Crafting products, mainly various forms of utilitarian containers, figurines of Gods and Godesses, and toys, using Sikki grass were an integral part of the living heritage of the women of the part of Northern Bihar, which used to be known as Mithila. This used to be one of the 5 forms of hand crafts that a lady was supposed to be expert in, namely – Painting (this art form has become famous as Madhubani / Mithila painting), embroidery (known as Suzni craft), embroidery (known as Kashidakari), Papier mache craft and Sikki grass work). Before marriage, a girl’s skill in these 5 crafts used to raise her demand as a bride in the village, and products made in these five crafts was to go as a part of the dowry from the girl’s side.
The Sikki grass craft has thus have been existing since hundreds of years, and it is difficult to ascertain exactly how old this craft is. However, as a craft being used for commercial use has been a more recent phenomenon, over the last couple of decades.
Upendra Maharathi and the Craft Research Institute established by him in Patna had played an instrumental role in trying to encourage the women of these villages in Madhubani to make products of this craft commercially for the local market as well as in other cities across India. Runa Khatun and Sudha Devi of Sarisab Pahi village were among the first women to take a commercial order in this craft.
The sikki is characterized by its wonderful beautiful golden colour, so it is also called as Golden Grass elsewhere. In Orissa for example products are made purely in this grass (it is called Golden Grass in Orissa), without the use of munj grass as a core forming material like in Bihar.
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A wide variety of products are created by the Sikki artisans in Raiyam village cluster – while in their Sangathan, and also when they work from home. However they mostly work on the smaller traditional products when they work from their homes, and work on the larger products and those on order at the Sangathan. The types of products made by them are as follows:
1. Containers: Sikki grass is used to make a wide variety of coantainers, for storing various types of things. They make colourful storages which does not break when dropped, and mostly have a lid. Depending on their sizes they have different local names like Jhappa (large and medium sized containers with or without lids), Pauti (smaller containers with lids) and Gamla – open flat large bowls and trays. There is an interesting variety of Animal (Elephants), Bird (Owls, etc) and Fish forms that render themselves as containers. Some of these forms like the Elephant and the Fish are traditional but some bird forms are more contemporary. Rectangular boxes are also created, which are more contemporary in nature.
2. Bags: The flexibility and surface texture (it is quite smooth and skin friendly, unlike many other natural fibres) makes it quite suitable to make bags out of this. Combined with the potential of creating colour combinations along with the natural golden colour of the Sikki grass. Contemporary designers have tried the potential of creating bags by just combining the natural golden coloured sikki grass and the earthy brown coloured Saawe grass, which is usually hidden in most Sikki products that use them.
3. Decorative Items: Dolls , Circular Wall plates and Potted plants used to be common traditional decorative products. Recently artisans have tried creating other type of decorative wall mounted pieces by themselves or from designs given to them by designers – like certain bird forms.
4. New Products, based on Orders: The artisans have been creating other types of products which are entirely based on designs either given to them or created with them by urban designers. A host of such products have been created from the design interventions during the Jiyo program:
a. Screens : The screens involve forms in Sikki grass woven within a frame made with steel rods, and can be used as a partition.
b. Special Lighting Fixtures: These are large chandelier or floor based lights that are made by weaving Sikki grass on a bamboo framework.
c. Stools : These stools have the structure made in cane and the top surface woven with Sikki grass.
d. Special insulated containers: These are cylindrical containers with lids which have thick double walls that act as insulators to store food stuff.
e. Wall Plate (decorative)
f. Miscellaneous items – like the Snake model These are again made with Sikki woven on a cane inner core.
The Sikki Grass
The products are made mainly with this type of grass called the ‘Sikki’ grass. The raw material is a golden coloured grass, which is grown in the wet and marshy area around rivers and ponds in Mithila region of North Bihar (mainly the district of Madhubani). The Sikki grass is cut from the fields and is then dried in the sun. It needs protection from rain and rats. The natural colour of the grass is golden yellow, but is often dyed in colourful colours for the products. – Red, Maroon, Yellow, Green Violet. Munj grass, a locally available much cheaper grass , is used to give structural strength – to form the core of the rim and edges of most products, around which the sikki grass is wound. The Munj grass is bundled and the Sikki grass is wound around it. The Sikki artisans buy the grass from the local market, at the present price of Rs 300/- a kg, while the Munj Sawe grass is only about Rs 30/- a kg. Each artisan consumes about 10 kg of grass of the Sikki grass in a year and about 7 – 8 of the cheaper Munj grass.
Steel (MS or GI) wire is also used nowadays to form the structural frame members for many products. New contemporary products are also being made using Steel members (rods, etc), cane or bamboo frmework.
Dyes of various colours (red, violet, green, yellow, pink, etc) are used ti dye the colours. They are procured from the market and mostly come from Bangalore. The final most important material is Water, with which the sikki grass is cinstantly made wet and worked so that they remain flexible while weaving.
The main tool used for making the products is a 5-6 inches long needle-shaped iron object with a rounded head for grip is called Takua. The women also use a very thin knife (choori) for splitting and scissors (kaichi) for cutting the sikki. At times they also use their teeth for splitting sikki grass.
To make the sikki grass usable, it is first cut from near its base and then dried for somedays. Since the flowering part of the stem of sikki is not used for crafts making, it is discarded and the remaining portion of the sikki is sliced and shaved with the help a of knife or by teeth. The natural golden coloured grass is used as it is, but is also dyed in various colour dyes. There are some primary colours available in the market, like: Yellow dye name – Auromin, Aqua Blue dye name – Methiline Blue Fuschia dye name – Rodamine Orange dye name – Crysodine Brown dye name – Acr. Brown Violet dye name – Violet Grey dye name – Grey, and a few others.
All other colours (like – Blue, Red, Lime Aqua, Green, Black and more) are formed by mixing these dyes in various proportions.
These colours have been clearly standardised and documented and catalogued by the Jiyo design intervention.
Presently, the artisans are working with 18 such colours.
Before use, sikki is wet lightly to make it more pliable as it is coiled around the munj. The colouring is achieved by boiling the sikki in different colours. Now the main form is shaped with munj or khar (other type of grass) to provide the basic shape and additional strength to the sikki product. Due to its abundance, generally munj is used for coiling purpose in Maithili region of Bihar.
The process if making the products is primarily done through Coiling.
A bundle of munj grass is taken, which is then completely covered with Sikki in such a way that the munj is not visible at all. Then as the sikki wrapped munj is wound in a spiral coil the sikki grass is used to attach two adjacent layers of the coil.
Usage of the Takua:
The takua is inserted to create a gap among the tightly woven coil to create a small gap through which the leading tip of the grass is inserted and pulled from the other end. The takua is used carefully because it can also cut sikki if the artisan is not careful. The product being made is held firmly with the left hand while the right hand is completely free to wield the takua.