Strolling through the bylanes of Sankhari Sahi in the South Odisha district of Nabarangpur, you are likely to come across Pravati Patro with a group of women illustrating plain or coloured bamboo boxes using delicate multi-hued threads.
“This box tells the story of a farmer,” Patro holds up a lacquered box she has been working on—the illustration on its side shows a farmer tilling his field. It has fallen to Patro and a group of craftswomen she leads to keep the art of making lacquered boxes alive.
Lacquering is delicate work and quite warm because of the fire involved in the process—the resins have to be kept constantly soft and yielding. To make her lacquered box, Patro melts the resin first and mixes the pigments and dyes to get the exact shade she wants. Next she coats a bamboo box evenly with the melted lacquer generated from kusum plants to create a base. She then imprints designs on it with colourful lac threads prepared by melting the resin. She pastes the bright threads on the boxes in different designs.
Lac craft of Odisha, mainly practiced in Nabarangpur and Balasore districts, is done in two forms – lacquered boxes (Lakha Pedhi in local parlance) and lac dolls (Jau Kandhei) – that are associated with Odia weddings. In both the districts, the craft is mostly women-dominated. While in Nabarangpur, lacquered boxes are gifted to a girl by her parents after her wedding, Jau Kandheis of Balasore are gifted to newlyweds as a symbol of love.
“While Jau Kandheis are very much in demand and get space in national and state level handicraft exhibitions that are held at regular intervals, demand for lacquered boxes is only seen during the wedding season and some festivals”, says Parvati who is one of the leading award winning artists of the craft, adding that these boxes are used to gift jewellery and other small items to a bride by her parents and in-laws.
“There are 300 families belonging to the Sankhari community in Sankhari Sahi here and all of them know the craft but they are not preparing them anymore due to lack of patronage by government and cultural bodies. Not all the women are able to make designs on the boxes today; only five of us in our community can,” says Parvati, who has been practising the craft since she was 15 years old. Earlier, her community members used to decorate palaces of kings and houses of zamindars of the region with lac on festive occasions.
She currently operates a registered society – Maa Mangala Lac Artisans Association – and three self help groups (SHGs) that teach and produce the craft. The society currently has 45 women members. “Owing to Covid, the work has come down to a large extent but we are still urging women and girls to learn this craft so that it can be kept alive”, says Pravati who trains at least 30 women in colouring and designing the boxes for free every year.
While the base of the boxes are painted in green, red and blue lac colours, two kinds of floral designs and alpana or floor decorations with geometric arrangements – considered traditional motifs for the craft – are made by the women. Pravati, who is a master craftsperson now, has also been adding contemporary themes to the design bank of lac craft to meet the market demands. “Not everyone would like traditional designs that are usually done for weddings. So I try to add themes like urban and rural life, nature to my designs”, says the artist whose products are a hit among European tourists.
The artisans procure the bamboo boxes from four tribal families of Khandiguda village under Borrigumma block of neighbouring Koraput district and colours from Berhampur in Southern Odisha. These boxes are first ornamented with lac base that is usually generated from Kusum plants and then designs are made on them with colourful lac threads which are prepared by melting the resin and adding colours to it. These threads are then pasted onto the boxes in different designs. To add to the beauty of the craft, silver coloured sheets are used in the boxes along with lacquer threads. Made with bamboo, these boxes are bio-degradable and no chemical colours are used in them.
Lac is procured from Chandahandi village of Nabarangpur or Raigarh in bordering Chhattisgarh for the purpose. “Raw material shortage is the biggest impediment we face today and Covid has made things worse. Usually brokers in Chandahandi sell lac to artisans in Chhattisgarh which is located close to the village. As a result, local artisans have to fork out more money for buying the raw material”, says Pravati, whose last biggest order for lacquered boxes was given by the Odisha Government in 2016. The government placed orders for 700 such boxes measuring 6 X 6 inch and 3.5 inch deep to gift them to the players at the Hockey World Cup that was hosted in Bhubaneswar. This was also the biggest order of lacquered boxes that the Sankhari community had received in the last one decade.
Pravati says the craft is now confined to a few households in Nabarangpur and unless more and more people are trained in it and a market linkage provided to them, it would not survive.
(The story was first published in The New Indian Express)