Kouna Craft – A Sustainable step in the Indian Handicraft Sector

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Sling bag by Cococesta

Prerana.R.Mohanty

Department of Textile design, National Institute of Fashion Technology, Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India.

 ABSTRACT

Sustainability is important, and people are searching for tools to better incorporate sustainability into their companies and products. The environmental influence of the fashion industry has been under the spotlight, and many companies and brands have also been urged to make joint and individual efforts to be more sustainable. Over the years, the protection of Geographical Indications has arisen as one of the most controversial problems of intellectual property rights in the World Trade Organization (WTO). It has acquired further interest since its protection has been multilaterally guaranteed under the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). A Geographical Indication is specifically an organic, natural or manufacturing commodity (handicraft and consumer goods) originating in a specific geographical region. Such a name conveys the guarantee of consistency and distinctiveness which is attributable to the place of origin of the name. Manipur has a rich and culturally diverse scope for crafts. The study is based on Kouna Craft that plays a crucial role in uplifting the indigenous communities in Manipur. Cococesta, is one such brand that has stepped up with a greener thought to promote this craft and help the artisans. The present study further throw light on characteristics and uniqueness of Kouna craft and also the brand’s contribution towards this sustainable handicraft.

Keywords: Kouna Craft, Sustainable, Eco – Friendly, Indian Handicraft, Geographical Indication.

INTRODUCTION

Sustainability is the need of the hour for a greener and cleaner earth. Incorporating eco thoughts in the handicrafts sector is a great initiative to uplift the traditional craft of India with a sustainable touch. Handicrafts represent the ethnic, environmental and historical characteristics of the region and culture. Handicrafts in Manipur, due to its aesthetic and artistic importance, have a unique position among the numerous crafts of the region. Due to the abundance of raw materials and demand from both domestic and foreign customers, kouna craft is popular among crafts. Through this indigenous craft, many locals in Manipur earn their livelihood and it has opened up ample employment opportunities for local craftsmen in the state. Improving the survival of those whose lives depend on geographically unique, high-quality kouna craft has developed over time. Around 80 percent of the households in Thoubal are active in practises related to kouna. Kouna, a grass-like herb, is typically grown in marshlands and wetlands and is primarily grown in the village of Khangabok in Manipur. This village is renowned for its Kouna Saba traditional craft, locally referred to as Phaksaba or mat weaving. Many local artisans, especially women folk, are involved in making products from ‘Kouna craft’ (a water reed) and earn well in Manipur. For large-scale cultivation, processing and selling of various items such as cushions, mats, baskets, women’s handbags, footwear and furniture, these long water reeds have immense potential. They are eco-friendly, sturdy, washable, and hand woven. However, it is important to make it more robust in the light. Many Kouna handicraft training programmes are held in various areas, attended by many craftsmen. Many of them have been helping their families by selling homemade Kouna pieces for the past 14 years. There are many home-grown brands supporting this craft such as ‘Cococesta’. Cococesta is a sustainable brand who promotes this indigenous craft and also helps the local artisans earn their livelihood.

About Kouna

             Figure 1 Kouna or water reed

Kouna is a perennial aquatic herb. The eco-friendly plant grows in the low lying paddy fields and is culturally associated with the mythical holy snake god ‘Nongda Lairen Pakhan.’ Kouna cultivation demands less investment than paddy (major crop in Manipur), but can produce higher income once cultivated. It will consistently produce its goods for more than 25-30 years if properly handled. Commonly referred to as bulrush, Manipur craftsmen lovingly call the wild water reed – kouna – in their local language. Medicinal value, the new Kouna shoot is used by locals as an herb to treat chronic fever and sleeping on kouna mats is believed to alleviate people from back pain. Kouna’s biodegradable, non-toxic and air-conditioning qualities make it the perfect raw material for home decor products such as mattresses, carpets, etc. The plant is naturally immune to insects and helps to reduce water waste by removing harmful microorganisms and toxic metals. In addition, the plant provides an ideal shelter for wild birds, and its thick roots act as a strategic sanctuary for fish.

