Nain Ram Bajela sits on the roof of his home in Jaiti village of Munsiari tehsil, weaving baskets on a cold winter morning. A clothesline is behind him, thin clouds above, and in the distance, the Panchachuli mountains. He cuts the ringal or pahadi ringal, a Himalayan species of bamboo, into thin strips with a curved knife that he calls a ‘baransh’ in his Pahadi language. He does not wear any gloves or socks in these sub-zero temperatures, and the wind stings his skin. But Nain Ram labours on, unperturbed.
“I gathered this ringal from the forest yesterday. These sticks will be enough to make two baskets,” he says, without looking at me or the camera. Nain Ram has been making bamboo products since he was 12; he learnt the skill from his father, who was reluctant to allow his son to do this work because of the poor returns. So, he says, “as a child I would steal ringal from people’s lands and make baskets, flower vases, dustbins, pen stands and boxes for hot chapatis."Nain Ram, now 54, says he can make almost anything out of ringal, with just his hands and the knife. “It is almost like clay to me. You can make just about everything from it,” he says as he weaves a sheet of thin and thick strips. “This isn’t the work of a labourer – it’s a skill. You need training for it and it requires patience, like all art.”
Ringal usually grows at about 1,000-2,000 metres above sea level. Munsiari town is located at an altitude of 2,200 metres, and Jaiti village is around six kilometres away – so collecting the bamboo requires going either uphill or downhill, depending upon the availability of ringal. Life in these mountains of Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand is tough, and people have limited livelihood options. Making bamboo products has been a traditional occupation of the men of the Bajela caste here – but Nain Ram is the last bamboo weaver left among Jaiti’s 580 people.
People from faraway places in Munsiari invite Nain Ram to their homes and he spends days there, sometimes nights too. In the hills it's difficult to carry a heavy load from place to place, so he collects the bamboo from near their houses and works on the weaving right there. In return, he gets a place to work and food to eat. He asks to be paid Rs.300 per day, and it doesn’t matter if he makes one basket in that time or four. He gets about 10 such days of work a month, very rarely, 15.
Fortunately, there’s some demand for his products across Munsiari block, especially for the durable and lightweight baskets that women use to carry fuel and fodder. Some, with handles and lids, are also used to carry food, particularly when young women leave for their marital homes.
On days when Nain Ram goes to the forest looking for ringal, he doesn’t get paid. “It’s only when people call me and ask me to make household items, I ask for money,” he says. Although cutting forest bamboo without a permit from the state is prohibited (under the Forest Conservation Act of 1980), Nain Ram has not needed a permit for ringal because he visits the van panchayat areas or community forests jointly controlled by the local people and the state.
Back on the roof in Jaiti village, Nain Ram pauses for a break, pulls out a beedi from his coat pocket and takes off his muffler and shoes. Lighting the beedi, he says he doesn’t like to have a lot of free time. “If I don’t get called for work, I get some ringal [from the forest] and make products at home,” he says. “ Sometimes, I supply them to a store in the local market where tourists buy them. I make about 150 rupees a basket but the shopkeeper sells it for 200-250. I lose money in the process, but I know nothing else. I haven’t studied much. I only know how to sign my name.”
While Nain Ram has trained others in making ringal products, including women at a local non-profit organisation, the government hasn’t done much to promote ringal bamboo products. It hasn’t fixed a minimum selling price to ensure a decent profit, and neither has the state helped create a market for the products. This has dissuaded Nain Ram’s children from learning the art. He is now the last ringal weaver in his family. His sons, Manoj and Puran Ram, would rather work as labourers at construction sites in Munsiari tehsil.
Manoj, who also runs a dhaba (eatery) near Jaiti, says, “What’s the importance of these products? No one buys them beyond Munsiari. Occasionally, tourists pick them up, but you can’t depend on that for a livelihood. They don’t give us a sustainable income. Moreover, I am too old to learn this skill.” He is all of 24. Nain Ram’s wife Devki Devi, 45, who cultivates potatoes on the family’s small patch of land, says that most of the products her husband makes are sold. She proudly displays some baskets and vases.
By around noon, the clouds have taken over the sky as Nain Ram continues to weave on the roof of his house in Jaiti village. “It might rain,” he says, and puts on his shoes and woollen cap and goes inside the house to finish his first ringal basket of the day. By the end of the day, another basket, possibly a third, will be woven by this artist’s dexterous hands.