially due to the geographical and political location of the northeastern region. Bamboo is also extremely susceptible to attack by fungi, insects, and borers. Traditional methrxls of preservation may not be applicable to bamboo handicrafts intended for new applications.
To overcome these problems there is an urgent need to build up a coordinated research and development activity infrastructure that is multi-disciplinary in nature. This research will need to include botanical, technical, design, marketing, managerial, and economic aspects directly related to the craft. A considerable amount of information is available with several state and central gov’ornment agen cies such as the Forest Research Institute in Dehra Dun; Botanical Survey of India; Census of India; Anthropological Survey of India; State Forest Departments; Tribal Research Departments; and the Departments of Industries in the northeastern states. In addition, several leading educational institutions such as the Indian Insti tute of Science in Bangalore, The Indian Institute of Management, The National Institute of Design, and the Northeastern Hill University have undertaken projects directly relevant to this craft activity. All this information will need to be brought together and made accessible to field-level workers and craftsmen in the northeast. Further, the Office of the Development Commissioner for Ftandicrafts which is the apex body for the promotion of handicrafts in the country has set up several organisa tions to support the marketing of craft products, the training of young craftsmen, and extension services to craftsmen. The stale governments too have their own infrastructure for craft promotion. These locally situated organisations have a great many people with considerable experience in dealing with local craftsmen and their problems. Hence the elements of a supportive infrastructure for the development and prom otion of crafts exist. All that is perhaps needed is a coordinated thrust towards clearly articulated objectives in the various spheres of activity related to this craft.
A study on the imports of basketware which includes bamboo products—besides wicker, rattan, and products woven or plaited in other natural materials—indicates a substantial market size in countries such as the United States, the Federal Repub lic of Germany, Japan, and France. The growth of imports over the five-year period 1974-79 is in the region of 150-200 per cent.HAny future projection of market pros pects for basketware remains positive, as imports should continue to benefit from an increasing consciousness and campaigns for natural materials and handicrafts China is by far the most succ essful exfx)rter of basketware with well over 40 per cent of the market share in 1979.4 The developing countries of Asia, listed according to their level of export, include the Philippines, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Republic of Korea, Thailand, and Indonesia. It is surprising to note that India has no significant participation in this trade in spite of its massive raw material resource and its fantas tic fund of traditional craft skills. Surely there is a lot that we can learn from our Asian neighlxxirs in the areas of production and marketing of basketware?