Three decades ago, no one wanted to teach a young Sanjay Kamble how to work with bamboo. Today, when he wants to teach everyone his dying craft, no one wants to learn. “It’s ironic how times have changed,” the 50-year-old says.

With the bamboo that grows in his one-acre field, Kamble mainly crafts irlas – a kind of raincoat used by paddy farmers in this region in western Maharashtra. “Around twenty years ago, every farmer used an irla while working in the fields because it rained a lot in our Shahuwadi taluka ,” this resident of Kerle village says. He would wear one himself when he worked on his farm. The bamboo raincoat lasts at least seven years, and “even after that, it can easily be repaired,” he adds.

But things have changed.

Government data shows that rainfall between July and September in Kolhapur district has decreased over the last 20 years – from 1,308 mm (2003) to 973 (2023).

“Who knew rainfall here would decline so much someday that it would kill my art?” Sanjay Kamble, the irla -maker asks.

“We farm only from June to September every year as agriculture here is dependent on rainfall,” Kamble says. Over the years, the vagaries of rain have forced most villagers to migrate to cities such as Mumbai and Pune where they work in restaurants, as conductors in private bus companies, masons, daily wage labourers, and street vendors, or toil in fields across Maharashtra.

PHOTO • Sanket Jain
PHOTO • Sanket Jain

Left : Sanjay Kamble , a resident of Kerle village in Maharashtra, makes irlas – bamboo raincoats used by farmers in the field. Right : 'To make a good quality irla , one also has to master the skill of identifying good quality bamboo,' says Sanjay, inspecting bamboo in his field

With the declining rainfall, those who have remained have shifted from cultivating paddy to sugarcane. Kamble says. “Farmers with borewells are rapidly shifting to cultivating sugarcane, which is much easier to grow.” The shift started about seven years ago.

If it rains sufficiently, Kamble can sell around 10 irlas during the monsoon, but in all of 2023, he got orders for only three. “It rained very little this year. So who would buy an irla ?” His customers come from nearby villages of Amba, Masnoli, Talavade, and Chandoli.

The move to sugarcane has also created another problem. “ Irlas are ideally worn in fields with crops that are of shorter height. You can’t walk in an irla in a sugarcane field because the bulky structure will hit the stems of the crops,” explains Sanjay, who is a Dalit Buddhist. The size of an irla depends on the height of the farmer who wears it. “It’s like a mini house,” he adds.

Cheap plastic raincoats, now sold in the village, have almost laid the irla to rest. Twenty years ago, Kamble would sell an irla for Rs. 200–300, which he has now raised to Rs. 600 as the cost of living has also gone up.


Kamble’s father, the late Chandrappa, was a farmer and factory worker. It was his grandfather, the late Jyotiba, who passed before Sanjay was born, who crafted irlas – a common occupation in their village at the time.

Even 30 years ago, the item was in such demand that Kamble thought learning bamboo-work would help him boost his income from farming. “I had no other option,” he says. “I had to make money to support my family.”

PHOTO • Sanket Jain
PHOTO • Sanket Jain

Sanjay doesn’t use a scale or measuring tape to mark the bamboo. Using a type of a sickle, parli (left), he quickly divides the bamboo (right) into two equal parts

PHOTO • Sanket Jain
PHOTO • Sanket Jain

Left: Parli s are quite sharp and often pose a risk to the irla- makers. Right: Sanjay splitting the bamboo

When he decided to learn the craft, Kamble went to a veteran irla- maker in Kerle’s Kamblewadi vasat (locality). “I pleaded with him to teach me, but he was too busy and never even looked at me,” Kamble recalls. However, not one to give up, he would observe the artist every morning and eventually taught himself the craft.

Kamble’s first experiment with bamboo involved making small round toplis (baskets), the basics of which he had managed to learn within a week. He would play around with the bamboo all day, weaving the sand-brown strips until he got it exactly right.

“There are around 1,000 bamboo plants in my field now,” Kamble says. “They are used for craft items and supplied to vineyards [where they support the grapevines].”  If he were to buy chiva (the local variety of bamboo) from the market, Sanjay would have to shell out at least Rs. 50 per piece.

Making an irla is a laborious task and it took Sanjay about a year to learn.

It starts with finding the perfect bamboo plant. The villagers prefer to use chiva because it is sturdy and durable. Kamble carefully inspects the plants in his field and picks out a 21-foot bamboo. In the next five minutes, he cuts it just above the second node and hauls it over his shoulder.

