Screw pine stars for a green Christmas

The women artisans of KIDS, Kottappuram, have come up with a range of Christmas decorations made of screw pine

“This would make your Christmas tree look so good,” says Latha Sundaran, holding up a little screw pine star. She picks up a few more from a box and says, “These are 100% hand-made and environment-friendly.” Beside her is a table full of Christmas decorations made of screw pine.

Latha with other women at the Kottappuram Integrated Development Society (KIDS), a non-governmental organisation based in Kottappuram (in Kodungallur, Thrissur district) working with screw pine, has been busy planning their Christmas collection for the past month. “We have made wine bottle holders, hampers, Santa boots, bells, cake boxes and trays,” she says. The women will be crafting more of these based on the orders they get for the season. These come with red and green satin trimmings and bows.

The floor of their workshop, adjacent to the office building, has piles of scraggly screw pine, which would be spliced, woven and crafted into bags, mats, files, boxes, coasters, trays and more. This is their first attempt at making Christmas decor. Deepa John, who helps with project deisgn, came up with the idea and project coordinator Sarath Kumar, facilitated the process.

Second home

The women are overjoyed to be back at their workstation after months of lockdown. “This place is our second home. This is like a sisterhood, we enjoy this work and the bond we share,” says Mani Soman, while giving the finishing touches to a Christmas hamper.

One of the pioneering centres working with screw pine in Kerala, KIDS has been empowering women from in and around the rural regions of Kodungallur since the year it was established in 1988. It launched an exclusive programme in 2000 to train the women, mainly home makers, in screw pine craft. Today, it has grown to become a Craft-Based Resource Centre, with eight units in different parts of Kodungallur. In addition to screw pine, it also works with water hyacinth.

Revival of an ancient craft

“While preserving an ancient craft by contemporising it, we are also hoping that the younger generation would take up the craft that defines their heritage,” says Fr Paul Thomas, executive director of KIDS. Currently, KIDS has 150 women artisans working across its eight centres, 30 of whom are differently-abled, but it has trained over 3,000 women. Over 800 people are indirectly associated with KIDS, employed in the collection, drying and dyeing of screw pine and water hyacinth.

This has led to a slow revival of screw pine craft that was once popular in the region. The coastal stretch between Ernakulam and Thrissur districts is marked by its wealth of screw pine trees — evergreen trees with spiny leaves, which can prevent soil erosion, much like mangroves. “In the olden days, people in the region used to plant screw pine as a wall around their houses,” says Fr Paul.

Until a few decades ago, the older women in the rural pockets of the region wove mats out of screw pine, which they cut, collected and dried themselves. They would take the mats to the afternoon market at Edavilangu, where they would find buyers. “Gradually, the market died out and with it, the craft began to decline, especially with the invasion of plastic mats,” says Fr Paul. “Many of these women have learnt weaving from their mothers, but we give formal training and workshops in collaboration with institutes such as NID and NIFT, which help them fine tune their skill,” he adds.

Fair for screw pine mats

Fifty-four-year-old Valsala Prasad, one of the senior-most artisans at KIDS, says she has been weaving screw pine since she was 15. “My mother taught me how to weave. She would collect and dry the screw pine. I would help in weaving. We used to wake up at 2 am to start weaving in order for the mats to be ready for the 2 pm daily fair for screw pine mats. One mat would fetch five paisa. There have been times when we have earned up to ₹40 a day, considered a fortune then,” she says. Today, Valsala is a master artisan, training other women in screw pine and water hyacinth craft.

Most of the women employed at KIDS have been with the centre for over 20 years and are now accomplished artisans, who have artisan ID cards, issued by the Government’s National Artisan Portal that would help them access schemes, credit and marketing related to skill training. The products made at KIDS are certified by the Fair Trade Forum, India. The screw pine craft of Kerala was awarded the GI tag in 2008.

The region was badly hit during the 2018 flood and the livelihoods of the women were slowly getting back on track when COVID-19 struck two years later. “We used to depend chiefly on exhibitions and fairs for the sale of our products. Post COVID-19, that avenue is only beginning to open up,” says Fr Paul.

Labour intensive

The work could seem labour intensive. For instance, a 6 ft/ 4 ft mat could take about two days for an artisan to weave. And it requires her to sit on the floor, bent over her work. The product range has over 100 different items (starting from tea coasters to files, floor mats, bags, book marks, sari boxes, table mats, pouches, pen holders and decor items to mention a few). KIDS has an exclusive outlet at Sargalaya, at Iringal, near Kozhikode and at the Muziris Heritage Zone in Chendamangalam. It has also recently ventured into e-retail portals. The prices start from ₹100 and goes up to ₹2,000.

To order Christmas decor products, contact 7902705067 or email [email protected] The Christmas products can be customised as well. The products are available on their Instagram handle @gayafromkids.

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