Thursday, 13 February 2014

Meet the Patikars

The skilled fingers of Krishna Rani Patikar.

It’s a risk to harvest the paitra reeds. The matted, dark landscape within is an appealing habitat for cobras. But then, the sun doesn’t fail to try to shine for risk of clouds. And the rain can hardly refuse to fall for risk of making the ground slippery. Things go on as they should when living close to nature and the Patikars gather cylindrical paitra stems in the harvest months from Ogrohayon to Magh. Making circles into lines into rectangles – they’ve been doing that for centuries.

No, it’s not the shapes of ancestral tradition that make a Patikar laugh. It’s colour that amuses them.

Paitra field in Hailakathi.

To plant paitra is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Like the cobras, the reeds return after harvest, without fertilizer or pesticide and with just a little weeding to secure their space. In the damp soil the reeds will rise again into the sunlight, year after year. It’s a cycle of little difference from the way the moon rolls across the night sky. It’s the light of hope.

“The shitolpati looks beautiful,” a villager says, “and you don’t need a fan for sleeping.”

Shaker Chandra Patikar in the paitra field.
In the village of Hailakathi, in Rajapur of Jhalokati, there are old women and young men, children, grandfathers, cousins. They’re all of them Patikars – 250 weavers of 82 families sharing that shitolpati mat tradition – because the day can never arise when a breeze wants not to be a breeze. Anyway, there’s the pride of craftsmanship in being a Patikar.

Haridas Patikar at work.

Haridas Patikar sits on the mud veranda of a small house. He has a knife to get through difficulties but for the most part uses that most ingenious tool – fingers. With the help of fingernails he shaves the outermost sheaths of paitra stem into long fibrous lines.

Sometimes fingers get cut, says a young boy nearby. Sometimes there’s blood in that Patikar tradition.

Harvested paitra stems.
After rolling back the reed skin, once circle has become line, there is occasion for pause – for seven days the strands are bathed in the luxury of rice water before being boiled and dried for a day in the sunshine. Like a Patikar bride on her wedding day there are age-old processes to follow – getting ready, making sure all is just right – and the demand for shitolpatis is greatest when there’s a wedding on the cards. Lastly the paitra lines are sunk into the pond for an hour: then it’s time to weave.

“We have the paitra gardens and good weavers,” says Haridas proudly. “Many other villages take paitra from here – but the finest quality shitolpatis come from this village – the best in Bangladesh!” It’s a bold statement that holds no controversy in Hailakathi.

A few houses further along sits Krishna Rani Patikar, 35, who’s been known to weave since she was a young girl. She learnt that business from her parents. She knows that with five days of weaving she can produce a 6 x 7 foot shitolpati of the first class and earn around 1500 taka from the association.

Guran Chandra Patikar & Krishna Rani Patikar with sons and neighbours
She lives with husband Guran Chandra Patikar, 45, and their two sons. All four in the family assist in shitolpati production – while son Shaker Chandra Patikar, 19, is reading in class 10 he may also be found braving cobras harvesting paitra or weaving. The family can earn up to 6,000 taka per month which isn’t a fortune but certainly goes further than it might in Dhaka.

“In winter shitolpatis are cheaper,” Shaker says, “in summer more expensive.” 

Gorom kale thanda, shit kale gorom,” adds a woman nearby, “In the summer it is cool and in the winter, warm.” You know, the first part of her saying is particularly true and the shiny coolness of a shitolpati beneath on a stuffy summer evening is sure to bring to life the sweetest dreams. We’ve all of us experienced that, surely.

In the smoothness is a centuries-old tradition
And to run one’s hand across a shitolpati where there is no disjunction to the smoothness to be discovered is to feel the Patikar tradition: balanced and beautiful.

They’ve brought out a curio, onto the veranda where Krishna Rani weaves – it’s the synthetic nemesis, the pipe-shitolpati from Comilla. Environmentally interesting in being made from recycled soft drink bottles, the plastic mat can only meet with disdain in Hailakathi.

“This mat will become smelly after use. This mat doesn’t have the coolness of a shitolpati.” Certainly there’s no natural cycle in drink bottle to line to rectangle. It’s not an ancestral life pattern for the sun or the paitra to acknowledge. And it has colour – not to be taken seriously by any self-respecting Patikar.

Krishna Rani Patikar, left, and a neighbour at work, weaving a shitolpati.
Shaker Chandra Patikar weaving at home.

“The superior shitalpati,” it is recorded in the 1981 Government Gazetteer for Bakerganj District of which Jhalokati was a part, “is made out of a reed ‘parita’ grown in damp ground near homesteads... The workmen are called ‘paitiyas.’ These manufactures are carried on by the local people in their own houses and on their own account and the employment of any hired labour for such purposes is scarce.”

Good for sleeping, the shitolpati is cool in summer. There's no need for a fan.
Doubling as a tea shop proprietor in Rajapur town, Shopon Patikar is Secretary of Aashar Alo – The Light of Hope, the organisation charged with shitolpati marketing. Every month he travels to Chittagong, sometimes to Cox’s Bazar, Sylhet or Dhaka.

Aashar Alo has 105 members and in Hailakathi after Cyclone Sidr the Bangladesh Army constructed a workspace for the organisation where weavers sometimes congregate.

It’s not easy to transport shitolpatis. On the Chittagong-bound steamer and in the Laldighir Par Mela, a fair held on 12 Boishakh that attracts shitolpati traders from across the country, there is the ever present risk of theft. A stall at the fair costs up to 20,000 taka – a significant investment; and shitolpatis break easily – they must be transported like glass.

Shitolpatis must be transported like glass.
Shopon knows too that one Patikar is not another Patikar. Among the families some are very poor and have to sell each shitolpati immediately. They take loans for capital and sell early to pay the interest; if they have no paitra garden they must buy supplies. Other, wealthier Patikar families may buy from neighbours to re-sell later, perhaps in summer when prices are high. “A 2,000 taka mat in summer costs 1,000 taka in winter,” Shopon Patikar says.

At the Mela, Shopon has the chance to inspect shitolpatis of other districts. “Good quality shitolpatis come from Jhalokati and Bakerganj,” he says – undoubtedly a generous concession to the latter, and Bakerganj Thana is likewise singled out as a shitolpati centre in the Government Gazetteer. “There are also shitolpatis from Sirajganj, Sylhet and Chittagong,” Shopon says, “but those are not as fine in the weaving.”

The Patikars dream of an export market.
Back in Hailakathi meanwhile the ancestral day-and-night cycle does not preclude dreams of course, and with on-shitolpati sleeping big dreams must arrive easily. These days the light of hope shines on exports – they think of higher prices, better livelihoods, inspired by the success of the garments sector and firmly committed to their craft.

It’s easy to imagine that with a little computer training, with the potential of internet-based sales, Hailakathi’s Patikars are closer to the world than the sun or the paitra might realise.

But for now, the generation-after-generation work continues, the shitolpati knowledge passed down the line. For instance, the finished shitolpati can be washed without soap but must be dried in the shade of a tree. For instance, the outermost reed skin that gives the shitolpati its smoothness and shine cannot be dyed.

No, it’s the rougher inside part of the stem that is coloured with dye powder and woven into patterns – and there’s unavoidably a reduced quality in that. Yes, in the village where circle becomes line becomes rectangle, it’s colour that makes a Patikar laugh.

Harvested paitra. The Patikars take circle, make line, make rectangle.

Shitolpatis from Hailakathi.

This article is published in Star Magazine, here: Meet the Patikars

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