By Smita Ram, Rang De Team
While most of urban India would track the inflating gold prices and save money to invest in the ‘yellow metal’ the rural India has other things to worry about. In Orissa,where I have just returned from, it is the pursuit of another kind of gold that takes most of the time, effort and money of the rural folks, especially the ‘jena’ community.
The ‘golden grass’ called Naliya in the local language is nothing but yellow coloured grass that is strong enough and is used to make baskets and other artefacts just like bamboo. The finish of the products made of ‘naliya’ is a lot more refined and the products sturdier which makes these artefacts sought after.
Many of the Rang De borrowers are involved in basket making and most of them hail from the ‘jena’ community. They have been doing this for generations and take pride in continuing it. However, in the recent years, their traditional art has been endangered due to non-availability of golden grass.
The basket weavers travel miles together to heart of the forests to collect golden grass in a particular season of the year. They need to stock up for the entire year then and this journey itself takes anywhere between 10–15 days. The men are usually involved in this activity and often have to cross a river that is filled with crocodiles in order to reach the forest.
Their trouble does not end there, all the forest areas where golden grass is found has now been demarcated as national park areas and the government does not allow the weavers to collect golden grass without a licence.
The weavers do not get licence easily and hence end up going through other routes which involves trying to escape the forest officials and sometimes even bribing them to get out of the forest. A few of them end up getting imprisoned when they are unable to bribe the officials.
The women I interacted with take pride in making baskets and weave some beautiful ones. Their challenges revolve around sourcing the raw material and their lack of market know-how to understand what products will be well received in the market. Currently, their market pertains to the village community — their own and the neighbouring villages.
The restrictions around getting golden grass makes it as precious if not more than the yellow metal that we seek out.