Known as green gold, bamboo is ubiquitous as it dominates rural and urban landscapes. From artifacts to sustainable architecture, bamboo remains a favourite as it’s fast to grow, low on maintenance and has versatile potential. With September 18 observed as World Bamboo Day by the World Bamboo Organisation, initiatives such as the two-day International Bamboo Artisans Conclave in Dumka by the Government of Jharkhand have been organised to encourage the industry. Here are some facts to know about the versatile plant.
Bamboo wanders, wherever human imagination travels. Known as ‘poor man’s timber’, bamboo is omnipresent in tribal cultures and community living. Rural communities engage with bamboo handicrafts, textiles, artifacts, and household utilities. Examples include Tripura bamboo silks, heritage cuisines with roasted and pickled bamboo shoots, cultural symbols like the Assamese ‘Jaapi’ (made of bamboo, cane, and palm), widely popular bamboo tree houses, machans, besides modern sustainable architectural concepts and musical instruments.
According to reports, India is the world’s second-largest cultivator of bamboo after China, with 136 species and 23 genera spread over 13.96 million hectares, according to the State of Environment report 2018. The National Bamboo Mission, under the Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare, has been initiated to provide a boost to livelihood and environmental acreage. Additionally, in 2017, Parliament ‘declassified’ bamboo as ‘a tree’ on non-forest lands. Similarly, a scheme called SFURTI (Scheme of Fund for Regeneration of Traditional Industries) is being implemented by the Ministry of Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSME) in order to boost traditional industries and bamboo artisans.
1. Sticky rice steamer, fish baskets
According to the Forest Survey of India (2011), more than 50 per cent of bamboo species are found in eastern India, including in states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura and West Bengal.
Bamboo utensils, fishing nets, jars, vases, and baskets make it a quintessential cultural tradition in the region. A popular process known as ‘Do’o Brenga’, where chicken is cooked inside the hollow of a fresh, green bamboo is popular in north-eastern states. Spicy ingredients are stuffed inside the bamboo and placed on fire for distinct flavours. Bamboo ‘sticky’ rice containers are popular in these regions.
Baskets, fishing nets, storage vessels, mug-handles used in ‘Longpi’ pottery from Manipur are other uses. Touted as Asia’s cleanest village, people in Mawlynnong, Meghalaya use bins, brooms, and baskets woven from bamboo to keep its ecology in harmony. Urban uses range from facial steamers found in spas, for their traditional, aesthetic, and ecological quotients.
2. Bamboo renditions
Incidentally, recalling Janmashtami fervour, the ‘Bansuri’ or Indian flute derives its name from bamboo or ‘baans’. Krishna renditions and paintings are incomplete without the ethnic portrayal of the melodious flute. Musical instruments like Assamese ‘Gogona’ used in Bihu dance, ‘Tirio’ (a flute made by the Santhals) of central India, and ‘Pangsi’ (a type of flute) crafted by the ‘Tiwa’ community in Assam are some rare gems made of bamboo.
In 2017, Moa Subong (56), a musician from Dimapur, Nagaland was awarded the National award at the 9th National Grassroots Innovation Awards for his unique innovation ‘BamHum’, a wind musical instrument made of bamboo. According to the website of National Innovation Foundation, Department of Science and Technology, its name is a combination of ‘bamboo’ and ‘humming’.
3. Jaapi, the Mizo Hat, and jewellery
‘Jaapi’ from Assam and ‘Khumbeu’ from Mizoram are woven from bamboo and are important cultural symbols from these states. Crafted intricately with bamboo fibre, ‘Jaapi’ is a conical headgear popular in Assam, which is not only an important cultural expression but is also used by tea workers as umbrellas in the gardens. Ceremonial ‘Khumbeu’ or Mizo hats are made of bamboo and ‘hnahthial’ leaves belonging to the state of Mizoram, which has 57 percent of the geographical area under Bamboo cover (Government of Mizoram, 2017). Similarly, soft bamboos are mostly used for weaving neckpieces, earrings and other items of jewellery.
4. Eco-friendly textiles
Heritage weaves from the state of Tripura including Tripura silks, involve indigenous skills of weaving bamboo fibres after soaking them in water. Important by-products of this process are bamboo earrings and jewellery. The ‘Tripura Bamboo Mission’ was, in fact, launched with the intention of weaving livelihoods, economics and culture together.
In order to scale up organic handlooms, designer Madhu Jain has introduced innovative bamboo silk Ikat sarees, which is a multicultural mix of various bamboo and Ikat traditions. Similarly, Tripura silk is one of the finest quality organic silks intricately woven. This art form has gained prominence after the joint agreement on handicrafts and handlooms between Japan and the Government of Tripura (2018).
In the southern part of the country, weavers in Anakaputhur, Tamil Nadu have been taking organic textiles a level -up crafting bamboo sarees and other textiles using natural fibers from plants, fruits, banana leaves etc.
From being considered as a sustainable construction material to an essential ingredient in traditional cuisines, the versatility of bamboo can be seen from its diverse usages. According to Professor Malashri Lal, former Dean, Academic Activities and Projects at the University of Delhi, “There is huge potential in creating diverse value chains out of bamboo, utilizing its qualities as a sustainable fibre to create and promote its usage in textiles, carpets, and other weaves.” Professor Lal was actively engaged in creating a ‘bamboo canteen’ and a Guest House extension at the University of Delhi, in south and north campus, respectively, a project that was immensely popular with students and teachers, alike. These projects were undertaken in collaboration with the National Bamboo Mission and were successful, as it required less time to take shape, was low on maintenance and had decorative value.
She remarks, “Urban aspirations need to transcend from viewing bamboo as a material used for décor, garden furniture and artefacts of ornamental appeal.” There is a need to encourage people to diversify bamboo usage as a sustainable architectural and eco-friendly material after considering its economic factors. India houses immense potential to cultivate this green industry, promote sustainable production and consumption envisaged under Sustainable Development Goals (SDG#12), and contribute to ecological and cultural wealth, at the same time.