28 Oct - 3 Nov 2016 #831

A basket case

Can the traditional bamboo handicraft industry revitalise itself?
Smriti Basnet

Pics: Bikram Rai
HARD DAY'S NIGHT: 40 year-old Ram Lal Nagarkoti works on a hanger stand made out of nigalo and bet at his home in Badikhel, Lalitpur.

Like his father and fathers before him, Ram Lal Nagarkoti is a craftsman in the town of Badikhel in the southern edge of Kathmandu Valley known for its bamboo products.

Bamboo weaving has been the family profession for at last four generations, but the traditional craft is on the verge of extinction.   Working on a hanger stand made of nigalo and bet, 40-year-old Nagarkoti said: “Many designs from the time of our forefathers have been lost. I myself have already forgotten most of the techniques, and no one seems to be interested to learn this anymore.” 

Bamboo has been fighting a losing battle against plastic alternatives which are cheaper, and the younger generation doesn’t want to take up the ancestral profession.

"There was a decent demand for bamboo products which is now overwhelmed by plastic, which is cheaper," explained Nripal Adhikary of ABARI, which specialises in bamboo and adobe buildings.

Half of the Badikhel families previously employed in bamboo craftwork have abandoned the profession, and have either moved to other professions or migrated abroad for work.

“It takes time and effort to make bamboo products, and the returns are meagre,” says Nagarkoti, who has to take care of two children and wife, and save enough to rebuild their home which was destroyed in last year’s earthquake. 

Smriti Basnet
Bamboo retailer Narendra Shrestha in his store in Kupondole. Shrestha feels the stagnant bamboo industry can be revived with innovative product designs.

The bamboo market in Nepal is estimated at around Rs 1 billion. Despite its potential to do better, the market is limited as craftsmen like Nagarkoti and his cousins still supply to only small retailers around the Valley.  

Nagarkoti himself had left for Qatar a decade back. After having toiled as a labourer for almost two years he returned only to find that the bamboo market was stagnant. 

His neighbour Thuli Maya Pahari’s two sons also migrated to Dubai. But she says the money they send home is just enough to buy food for the family.

“I see a lot of potential in handicraft bamboo products, where quality can win over quantity if we upgrade the product design,” said ABARI’s Nripal Adhikary. 

A paper by Department of Forest Research and Survey in 2011 estimates that only 10 per cent of traditional handicrafts have a competitive edge on the international market while the rest face competition from substitutes or international products.

Bamboo product retailer Narendra Shrestha is all for innovation and bringing in new designs but is not hopeful because he can’t find skilled workers.“When we have such resources in Nepal why go work outside?” asks Shrestha who feels the government needs to intervene and provide incentives to exporters.  

On a good day, a bamboo craftsman can earn as much as Rs 1000, but often it is much less. Coming up with new designs is too risky. Said Nagarkoti: “I have lost hope in the government, so we have to do this ourselves.” 

Innovating traditions

An unfinished bamboo basket with brown strips weaved into the patterns is the centrepiece of an exhibition in Siddhartha Art Gallery at Baber Mahal Revisited titled ‘Contemporay Nepali Basketry’.

The exhibition has various styles of baskets made by women from Dhankuta, Dang, Banke, Sindhuli, Bardia, Kanchanpur, Kapilbastu, and Kathmandu using different locally sourced raw materials.

“It’s our effort to use traditional skills and weaving structures to modify it to match a more modern lifestyle,” said Shyam Badan Shrestha of the Nepal Knotcraft Centre (pictured above).  

One of the women Hira Rai, originally from Dhankuta, comes from a family of bamboo craftsmen. She wanted to make a proper living out of her ancestral profession and moved to Kathmandu.

“When I left initially they said that girls are not supposed to go and work out of the house. But I am the stubborn type,” said Rai who wanted to ensure a good future for her children in Kathmandu.

Using local resources like bamboo, pine needles, water hyacinth and other improbable plants, the exhibition is not only a display of products of women like Rai but also a reflection of the immense potential Nepal holds in making unique products from local resources. 

“There should be proper planning right from the plantation phase of such raw materials till it enters the market as a finished product,” said Shrestha. 

However, she is disheartened by the little value to the work. She has had enough of people asking why products are expensive if made from something that is locally available, like bamboo. She says: “They never seem to take into account the skill that goes into making it.”

Until 28 October, Siddhartha Art Gallery, Baber Mahal Revisited, (01) 4218048

Read also

Bamboo master

Wild about bamboo