Madur Kathi

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Here is another blog from our Natural Fibre Series.

In Midnapur District of West Bengal, another type of reed called madur kathi (cyperus corymbosus) is cultivated, harvested and processed. The reed is also naturally found along the alluvial rich river banks across the region.

Finely spliced madur is woven into mats that have a central field enclosed by patterned borders. The weavers ingeniously use two subtly differentiated natural colour splits or selectively dyed parts of the splits to differentiate the borders with dyed colour. Both the loom and the weaving technique used are very basic, but require the use of manual skills and craftsmanship.

The history of mat weaving in India dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization and its socio-cultural relevance can be traced to the references found in our ancient literature. Records of the Medieval Period provide the first information of the mat weaving in the region of Bengal – where both ordinary and the fine variety are found.

Prior to the advent of concrete or brick, the walls of most village houses were made with clay, and the earthen floors were polished with a mixture of clay, cow dung and finely cut hay. Furniture as we know it had not been introduced into rural Bengali homes, and people sat or slept on the floor. Since these floorings were cool in the summer but cold and uncomfortable in winter, mats and pallets or straw mattresses made from grass leaf, reed, etc. were used to keep out the cold.

Mats have been an integral part of the social scene of rural Bengal. Most homes possessed a few which served both domestic and social purposes from seating guests, bedding for older ladies, and babies massage sessions to seating for afternoon gossip sessions. Mats also formed a part of the bride’s trousseau showcasing the artistic and creative skills of the women of the household who generally wove the mats. Besides beautiful borders and motifs, the mats were sometimes inscribed with loving messages.

Even today, luckily a large number of madurs are still used in many households in West Bengal.

With the move from floor seating to sofas and chairs, the uses of these mats shifted and widened to include various uses such as decorative and utilitarian items like table mats, toys, trays, furnishing material, wall hangings, lampshades, etc. The craft is simple and marvellously flexible, accessible and adaptable and is entirely organic. And must be encouraged and promoted.

Mat weaving is one of the most important crafts of West Bengal, providing seasonal employment to thousands of artisans, spread over several districts of the state.

There are 3 different types of madur produced in West Bengal of which Masland; the ultra-fine variety is concentrated in the south eastern part of Medinipur. The other two varieties are Ekhrokha and Dorokha.

Traditionally, mat weavers of Medinipur were Baitis by caste but soon the Mahishyas, who were usually cultivators, and not traditional craft community, dominated the industry.

The process of madur production involves a number of labour intensive activities. First there is the pre-loom weaving, which is the preparation of the raw material. This includes the cultivation of the madur kathi grass from which the mat will be subsequently woven, followed by sizing and dyeing of the reeds as required.

Saplings are planted during the Bengali month of Boishakh (April-May). When the grass is fully grown to about 4 to 5 feet, the stocks above the ground are cut, leaving the tubers below the ground (called mudaa or modaa) to sprout anew. Grass cutting takes place between September and December. The stalks are dried cleaned and each stalk is split into 4 to 8 strips. The softer inner tissue is removed and discarded. Before weaving, the reeds are soaked in water to soften them.

The most important and time consuming part is the loom weaving phase, when the soft reeds and cotton or jute thread are arranged on a simple bamboo frame loom as weft and wrap respectively. The final post-loom weaving phase consists of cutting the edges or binding the edges with cloth and polishing. There are also the chala or dopti madurs made by attaching two mats with a ribbon of cloth that renders the mad foldable. The varieties appear as a response to the demand from the consumers.

The Ekhrokha Madur is woven using a single reed Madur kathi weft and requires the least amount of skill. The Dorokha which employs a double reed waft requires good skill. It is thicker and more comfortable to sit on than the simple Ekhrokha madur.

The weaving of the exquisite Masland madur on the other hand is an artistic pursuit and demand precision and a high level of skill.

According to a report, the production of Ekhrokha mats is the largest at 55% followed by Dorokha at 30%, while the intricate Masland mat weaving contributes only 15%.

The word Masland is derived from the Persian word Masnad or throne. The Masland mat is a very fine textured mat with a smooth silken feel, woven to perfection by the artisans of Medinipur. The origin of the Masland mat in West Bengal dates back to the Muslim Period, when the mats of ultra-fine variety with silk yarn as weft were produced under royal patronage in Medinipur. Maslandpur, a village near Mahishadal in Tamluk subdivision, which probably got its name from the madur itself, was noted for its fine mats, some of which were being sold at more than hundred rupees per mat at the beginning of the 20th century, according to records from the British Raj of the time. The best mats of the time were made at Raghunathbari followed by Kasijora and Narajol.

Masland is made of carefully selected madur kathi reeds woven in beautiful geometric designs that use the natural two tonal colouring of the reed to create subtle patterns in the mats. The Masland madur were originally made with vegetable dyes, the predominant colours being maroon and black. The maroon or black vegetable dyes are used as a border with the natural reed mat.

The black dye is produced by grinding the Haritaki fruit with the bark and fruits of the prickly babla tree. A local shrub called rang ganchch (meaning colour plant) is the source for the natural reddish dyes.

While dying, the reed bundles are first tightly wound at places where the natural colour is to be retained, with palm leaves. The bundles are then placed in a pot filled with a mixture of dye powder and cold water. Then it is boiled for 10hrs in case of the red dye and 24hrs in case of the black dye. Next, they are sun dried ad made ready for weaving.

Masland requires two people for the weaving. One person places the specially selected reeds and starts the process from the left to the right by placing one thread on top and dropping one thread down while the second person performs the same from right to left. The treads are then turned at the end and the process is continued.

Masland mats are particularly famous for the intricate naksha or motifs executed on them. The weaving is similar to the weaving of saris. Popular are scenes from mythology and designs like barfi (rhomboidal), jharna (waterfall), mouclak (honeycomb), different flowers and wines. However with stiff competition from synthetic materials, the weavers face the prospects of shutting down.

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Here is a video of the Masland Mat Weaving Craft:

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