Kuni Patra is busy segregating paddy straws into three stacks at the Kalyani Craft Centre in the Jiral village of Dhenkanal, Odisha. One pile is fresh from the field, the second is straw treated by the sun and rain, and the third is from a thatched rooftop.
Kuni pulls out the long inner ribs of the straws, called ‘sasa’ in Odia, with forceps and arranges them into three mini piles. The hue of sasas from fresh straws is white, while those of the second and the third are golden yellow and red. She then starts cutting, sizing and pasting sasas of three hues to create beautiful paintings without using any colours.
Her guru is Pradeepta Kumar Nayak, a self-taught artist who introduced the delicate straw craft in Odisha in the 1990s.
He began making art pieces with paddy straws in 1989 while studying in class 12 at Panchagarh Somnath Jagadev College in Banarpal of Angul, Odisha.
Pradeepta has trained Kuni and many others in the straw craft in the last three decades. Now 36, Kuni began learning the art when she was just 12. She is among the handful of women artisans who have continued to practice the straw craft after marriage.
Pradeepta, 53, is still searching for dedicated students who can keep his craft alive after him. The male folk in his village and adjoining areas earn their livelihood from agriculture, and most girls give it up after marriage as household chores leave them with little time for this craft. The youth do not find it lucrative enough and prefer stable jobs.
“I did not continue my studies after 12th class because of my love for the craft though my father, an Assistant Conservator of Forest, wanted me to complete graduation,” says Pradeepta.
Creating a sustainable craft
Pradeepta had tried and tested many methods for about two years to lend a full-fledged shape to his straw craft.
“When I noticed that much of paddy straw goes waste in my village Jiral after use as cattle feed and setting rooftops, I thought of creating a new craft out of this waste,” Pradeepta says.
However, he waited for four long years, seeking visibility for his sustainable craft. In 1992, he met officials of the Sambalpur-based office of Deputy Commissioner (Handicrafts) under the Union Ministry of Textiles during an art and craft exhibition in the Angul district headquarters. He shared about his craft’s uniqueness, and the officials were impressed.
“With their help, nearly 50 designs of my craft were displayed for the first time in 1993 at an exhibition in Ranchi, Jharkhand (then a part of undivided Bihar). I have participated in over 80 exhibitions across India so far,” says Pradeepta.
“Now my annual income from craft ranges between Rs5 lakh and Rs7 lakh,” he adds.
The office of the Deputy Commissioner then appointed Pradeepta as a master craftsman in 1998 to train 10 aspiring artisans for six months. While he used to get a monthly honorarium of Rs 1800, each trainee got a monthly stipend of Rs 300. Now, the duration of training is four months, and his monthly honorarium and stipend for each trainee have increased to Rs 20,000 and Rs 3000 respectively.
Training the artisans
Pradeepta has trained more than 800 people of which over 70 percent are women. “But I have yet to come across anyone as dedicated as Kuni,” says Pradeepta, who has bagged the State Merit Award (2003), State Award (2004), National Merit Award (2005) and National Award (2017).
However, Kuni gives all credit to her in-laws who support her. Married into an agrarian family in Gadapalasuni village (about 65 km from Jiral), she earns around Rs 5000 per month.
Her income from handcrafted items is more than her family’s annual income of around Rs 45,000, says Kuni who has won the State Kalakruti Award thrice (2017, 2018, and 2019) and National Award in 2018.
“I use straws from our fields. When extra quantity is needed, my in-laws buy it for me. A bundle of fresh straws costs Rs 25 to Rs 30, while that of sun-and-rain tanned straw and rooftop ones cost around Rs 15 and Rs 7 respectively,” she says. “I get full support of my spouse and in-laws, but most of the others are as fortunate as me in this regard,” she adds.
The process of straw craft
Kuni squeezes each straw’s bottom a little with forceps for its sasa to be pulled out. Then one side of the sasa is torn with forceps and flattened. It is then pressed and polished with forceps moving up and down along it. Then a paper is taken and glue is applied on one side.
Flattened straw ribs are pasted on the paper in such a way that the tip of one is at the base of the paper while the bottom of the next one is pasted up. The process continues till the whole paper is stuck with ribs of a single hue.
These sheets of white, golden yellow and red sasas or straw ribs form the base of the craft.
A plyboard is then tightly covered with smooth black cloth using glue. A white carbon paper piece is pasted on it. The artisan takes a piece of translucent or butter paper and places it on the picture he or she wants to recreate in the straw craft. It is copied on the butter paper and pasted on the straw sheet.
Then sasas of different hues are cut and pasted at appropriate places along the lines of the sketch drawn on the board or the ply to create shiny paintings ranging from flowers and mythological figures to Lord Jagannath.
“While a straw craft flower sells for Rs 200 to Rs 250, the price of a chariot is over Rs one lakh,” says Kuni.
“If government agencies like State-owned Odisha Rural Development and Marketing Society (ORMAS) can explore and expand more avenues for sale, artisans can earn more,” she adds.
Assistant director of Deputy Commissioner’s (Handicrafts) office, Kumari Shailaja, says, “The Government has set up portal indiahandmade.com through which artisans and craftsmen display their items for sale. However, they need a GST registration.”
Amazon India’s state coordinator, Durga Madhav Nayak echoed a similar view. He, however, says that straw craft has not yet registered with his outfit. “Any business outfit with an annual turnover of less than Rs 40 lakh should submit zero return under GST norms for getting into e-commerce,” he says.
However, avid craft lovers like Dhenkanal-based Dayanidhi Bal argue that state agencies like ORMAS and Utkalika can boost sales. “Utkalika sells 51 approved handicrafts through its outlets. But there are no branches in Dhenkanal, the straw craft’s birthplace,” he adds.
Assistant director (handicraft), Dhenkanal, Ramakanta Behera said, “More than one year ago we requested Dhenkanal’s civic body to provide a place where we can open a branch. But it did not yield any result,” he says.
Deputy chief executive officer of ORMAS, Dhenkanal, Sourav Dash contended that his organization not only provides stalls to showcase different crafts including straw craft at exhibitions. It also plans to open outlets for them at airports within Odisha, he adds.
As things stand, Pradeepta is fighting two battles – finding students who can keep his art alive and discovering newer markets to sell beautiful paintings.
(Niroj Ranjan Misra a Cuttack-based freelance writer. He writes on rural and tribal life, social issues, art and culture, and sports)