The vulnerable utility

A lost art is one of the greatest losses of mankind. For all we know, a form of art, however big or small, is a representation of an entire culture or clan that fostered it. Any kind of artisanship at the verge of extinction is in fact a scope for an irreversible void in history.

Standing at the mentioned vulnerable state is a remotely popular skill of making everyday utilities out of forest produce. Before modern day materials that we use every day in our kitchen came into being, our ancestors apparently made utensils and storing equipments out of naturally available resources – mainly creepers, tree trunks and other tree produce from forests. While most of those have vanished from our lives today, a handful of them remain to be used within rural households that do respect the value of naturally hand-made utilities.

Though there might be consumers who might seek these materials, there is hardly anyone from the current generation who can produce these utilities the way they used be made by our ancestors. But luckily, we came across Ittu, a 58 year old simple man living within extremely modest conditions in a village named Palli in Coastal Karnataka. Ittu has inherited the art of making materials of daily usage using wild creepers that grow in the forest that is close to his home. He says that it was always his family business alongside daily wage labour, and he learnt the skill from his mother. His mother, Appi, says that she even recalls her grandfather making vessels and other utilities from the same creeper, which they recognise as ‘Ela booru’ (Tulu name) or ‘Nela Balli’ (Kannada). The skill has passed on from generation to generation, but sadly Ittu seems to be the last of its inheritors.

The process of making these utilities begins with Ittu going into the forest in search of the wild creeper every morning, which he carefully picks from within large trees or sometimes even the ground. He says that the particular creeper is known to posses medicinal qualities, and he and his siblings grew up consuming the extract from the same creeper as a healthy intake. Ittu is well versed about what he needs to pick – but hardly anyone of us could do it, as all the creepers look the same within the forest and some of them are even itchy and sour.

Once he has enough creepers for the day, he sets down to shearing the upper surface of the creeper to reveal a fresh, brown layer underneath. This process takes a long time and the most effort, causing all the bruises on the palm of the labourer all through. After that is done, he carefully knits the creepers into one another and forms a strong and beautiful pattern that he continues until the utensil is complete. The type of pattern depends on the size of the utility – smaller ones have intricate design while the bigger ones are made with larger repeating patterns. Regardless of that, the utilities are strong and durable, even without the usage of any kind of glue. The tool that Ittu uses other than the creepers themselves is just a small sickle that shears the top layer of the creeper.

The kind of utensils range from plates, bowls, baskets, larger storage units for vegetables, rice storing units, and even fishing equipment! The fishing equipment resembles a large basket with a big opening, which can be left in water overnight to find fish and crabs caught in the knitting in the morning. Depending on the item, Ittu takes 1-5 days to complete one piece. He sells them at a price ranging from Rs.40- Rs.150, which is in fact a meagre price for the amount of expertise and efforts the work takes. Despite that, Ittu has kept the art alive and there are people in the rural area who do value his work and demand for him to make them utilities. It is believed that using these utensils made of natural elements has health benefits that other metal utensils do not offer. Though there aren’t people who can continue this art form in the vicinity, there are some who arrive to experience this skill with Ittu. He says that people come to watch and understand his work, and also sometimes click pictures of him at work. The skill hardly does much to sustain his livelihood, but the family has stayed true to its inherited practice nonetheless. These utilities might vanish entirely from rural livelihoods as well in a couple of years, (unless they are machine made, which is a practical possibility); but the art of making them is something that deserves to be recognised and remembered. Rural traditions like this one are truly just as magnificent as any other art we see and appreciate; but these hardly get the applause they deserve.

(Article made for and published in Deccan Herald, Spectrum)

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