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A Goan tribe's relationship with the land that it tills

The Velip Gaonkar community is known for its engagement with the natural bounty of the Western Ghats to create little-known craft items

The traditional baskets, ropes, mates, typical to the Velip Gaonkar community, displayed at the Goa Chitra Museum located in Benaulim, South Goa
The traditional baskets, ropes, mates, typical to the Velip Gaonkar community, displayed at the Goa Chitra Museum located in Benaulim, South Goa

It was a bright February morning in the deep forested area of South Goa. And I was on a journey to discover and document the not-so-known tribal craft of Goa. This was part of the three-day Interdisciplinary narrative writing and photography residency organised by the Goa Chitra Museum. My excitement knew no bounds as I was meeting the Velip Gaonkar community which resides in these villages, blessed with the bounty of Western Ghats. Like many other tribal communities, it too is a symbol of self-reliance and sustainability. This community mainly consists of hard-working farmers who till their land to produce paddy, millets, seasonal vegetables and sugarcane.

They are also known to brilliantly use the available natural resources to create utilitarian craft items. To understand it better one headed to a hamlet called Baddem, situated in the forested area of Cotigao in Canancona taluka, around 80 kilometres from the state’s capital, Panjim.

There one met Bhiva Gaonkar, an elderly gentleman in his 70s, who after offering us jaggery with water sat down to demonstrate the making of ‘Bhattachi muddi’, a unique storage bale! It is primarily made from paddy straw to store the seeds for paddy, millets, chillies. It is believed that straw contains the heat and thus it doesn’t attract rodents and other pests.

Gaonkar made the complicated process look very simple: to make this muddi, he used different types of strings, ropes and other material found in the backyard—paddy straw, bark of a tree and a wooden baton known as konshi, made from fishtail palm wood. It is a mobile, compact bale where the required grains are removed by making an opening and then resealed.

This almost extinct style of bale once represented your wealth. Goa-based teacher and writer, Purnima Kerkar in her Marathi book, Vrismutichya Umbarthyvar, states, “The number of ‘muddi’ in a household was an indication of a prosperous home where there is no dearth of grains. It was thus a practice to check how many ‘muddis’ are there in a groom’s house, while fixing a marriage.”

Laxman Gaonkar showing how to make a broom from coconut palm fronds
Laxman Gaonkar showing how to make a broom from coconut palm fronds

Gaonkar, who spends most of his time making these items for his household, also showed us how to make ropes. These are used to tie cattle while they are taken to plough the fields. All these ropes are made from the bark of kumbio (Careya arborea) or kevan (Helicteres isora) trees. They harvest these immediately after the monsoons to work with; the fibres have to be of a certain texture, not too soft or too hard. Also, coir is never used to make these ropes as it would be harsh on the cattle’s necks, whereas kumbio or kevan is soft and easier to weave.

Victor Hugo Gomes founder-curator of Goa Chitra museum, who has spent over three decades on documenting the tribal communities of Goa, says, “What really intrigues me about this craft is how our artisans utilised, understood, respected and used the material that they found in their surroundings to make the items. Their knowledge was hereditary and they were aware of the season of the availability, procurement and how to process raw material.”

Now these items are mainly made by the senior members of the village, whose age prevents them from doing any laborious or farm-related work. Most of these items are not easily found in markets but sometimes are sold at the annual fair held in the month of April on the day of Ramnavami at Partagali Jeevottam Mutt, Canacona. However, last year this fair was not organised due to the pandemic.

Gomes adds, “Being household items, their size, shape, design are made from domestic utility point of view and not for commercial purposes.”

Along with men, the womenfolk are also involved in this craft-making. During the residency, one met Mayawati Gaonkar, from Yeda village, who was busy weaving a mat or madri from dried palm fronds. She weaves this mat by bunching together the dried fronds and using the warp and weft technique.

When one visited Jaanu Velip’s, house in the Baddem village, one found these baskets locally known as chobo. The bigger baskets are known as buti and dhokro, which are mainly used to collect coconuts. For chobo, the 80-year-old uses thick cane (komlo) and thin vine (valo) and weaves them together.

Mahendra Phaldesai, retired teacher who has played a major role in promoting the tribal and folk art of Goa, states various reasons for the decline of this craft. “Sourcing the raw material, cane, is a major task. It is mainly found in protected forest areas, making it difficult to access. Also, now markets are flooded with plastic artefacts which are cheaper. And mainly making these items is not economically feasible,” says Phaldesai.

To explain this point further he gives an example of Laxman Gaonkar from Yeda village in Cotigao, who makes brooms from the midriff of coconut palm fronds. For these brooms, which are commonly used in Goan households, Gaonkar has to first harvest green coconut palms leaves. The midriffs are then removed, dried, sliced and woven together with coir. “This whole process is definitely not a day’s job, but, the cost of this one broom is 250,” says Phaldesai.

For all these craftsmen, craft is part and parcel of their lifestyle. It is embedded in their muscle memory; it is a laborious task, right from sourcing the raw material at the right time to spending days to make one item.

The sad fact is that these craftsmen may be the last generation to make these items. The youngsters are not very keen on continuing the legacy, as historically it was looked down upon and it is not economically viable.

However, now Goa Chitra is now in the process of finding these traditional artisans who possess basic knowledge of plants, process and product, so that they can mentor the younger generations.

Gomes further suggests that interaction between these artisans and designers could help explore potential use of this craft. Also, there is a need to revive old traditional village markets, or an artisan co-operative, a marketing outfit or a local NGO to take this craft forward.

Most importantly, he hopes that with this whole process the community will get its due and the world will realise the wealth of knowledge they have inherited. He states, “What’s really interesting is their attitude to the vegetation and environment, which was ritualistic and medicinal, worldly and spiritual.”

Arti Das is a Goa-based independent journalist

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