Age-old traditions, handicraft prowess, and artistic acumen come with the weight of generations that have passed before and the perfection time has wrought in them. Each skill is precious, as no one knows when it can die out in its war with machines and lighting-quick technology. Kauna craftwork too is bound with the history of Manipur. Artisans prepare these handicrafts with Kauna which is essentially reeds or rushes belonging to the Cyperaceae family and found abundantly in the state. The local communities traditionally weave the stem of this plant into mats.
Want to buy beautiful hand crafted products made by Kauna artisans from Manipur? Check out Odesh’s collection on Karnival!
Yet, these artisans work in an unorganised handicraft sector where there are no market linkages and a lot of exploitation at the hands of the middlemen.
Organisation for Development of Economic and Self Help (ODESH) is a registered enterprise working for the Kauna artisans by training them to make different items, other than the traditional mat. They link the products directly to the market and support the livelihood of 275 artisans.
The social enterprise was founded by four people from the Khangabok village in the Thoubal District of Manipur. The founders are Bharjit Singh, Kesho Singh, M Gopiromon and Babu Mangang.
“I could see the Kauna artisans from my own village spending a lot of time weaving these mats and not getting remunerated enough. So, I thought it would be nice to diversify the kind of products they were offering,” says Bharjit, Odesh’s co-founder.
Kauna Reeds and People
Odesh’s products are completely natural and unadulterated with chemicals. These handcrafted products are made from materials that intrinsically have insulation capacities. Besides the traditional mats, they also make home decor and utilitarian products like picnic and laundry baskets, flower pots, makeup boxes, and ladies’ handbags among others.
“These products are manufactured in a completely environmentally-friendly manner with a natural material that is available in abundance. Also, the quality of the products are good and will last at least for 15 years,” says Dr. Khumdrak Chinglen Singh who has been a loyal customer of the brand for quite sometime.
The 59-year-old has worked in the social service sector for close to 28 years and heads an NGO in Manipur called the Self Employment Voluntary Association. It was his experience in this sector which led him to Odesh.
On the production end of the process is Moirangthem Thaja Devi, a 19-year-old pursuing a BA (Hons) degree in English from Waikhom Mani Girls’ College in the Thoubal district.
Moirangthem and her parents are Kauna artists. She learnt the art of Kauna weaving during a training programme which lasted a couple of weeks at Odesh.
“My mother was already working with Odesh and I thought it would be good for me to learn how to make these handicraft items too,” she says. She says that her mother already knew the art of Kauna weaving but was only making floor mats. Now, with Odesh’s skill upgradation programme, she makes other items like bags, baskets, and boxes.
“He has been instrumental in helping the artisans diversify from only making the traditional mat to other utilitarian products like baskets and other storage products,” says Bharjit, 55, who started Odesh in 2001.
How Odesh came to be founded
Initially, Odesh was working as a bank correspondent, organising women artisans into Self Help Groups (SHGs) and helping these artisans with finance. It was only in 2012 that Odesh started identifying clusters of Kauna artisans in Manipur for the purpose of training them.
The shift in focus came when Bharjit attended a 13-day Livelihood Enhancement training programme organised by the TATA Trust in the state in February 2012.
During and after the training programme, Bharjit realised that instead of just making the conventional mats, Kauna artisans could make so much more.
Thus, Bharjit and the other founders drafted a project proposal and submitted it to the TATA Trust for funding. Once the draft was approved in mid 2012, Odesh continued to receive support from TATA Trust for five years.
Babu, 50, one of the co-founders has already been working closely with the artisans and training them. He is also a national awardee in Kauna craft. Gopiromon, 48, is also a Kauna artisan himself and has helped Odesh in identifying artisan clusters, organising and training them.
Kesho, 45, with a degree in Accounting, manages Odesh’s finances and Bharjit heads the different operations, ensures the smooth running of administration and puts his experience in the social service sector to use.
Challenges and Impact
Despite the support and progress that Odesh has made in terms of reaching out and training artisans, there are a considerable number of challenges that they encounter during their operations.
“Since most artisans also have farm fields and the bulk orders come during the harvesting time, the timelines coincide. Therefore, it often becomes difficult for to deliver these orders on time,’ he says.
Also, since most of these products are made from natural, plant-based materials, during the rainy season, the dried kauna grass develops fungus due to moisture. “Many a times, it becomes difficult to dry and store these grass efficiently so that we can use them for future orders. But, this has been a little challenging. We are experimenting so that we find the best way to preserve and store these grass,” he says.
Despite that, Odesh continues to train and support over 275 artisans and Bharjit believes that this number is only going to grow.
“Scaling the business and bringing more families into the craft activities is something we strive to do. We want to enhance artisan’s skills and we hope that this is going to reflect in their incomes. We also hope to obtain a trade license for enabling to export foreign markets along with applying for trade mark and GI tag of the product,” he says.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)