Turning leaves into decorative baskets: Women weavers of Vembar By Suparna roy

Vembar, January 18: On a warm and windy January afternoon, Sudha (15) missed school and sat with her mother to make thatch baskets that can carry 10kgs of karupatti (jaggery) in it.

Sudha along with her friend weaving a basket with 1kg capacity.

Manufacturing jaggery after Palmyra tapping is a major occupation for the people of Vembar in Tuticorin district of Tamil Nadu. The Palmyra tapping is done by men, who climb a minimum of 40 trees a day to collect the juice called ‘neera’. Tappers climb the trees thrice a day which requires hefty physical labour.

The season for Palmyra tapping comes after the withdrawal of the South-East monsoon in January and goes on till the onset of North-West monsoon. This usually coincides with the Tamil months of Thai and Aadi.

Once the juice is collected, the invisibilized women, boil this juice and turn them into what sells like hot cakes; karupatti. If boiling of the juice is delayed after its collection, it loses its value and is not suitable for making jaggery. Ironically, this instant labour goes unnoticed and all the talk is about how the tapping process is an art carried out by men despite its dangers.

During this season, the women weave thatch baskets that are used for packaging of the jaggery produced.

When the produce is sold in the market, it is transported in these thatch baskets which are made by the women of the house after they complete the process of boiling. In a day, a woman weaves around 10-15 baskets which have a carrying capacity of 10kg. Each basket fetches a price ranging from Rs 5 to Rs 8. In peak season, the women get Rs 8 for the basket (Rs 5) and a lid (Rs 3), and in off season they get a total sum of Rs 5.

If the amount of jaggery being produced and sold in these baskets is calculated, it mounts up to 100kg-120kg approximately. The men, who are the face of this profession, earn around Rs 600- Rs 800 for that quantity.

The income disparity is so telling and stark here. To say, a woman individually earns only a maximum of Rs 120 a day, as she is only known as the weaver. The efforts of these women in karupatti preparations are overlooked and ignored. Every year during the peak season there is a sudden drop out of female students in school. The girls assist their mothers in weaving

The women of Vembar and Roachmanagar see no hope of improvement because the families are neck deep in debts for most part of the year. Some women have found an alternative use to their weaving skills.

Women from Geetha Nagar in Vembar, have been using their skill to weave baskets of different shapes, sizes and designs to sell them commercially.

Sitting in the courtyard with her grandchildren, K. Doreena (53) says that the men from her family stopped taking part in Palmyra tapping as the new generation lacks the skill of climbing the tall palm trees.

“We had no tappers in our family so I decided to start weaving colourful baskets instead of plain thatch baskets that I used to weave for karupatti packaging,” K. Doreena said.

The women from every second household in Geetha Nagar make baskets, jewellery boxes, pen stands, etc., and sell them in nearby markets. S. Chandra, another resident, said that they also send the baskets to bigger markets in Tuticorin district and even Chennai.

The women from every second household in Geetha Nagar make baskets, jewellery boxes, pen stands, etc., and sell them in nearby markets. S. Chandra, another resident, said that they also send the baskets to bigger markets in Tuticorin district and even Chennai.

The price given for these boxes, range from Rs 100- 1000. For a small jewellery box, the women get Rs 100 and for a big living-room decorative piece they may get an amount between Rs 800- Rs 1000.

Despite such efforts, the irony lies in the fact that the women are not known for their entrepreneurship. The society always turns a blind eye to the efforts of the women trying to contribute to the family income.

Some women are also exploited in terms of payment. Heavy orders are placed by the dealers from Chennai during the marriage season, to match the trend of exchanging gifts in handcrafted baskets. To keep up with such a trend followed by the upper class, the merchants increase the price at which they sell these baskets, which never trickles down as extra income to the weavers.

Despite these problems the women continue to earn through this skill and pass it on to their next generation. Young girls assist their mothers and grandmothers in weaving these baskets. They say that this skill helps them believe in themselves, that women also can contribute financially to the family.

“Even if I complete my graduation, I know my family will always hesitate to send me outside for jobs. If I learn how to weave then I can be independent and not wait for job opportunities to reach a small village like ours,” Niranjana Peter (14) said.

Credits:

Suparna Roy

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