Kauna Craft

We a ZIVELI work with women in Manipur, to craft our kauna reed bags and baskets. Our desire is to preserve our traditional Indian heritage one village and one craft at a time.

Commonly known as bulrush, artisans from Manipur lovingly call the wild water reed – kauna – in their local language. Kauna is a perennial grass-like plant that grows all around the world at different temperatures and can grow as tall as 10 feet in shallow water or on marshy land. The plant is naturally resistant to insects and helps combat water pollution by absorbing toxic microorganisms and poisonous metals. In addition, the plant creates an excellent habitat for wild birds and their dense roots serve as a strategic shelter for fish. The crop is harvested 3 times a year because of the high demand and is done so when paddy is not cultivated.

Kauna’s commercial viability lies in the strength of its stem. Apart from serving as a delicacy, the stems are often used to weave strong baskets, boxes, bags and mats.

When the artisans use kauna for production purposes, the stem is cut when the plant grows to about 3-4 feet and is then dried in the sun. During the actual hand weaving, the reed needs to be moistened again to increase flexibility. The tools used are very simple, the artisans need a regular needle for stitching and of course a sharp pair of scissors or pliers for cutting purposes. Mats are made on a frame where jute runs on the waft and the wrap are lined with kauna. Everyday objects like katoris, bottles and boxes are also used as the mould for 3 dimensional products. This practice and process has been around for decades, but these days we make our moulds specific to designs, using bamboo or wood.

ZIVELI’s love story with kauna, however, began a little over 2 years ago. Kehaan Saraiya – tackled researching the kauna craft in Manipur and the artists responsible for it as part of his final year project at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology.

A co-operative society in Manipur is now set up, that doubles up as a skills training program for local women in association with Tata Trusts; it serves as an NGO. We are also trying to set up new clusters to promote different crafts. Currently we are also working with artisans in West Bengal. Primarily working with Jute and Sabai Grass. And artisans in Telangana, working with palm leaf.

The kauna crafts programme capitalises on the traditional knowhow of the community in a region where the making of mats from Kauna reeds is an expertise handed down the generations. Used in homes and for ritual purposes, these mats are part of the local culture, but they don’t fetch much. Changing tack to create higher-value products has resulted in a recasting of the revenue equation for the women artisans.

The current phase of the programme began in 2016 and has the steadfast backing of the Tata Trusts. It is being implemented by the Centre for Microfinance & Livelihoods (CML), the nodal agency for the Trusts in Manipur, in partnership with the NGO.

CML’s vehicle for implementation is called, in space-age style, ‘livelihood propulsion and support services’. There’s no rocket science, though, behind what the agency and ZIVELI have set out to achieve. Our objective is to build a Kauna craft ecosystem that blends technique and marketing to fashion a business model that will become self-sustaining in the near future.

In the details of how the idea will be further strengthened are trendy design, continual training, entrepreneurship, logistics, branding and packaging, quality upgrades, sales support and product diversification. The immediate goal is to widen the domestic client base and, for the longer term, to secure international recognition and start exporting Kauna products. We already supply to boutiques in Paris, Belgium, Middle East, Japan, Korea, UK and North America.

Upping the numbers of those in the programme is also a priority. “We want to add another 75 people and have a total of 375 artisans by 2020.”

“We sensed we could use the traditional knowledge the women artisans had in mat making to do something different” “That’s why we branched out into making baskets. We had already established a relationship with the villagers and that was an advantage. We concentrated on skills transfer, design and on cutting out the intermediaries fleecing the artisans.”

ZIVELI started with 50 women artisans 3 years ago and now we work with 175. Their salary has tripled and they are guaranteed work for 7-8 months of the year. An increase in their spending power has coincided with the phenomenal overall development of the region. More money is being spent on education of children and improving the health of family members. Since most of these women (can and do) work from their respective homes, they are now also better equipped to support a household. The government has also played a big role here – electricity has become more stable, telecommunication services have improved and construction of a connecting rail link has begun. Over the last couple of training batches there has been an increase in the number of young women interested in taking up the craft as well – undoubtedly the most sustainable sign of development.

Thank You for reading.

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