Kottayam: Discovering the hidden beauty in ‘screw pine’ leaves

A cluster development programme for the promotion of ‘Screw Pine’ craft in Kottayam, Kerala

By Maheswar Thampi

A group of ‘screw pine’ artisans at Jawahar Centre, Vaikom, Kerala

The thorny, inedible, unattractive leaves of the screw pine tree have long been woven into mats in Vaikom in Kerala’s Kottayam. Now a not-for-profit is teaching artisans how to make handicrafts and sell them.

The handicrafts include purses, hand bags, even a model of the big temple in Vaikom. The screw pines grow in the wild in the backwaters region of an area that is now famous in Kerala’s textbooks for the Vaikom satyagraha or movement, a protest against rampant caste prejudice.

The mats that the people of Vaikom wove earned them only rupees 5 at the most in earlier times. Geethamma (52), a traditional weaver belonging to Vaikom says, “I started helping my mother even when I was a school-going girl, and my elder sisters too used to help my mother. Together all of us could finish only one mat a day. Later we too started weaving mats to earn a living as there was no other option for us because in those days our village was one of the most excessively deprived areas of the district.”

‘Screw pine palms’ grow abundantly in the loose soil along the backwater belt areas. Vaikom taluk of Kottayam district, situated close to Vembanad lake is famous as a traditional screw pine mat weaving centre. The processing of the thorny leaves for mat weaving and handicrafts making is a strenuous task. The thorns have to be removed first, then the leaves have to be dried properly. The dried leaves have to be shredded and boiled. For making diversified colourful handicraft items (mats, penholders, purse,s, etc), the leaves have to be boiled in water mixed with synthetic colour for 45minutes.

In those days women belonging to the deprived categories were the main earning members of the family as work for men to earn enough to support the family was rare in the backwater belt. As a result, most of the girls in the area became school dropouts and had to face deprivation in education, health, and nutrition.

Called the Jawahar Centre, the Jawaharlal Memorial Social Welfare and Public Co-operation Centre helps the weaker sections, especially women and children of economically and socially marginalised sections of society by training them. The centre started by organising skill development programmes in craftsmanship. Soon the centre caught the attention of all the weavers in the locality and by 2003, women weavers started enrolling in groups to get special training in screw pine craft. Now trainers and designers from the National Design Centre (under the Ministry of Textiles) visit the centre to give specialised training to batches of SC/ST women artisans in making designer bags, mats, wall hangings, baskets, pen holders, pouch, table mats, and various other showpieces.

‘Screw pine’ artisans making handbags at Jawahar Centre, Vaikom, Kerala

The artifacts made by these women are being exported to different foreign countries where there is a huge demand for such things. As all the products are handcrafted and made from natural fibre, foreign nationals have a special craze for these products. Tourists visiting Kerala also like to buy these natural handwoven mats and other products. NRI Indians too have a special fascination for handmade handicrafts and they have no hesitation in spending any amount of money to buy such items. Now compared to pre-Covid times the export of handicrafts has come down drastically and so the sale of products is possible only at exhibition venues. The trainee weavers get 300 rupees as a stipend during the training period and the best performers among them are given a chance to attend a 15-day special training programme at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, Ashish N, the centre’s coordinator said.

The registered weavers get the processed raw materials and they are free to work and make the products either sitting at home or at the centre. The women screw-pine artisans of Vembanad backwater belt of Vaikom, who were an excessively deprived section for decades are at present in a slightly better position because now they earn at least a regular income, Geethamma said.