PHOTO • Sanket Jain
PHOTO • Sanket Jain

Finely cut strips of the bamboo (left), which will be weaved into an irla, are arranged horizontally (right)

PHOTO • Sanket Jain
PHOTO • Sanket Jain

Left : Bending the bamboo strips to make the skeleton takes a lot of strength and time. Right: A single mistake can disrupt it entirely and so he has to be extremely careful

He walks back to his chira (laterite) house which has a room and a kitchen and sets the bamboo down in the courtyard where he works. He uses a parli (a type of sickle) to cut the two ends of the bamboo, not uniform in shape. Next, he divides the bamboo into two equal parts and swiftly pierces his parli vertically through each piece, sharply dividing it into two more pieces.

The greenish outer layer of the bamboo is peeled off using the parli to make thinner strips. He spends at least three hours making several such strips, which are then woven to make an irla .

“The number of strips depends on the size of the irla, he explains . Roughly, each irla requires three pieces of bamboo, measuring 20 feet each.

Kamble arranges 20 strips horizontally, leaving a gap of six centimetres between them. He then places a few more strips vertically over them and starts weaving by interlacing them, similar to how a chatai (mat) is woven.

The master craftsman does not need a scale or measuring tape to make these strips, using only his palms for reference. “The measurements are so perfect that no extra part of the strip is left out,” he says, beaming.

PHOTO • Sanket Jain
PHOTO • Sanket Jain

Left : Sanjay shows a miniature version of an irla skeleton. Right: Once completed, the irla is covered with a tarpaulin sheet. In 2023, Sanjay did not get enough orders for irla s due to a lack of rain in the region

“After making this structure, you have to bend the edges from the sides, which requires a lot of strength,” he continues. Once the structure is ready, he spends around an hour bending the strips, giving each a pointed tapering end on the top. The entire process takes about eight hours, he says.

Once the structure is completed, the irla is covered with a large blue tarpaulin sheet that acts as a water repellant. It is fastened to the wearer’s body using a plastic rope extending from the irla ’s tapering end. Multiple knots are made at different ends to hold it in place. Kamble buys the tarpaulin sheets for Rs. 50 a piece from the nearby towns of Amba and Malkapur.


Alongside making irla s, Kamble also cultivates paddy on his land. Most of the harvest is used by his family.  His wife, Malabai, in her mid-40s, also works in their own farm and others’, removing weeds, helping sow rice and plant sugarcane, or harvesting the crops.

“Since we don’t get enough orders for irlas and can’t survive only on paddy cultivation, I choose to [do labour] work in the fields,” she says. Their daughters, Karuna, Kanchan, and Shubhangi, all in their late 20s, are married and homemakers. Their son, Swapnil, is studying in Mumbai and never learned how to make an irla . “He moved to the city as there is no livelihood here,” says Sanjay.

PHOTO • Sanket Jain
PHOTO • Sanket Jain

Left: To add to his income, Sanjay has also mastered handmaking other bamboo items including the karanda , which is used to store fish. Right: To the left is a khurud (used to keep hens), and to the right is a topli (a small basket) made by Sanjay

PHOTO • Sanket Jain
PHOTO • Sanket Jain

Left: Sanjay ensures that he maintains symmetry while weaving. Right: In the past three decades, Sanjay says, no one has come to him to learn his craft

To increase his income, Kamble has also mastered the skill of making khurud s (enclosures for hens) and karanda s (enclosures for fish) by hand, among other bamboo items. They are made on order, and customers come to his home to pick them up. About a decade ago, he also made toplas or kangis – containers traditionally used to store rice. But with the easy availability of patracha dabbas (tin boxes), the orders have stopped coming in. Now he makes them only for their own household use.

“Who would want to learn this skill?” asks Kamble, scrolling through his phone to show us photos of his wares, “it has no demand and doesn’t even pay enough. In a few years, it will disappear.”

This story is part of a series on rural artisans by Sanket Jain, and is supported by the Mrinalini Mukherjee Foundation.

Sanket Jain

Sanket Jain is a journalist based in Kolhapur, Maharashtra. He is a 2022 PARI Senior Fellow and a 2019 PARI Fellow.

Other stories by Sanket Jain
Editor : Shaoni Sarkar

Shaoni Sarkar is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata.

Other stories by Shaoni Sarkar