The Banana Fibre Weavers of Anegundi
A rural development society in the ancient village of Anegundi, Karnataka, uses locally sourced banana crop waste to make baskets, floor mats, table runners and lampshades. It trains rural women in various skills and enables them to start and run their own businesses.
Pankaja Srinivasan 3 Dec 2022 6:18 AM GMT
Anegundi (Koppal), Karnataka
A huge canopy of trees casts a green shade over the Common Facility Centre of Hari Dharti Rural Development Society, in Anegundi village in Karnataka. On the cow-dung smeared ground at the entrance to it are elaborate rangolis and heaps of marigold flowers.
From within comes the hum of conversation from women who are dexterously weaving baskets, floor mats, coasters, etc., using ropes made out of banana crop waste.
"I dropped out of school in the seventh standard when I was 13, and was trained to weave and earn a living," Sofiya Begum, a 23-year-old inhabitant of Anegundi, told Gaon Connection. She was provided training by The Kishkinda Trust, to weave banana fibre into ropes and create an array of eco-friendly products.
Anegundi is an ancient village near Hampi, a UNESCO world heritage site. It was the original capital of the Vijayanagara Empire, dating back to the 14th century and earlier. Anegundi means the elephant pit, in Kannada, and it is believed that the royal elephants were bathed here. It falls in Gangavathi taluk of Koppal district over 370 kms north of the state capital, Bengaluru.
Sofiya Begum is now one of the 399 members of Hari Dharti Rural Development Society, made up of artisans and entrepreneurs from Anegundi and other villages in the Kishkinda region (immortalised in the Ramayana epic as the abode of Vali and Sugreeva the monkey kings, and where Rama met Hanuman), around the Tungabhadra river.
The Hari Dharti Rural Development Society was registered by The Kishkinda Trust in 2016, in order to create an ecosystem with the goal of having a society of small businesses in the area that would make its women members independent entrepreneurs. And importantly, to ensure the pristine environment is preserved and unexploited.
"The area around Anegundi is known for its banana plantations and the bark of the banana tree that is usually discarded is gathered by the makers of the rope. About 80 women of Hari Dharti make the finest quality of hand twisted rope in the country today that is greatly sought after," G Nandini, The Kishkinda Trust's craft-coordinator, proudly told Gaon Connection.
According to her, the banana fibre ropes made by the rural women are bought by design centres and other units across the country that use them for their products.
Sofiya, who is expecting her first child, picks up the bundles of rope from the common facility centre to take back home with her. "Each bundle has 200 metres of rope, and depending on the orders we have, I either weave two smaller baskets or one big basket a day for which I get paid Rs 200 a day," she said. On an average she makes about Rs 5,000 a month. More, if she works overtime.
"The ultimate aim of Hari Dharti is to build the capacity of entrepreneurs and small businesses at grassroots level and enable them to ultimately own and run them independently," Shama Pawar, who founded The Kishkinda Trust in 1997, in Anegundi, told Gaon Connection. The following year, in 1998, Pawar established a banana fibre craft initiative in order to develop local livelihood opportunities for women. Forming Hari Dharti was but a natural transition from that.
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The banana rope makers of Anegundi
T Pushpavathi who came to Anegundi after her marriage is also a member of Hari Dharti. "I have three daughters, aged 16, 15 and 8 years respectively, and the money I earn here helps me pay their fees and feed them well," the 33-year-old said, as she sat on the cool Cuddapah stone floor, next to a pile of banana fibre rope that her fingers deftly converted into a mat.
Pushpavathi earns Rs 200 a day. She works from 10 am to 5 pm with a break in between for lunch for which she goes back home. Sometimes if there is a big order, she takes work home and earns over time for that, she said.
As she measured lengths of banana-fibre ropes before handing them out, craft-coordinator Nandini said, "There are about 80 people who come regularly to the workshop and about 180-200 others who work from home making the banana fibre ropes that are then used in the craft items". If there are large orders, or new designs being introduced, more women join in.
Women are trained in making banana fibre and water hyacinth crafts. "The women come from the non artisanal community who have now become artisans. They are trained for at least six months, in order to acquire a degree of skill and ability," Nandini explained.
"We have been getting orders from design houses, hotels and the corporates. We send them an estimate. Once we have mutually agreed on it and we get an advance, we start production," Nandini added.
According to her the banana fibre baskets, floor mats, table runners and lampshades are a big draw. "We also make small souvenirs of Hanuman [monkey god] out of the banana fibre and they are popular with tourists who visit this place," she said.
Heritage and livelihoods
"We do not count our progress in the number of artisans who directly work with The Kishkinda Trust, but the number of livelihoods that are generated by the banana fibre craft industry that was set up in the Hampi world Heritage area," said Shama Pawar. The ultimate goal of the Trust is to become a training institute, which provides vocational training in various fields, she added.
For her, it is important to not lose sight of the fact that Anegundi and the area near Hampi is a heritage site and of great historical significance. "I believe that in order to preserve and conserve its cultural landscape one must gainfully engage the local communities, repurpose heritage spaces and not isolate them or keep them under lock and key. Heritage is something dynamic, not stagnant and we must continuously reinvent and make it relevant," she said.
Currently, several workshops, training sessions, weaving and dyeing programmes and a souvenir shop buzz with activity. Some of the heritage structures in the village have been repurposed and only recently a textile exhibition, called 'Red Lillies, Waterbirds', was held there.
Business incubators have been set up in restored traditional houses and this has led to the marriage of architectural conservation along with business enterprises that the local inhabitants maintain and manage.
According to Pawar, there are plans underway to mechanise the rope-making as they recognise there may not be too many takers in the future who will want to take on the cumbersome and time consuming task.
"We are developing a machine that will reduce the time and effort and at the same time the cost of second tier products that will be a lot less than the 100 per cent handmade ones," Pawar explained
"We are constantly working with new materials and whatever is available to us in terms of resources. It would be great to have design interventions from experienced people who are able to put systems into place for the local people so that the model is sustained," she said. If design and management institutes stepped forward to collaborate, this would go a long way in doing that, she said.
There is also a need for a large physical space which can become a training hub, a creative lab or an incubation centre, as most of the spaces Hari Dharti is using for its work are privately owned.
Pawar hoped that organisations such as NABARD (National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development) and NRLM (National Rural Livelihood Mission) would see the potential in the projects undertaken at Anegundi and extend their support, not just financially, but also towards skill development and expertise.
But there is already a change.
"This cottage industry has now had a ripple effect and more and more communities are independently replicating this model, not just in Anegundi, but other villages too. We take replication as a sign of success. When I first came here in 1997, there were rarely any women walking outdoors by themselves. Now we find them, walking tall, head held high, valuable members not just of their families, but also of the village, the district and ultimately the nation," Pawar said.