Between roots and dreams: Journey of Christmas 'crib'-makers of Bhopal

Between roots and dreams: Journey of Christmas 'crib'-makers of Bhopal

Between roots and dreams: Journey of Christmas 'crib'-makers of Bhopal

Christmas and other festivals are the main sources of income for these rural bamboo artisans who have been selling their wares in the city for generations.

Bhopal: Every December a little tented, 'Christmas town' springs up in Shahpura, Bhopal. It is bustling here once again and there is an air of festivity, thanks to lenient COVID-19 restrictions for the first time in two years. Shahpura is a favourite spot for Christmas shoppers because it is the place where bamboo artisans, also known as Banskarscome from far off villages of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh to set up shops, sell Christmas 'cribs' that are used in nativity scenes and other novelty bamboo items.

For generations, these artisans have been coming to Shahpura and camping along the streets in tents which also double up as their shops. Each family is comprised of more than a dozen members living with limited means, yet weaving dreams on the cane. Their eyes light up as they deftly make baskets, hand-fans, cribs, stars and many other beautiful objects using thin strips of cane, never bothering about the bleeding fingers that are a usual occurrence while slicing bamboo into strips.

One of the veterans in this art, Guddi Bai, even though she is not sure about her age, remembers that she was married off by her parents when she was only five years old. “I had been coming here from Tikamgarh in Bundelkhand for over 50 years along with my husband. He passed away a few years ago, leaving me to fend for nine children – five daughters and four sons. God has strange plans. I lost all four sons, and now I live with my daughters, their husbands and grandchildren. It is my traditional bamboo craft that has kept us going,” she said as she gave final touches to a crib.

When 101Reporters asked her how much she earned from selling a crib, Guddi Bai said, “An average-size crib sells for Rs 200 to Rs 350. It takes a couple of days to make one. The peak season for selling the cribs is from December 15 to 25 and we earn around Rs 5,000 to Rs 6,000 in these 10 days.”

She, however, said that the money does not last even for a month to feed her large family, after paying for the clothing, medicines, etc. Sadly, education is not a priority for her family because of the limited resources.

Most of these artisans travel annually from the hinterlands of MP and UP and are heavily dependent on government subsidies on raw materials to carry on  (Picture credit - Vinitha C)

Most of these artisans come from extremely poor homes in the hinterlands of MP and UP. “I have a small house in my village. At present, nobody stays there. Every year I go back to my village in February along with my daughters and grandchildren. We work on others’ farms, as we do not have our own land. We earn some money that helps us come back to Bhopal in April every year. I am hopeful that one day I will be able to buy some land in my village,” said Guddi Bai.

The youngsters in the family have also taken up the traditional craft, but they have bigger dreams and pursuits that drive them. Guddi Bai’s 22-year-old grandson Shubham, who left school after Class VIII, said, “I want to take my grandmother’s craft to a higher level and set up a shop in a commercial area. Our family earns about Rs 25,000 in a month, but then, we have to pay for the raw materials and the monthly rent collected by the municipal corporation for selling our goods on the roadside. After all that and our household expenses, we are left with little money. So setting up a shop is still a dream.”

Almost every day these artisans have to face thieves targeting their raw materials and their household items. “In the night when everyone is asleep, our products get stolen even though we cover them well with tarpaulin sheets. The thieves even take away our utensils and clothes. We have to live with these problems,” Guddi Bai said.

Forty-year-old DL Varma, who came to Bhopal 25 years ago from Khiriya Chhatara village in Lalitpur district, told 101Reporters that even though he managed to purchase a small house at Dana Pani Road, his struggle for survival continued unabated.

“I own a house, but I still have to pay many instalments of my home loan along with heavy electricity bills. Currently, poor artisans like us get 50 bamboos every month at subsidised rates from the forest department, but it is not enough. Especially during festivals or wedding seasons, we need to make more cribs, stars, baskets, etc. We cannot afford to buy bamboos from the open market, because of the high prices. If we get 100 bamboos at subsidised rates, we will be able to improve our production,” said Varma.

"There are hardly any employment opportunities in my village, but I still go back there at least four times every year. My family has five acres of land and my younger brother stays there. I go there for sowing and harvesting every season,” he added.

Golu Dhanuk, a 29-year-old artisan from Nayagaon village in Tikamgarh said that five generations of his family had been coming to Bhopal to sell bamboo goods. Making cribs is something that he looks forward to every year because it fetches him Rs 150 to Rs 500 per piece while Christmas stars are sold for Rs 200-Rs 250 each. “Throughout the year, however, it is the bamboo baskets in all shapes and sizes, priced at Rs 15 to Rs 150 that fetches the money,” he said. Golu’s family of 17 members, including his parents, three brothers, their wives and children, earn around Rs 30,000 per month, which includes the wages he receives from odd jobs that he takes up.

Despite working long hours every day, savings are meagre, but Golu has decided that he would educate his son Hemant, 7, and daughter Nandini, 5, come what may. “I do not want my children to suffer like me. I will do everything possible to see that my children get a decent education and do far better than me,” he said.

Golu’s grandmother still stays in the village where the family has one acre of land. They harvest barely three to four sacks of wheat and lentils, which are consumed at home. “It is a dry patch of land. There is no well or any other means for irrigation. We have to depend solely on rainwater. Still, I go there once in every four months either for sowing or harvesting because I cannot stay away from my roots,” he said.

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