Rongali Bihu, the Assamese New Year’s Day is just over a week away. But that is not the reason business is booming for artisans such as Aswini Baishya of Bala-Mugkuchi, Soneswar Kalita of Balilecha, Dhiren Kalita of Digheli, Mukut Tamuli of Tilana and Chira Deka of Sutarkuchi, all villages near Nalbari, about 50 km from Guwahati.
They make the jaapi, the colourful Assamese field-hat used for felicitating guests on big occasions, and have sold twice as many as they usually sell around Bihu.
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“Parties need a large number of jaapis along with the hand-woven gamocha and bell-metal xorai to felicitate their candidates, leaders and star campaigners in every meeting. While gamochas are woven all over the state and the xorai comes from villages near Hajo, the jaapi is made only in this cluster of villages here,” said Aswini Baishya.
Over 200 families in this cluster of villages have been engaged in making decorative jaapis of various sizes for decades, with the number going out to the market ranging between 20,000 and 25,000 a month. “If every household makes 100 jaapis a month, then we must be making at least 20,000 every month,” estimated Bipin Baishya of Tilana.
Jaapis made here have already adorned the heads of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice president Rahul Gandhi, BJP president Amit Shah and other VVIPs currently on campaign. “The other day, I delivered a huge jaapi worth Rs 8,000 to the BJP to felicitate Prime Minister Modi next Friday,” said Dipak Kumar Baishya. Another jaapi he sold, worth Rs 1,500, was used to felicitate the PM at the Sankardev Sangha convention in Sivasagar in February.
Artisans here supplied five truckloads to the Sankardev Sangha convention. The annual Asam Sahitya Sabha session, meanwhile, requires about two truckloads, Baishya said. During the Rongali Bihu season that lasts about six weeks beginning mid-April, some one lakh jaapis would be going out from here.
“Last week the BJP picked up about 200 jaapis to be sent to various districts. The Congress, the AGP, the BPF, independents, smaller parties, all have bought jaapis from here,” said Anima Baishya.
A jaapi is made on a bamboo frame of six uniformly angled sticks bound by two circular frames, the frame covering dried leaves of tokou, a palm tree found in the rain forests of upper Assam. “While tokou trees are abundant in upper Assam, we have planted many in our villages so that we don’t have to depend on a distant district,” Baishya said. The decorative jaapi was first used and made popular by pioneering Assamese filmmaker Jyotiprasad Agarwala in Jaimati (1935) in a dance number. The jaapi also made its way to Bollywood with Shakti Samanta using it in several of his Hindi films in the 1960s-70s.
Jaapi-makers of these villages are however sore that no party has ever promised them any incentive. “No party or government has ever thought of supporting our cottage industry yet,” said Dipak Baishya. “Banks are not interested in giving us loans. Only a few women who have set up self-help groups have got some finance.”