Snake, bitter, bottle, ridge, ash—these are all varieties of the humble Gourd, and most of us probably protested loudly when our mothers would attempt to prepare dishes using any of these vegetables, for lunch or dinner.
Even though gourds are extremely nutritious, the demand for them is considerably low in markets across the country, because of which, farmers rarely invest in them, and even if some do, they grow them as auxiliary crops that barely earn them any revenue.
However, not many in India know that gourds have an extraordinary characteristic that people around the world have been harnessing to create great pieces of art as well as utility products!
Yes, you read that right, gourd art is actually a thing abroad, and you’d be surprised at the extent of creativity and artistic magic that emerges when these underdog veggies become canvases for carvers.
Tuma craft is the only known gourd art legacy that India can boast about and comes straight from Bastar, the heart of Chhattisgarh. From inventive lampshades with brilliant pinprick patterns to more common utilitarian household articles like vessels and water containers—all these are fashioned by the tribal artisans in Bastar for a living.
Mysuru-based agriculturist Seema Prasad had known about the existence of such an art form, but it wasn’t until her husband, Krishna Prasad, came across beautiful artefacts in Kenya and Tanzania that were fashioned out of gourd by tribal communities, that she realised the vast potential the native vegetable had in India and more importantly, how it could bring a sustainable flow of income for farmers.
This was four years ago.
Incidentally, Seema and Krishna are the founders of Sahaja Samrudha, a non-profit organisation that has been preserving and propagating heritage seeds for over a decade now.
So, Seema had been closely working in the agrarian sector and knew where gourds stood amongst farmers, who would obviously prefer more revenue-intensive crops for better returns.
“Besides being huge and hard to accommodate in fridges, not everyone relishes gourds—hence the low demand. Also, priced between ₹10-12 per kg and rarely earning farmers anything above ₹100, growing gourds as a crop was a risk that they wouldn’t want to willingly take. But after seeing a variety of gourd handicrafts and utensils first-hand in Kenya, where the varieties were even huger and sturdier than their Indian counterparts, I realised that this was the way farmers and artisans could reap handsome profits from the vegetable,” says Seema to The Better India.
And thus started a journey that led Seema to Tanzania, where she learnt the art directly from the local artisans over a span of three days. This was followed by another year of trials and experimentations with tools as well as native gourd seeds that she’d brought from Africa to craft a wide range of artefacts including wall-hangings, artsy showpieces, lampshades, vases and even dolls.
All the hard work led to the couple finally launching a venture, Krishikala, on January 15, to create awareness about the art form and also train rural women to craft gourds into beautiful showpieces and collectibles.
Before that, Seema also went around the country in search of indigenous gourd seeds and through the network of farmers that Sahaja Samrudha had built over the years, managed to collect not just seeds but also samples of huge gourds that included both edible and wild varieties. It was on these that Seema perfected her gourd carving skills and soon found out that the products had a great demand amongst the couple’s family and friend circles.
“Two years ago, we gave away all the gourd artworks that I’d worked on as gifts to the people who came for our housewarming ceremony. The reception we received had been quite overwhelming, to be honest, but I must say that had been a motivator to take forward the art strongly,” says Seema.
Following this, she intensively worked on helping farmers understand the phenomenal potential of gourds, and distributed seeds amongst the ones who were seriously interested in taking this forward.
While buying gourds from farmers at rates depending on their sizes, edibleness and rarity, she made sure that the farmers got good returns for their produce.
“We had managed to accumulate about 3000 dry gourds this way,” she mentions.
The real taste of success for the couple came in November last year when Sahaja Samrudha was given the responsibility to decorate the stage for an international organic trade fair in New Delhi.
“Throughout the fair, we had used these models to decorate our stall, but many people repeatedly returned asking if these artefacts were on sale. Funnily enough, we had to keep refusing them as these were to be used for stage decoration on the final day. But the interest just kept rising, and I had to promise people that I’d sell these on the last day of the event. You wouldn’t believe if I told you that the entire haul earned us ₹22,000 in total! I didn’t even have to reduce any price for the vases or lampshades—people were willing to shell out any amount!” laughs Seema.
Krishikala aims to promote local handicrafts made only using agri-products. Although their prime focus is to widen the market for gourd art, Seema explains that they are also promoting handicrafts made out of paddy, coconuts and even grass.
She also mentions that the venture aims to focus on training women artisans in particular.
In fact, she had organised a training session in collaboration with Sahaja Samrudha in Mysuru last month, where 28 rural artisans and SHG members learnt different craft techniques using gourds. However, Seema is keen on guiding any artisan who is game to learn an entirely new form of art.
In her pursuit of gourds, she has managed to establish a repository of 48 different gourd varieties so far, including both edible and wild ones from regions across India. While she has already accumulated 5,500 dried gourds for this year, Seema has also distributed seeds amongst 5-6 interested farmers before the monsoon season, for the next course.
“From vases to wall hangings, I’ve identified 30 shapes that these gourds naturally form into, out of which the artefacts have been modelled into 20 distinct varieties. At present, we have a small unit in Vajamangala, which lies in the outskirts of Mysuru where the gourds are stored and all the production, as well as training sessions, are supervised,” Seema explains.
What Seema envisions through Krishikala is not just to bring gourd art to the fore in India but also provide sustainable livelihoods for rural women as well as farmers through a direct margin of 60-80 percent .
“We want to expand our reach more extensively under the Krishikala label, which at present is only pertained with marketing and selling gourd artefacts through our known networks and various organic stores,” she adds.
As for future goals, Seema hopes to also engage more farmers in the process, and create a ‘Gourd Growers Group’, just like any other farmers group across the country.
You can look up more of Seema’s amazing handiworks out of various gourd varieties on Krishikala’s Facebook page. For more enquiries, you can write to them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)