It is harvested thrice a year as –

  • Summer Rush (kalen kouna) harvested during May-June
  • Autumn Rush (cheirak kouna) harvested during Sept-Oct
  • Winter Rush (ningtham kouna) harvested during Dec-Jan

Autumn rush is most profitable and durable. Certain fertilisers are required to preserve fertility. The rush is cut at the root, 2-4 inches behind the stump. Collected tillers are heaped in shady areas for two to three days. After that they are dried in sun for about 10-15 days till a golden yellowish color is developed. Then they are bundled and stored in a dry place.

Figure 2 The reed is dried in the sun and develops golden yellowish color

 

Process

Once Kouna is tried, it undergoes selection. Related tillers are picked from the bundle based on their diameter, colour and finesse. Tillers are cut into the appropriate size and are soaked in water to bring about the softness of the kouna. The grass is first woven into a flat circular or oval shape, as the base of the item, after which the grass spokes guided upwards form the ‘warp’ which is then interwoven with the section that can be considered the weft. Mattresses and mats are woven flat without moulds and secured with a jute string in auspiciously accepted odd numbers. Fifteen knots are considered most auspicious. The base of any woven piece starts with an oval or circular pattern. When weaving, basic tools are used to tame a strand of grass into place according to the pattern or texture required.

Figure 3 Basket weaving using Kouna grass (Dastkari haat samiti)

Patterns on stools, baskets and bags are pre-planned and worked to meet the form needed. Village carpenters make plywood or tin moulds to give form to the item that is woven around it. This makes it easier to standardise the sizes for bulk manufacturing. They’re in a range of sizes, as ordered by the weaver. Many craftsmen across India, engaged in textile or grass weaving, find their feet as useful as their hands when they work.

Tools

Figure 4 Tools used in Kouna craft

The main tools used while weaving are hammer, nails, needle and cutter or knife. Hammer is used to flatten the reeds before weaving and to even out the final product. The nails have a specific use as the reeds are nailed to the mould to help retain the shape. Needle is used to tighten the gaps between woven lines and to fold in the reeds while finishing. Lastly, cutter or knife is used to size and splice the reeds at the start and to cut the extra trimmings to finish.

Cococesta by Kouna Manipur

Figure 5 Logo of Cococesta by Mawong design

Cococesta is a sustainable brand. Sarju Tayenjam is the founder of the brand. Its mission is to provide sustainable livelihood to Manipuri people through kouna craft. It is located in Imphal, Manipur. Manipur is a beautiful state rooted in its artistic value. The name of the brand is on the youngest pet daughter of the founder named Coco along with Spanish word cesta meaning basket. She was inspired to start a sustainable fashion brand to promote Kouna craft and also to help the indigenous communities to earn their livelihood. Sustainable fashion for her is to help provide good quality, sustainable products which are affordable and also eco-friendly to the masses by providing sustainable income to the weavers who are mostly farmers (earlier their income was based only on agriculture). It has been 4 years since when she started the business.

Due to COVID-19 they faced a huge impact on logistics mainly shipping issue. But still they are working hard to tackle this major issue and coming up with different products. They have a wide range of products such as hats, sling bags, purses, baskets, mats etc. Kouna Manipur came up with a thought to eliminate middle vendors so that they are able to give fair price to the weavers as well as to the buyers.  For packaging, they use recycled cardboard boxes from local stores and pack it with white shipping bags. It’s a great initiative by the brand to walk on the path of sustainability.

 

Figure 6 Semi-circular bag, Sling bag, Slippers by Cococesta brand

Innovation in Kouna Craft

Shapes and sizes were limited before suppliers started engaging with city consumers of more refined tastes. The craftsmen started to diversify, to learn from designers at training seminars, and to understand that creativity and high quality basket weaving could draw more buyers. Prominent weavers who have formed firm ties with farmers who grow kouna grass and local entrepreneurs who send samples to retailers elsewhere in the country or abroad are now providing a wide variety of easily sold goods that any shopper or lover of natural eco-friendly materials is searching for.

Figure 7 Embroidered sling bag (Source : Dastkari haat samiti)

Earlier it was only limited to weaving but now the artisans are experimenting more with the craft to meet the consumer needs. Embroidery is being done to make it look more attractive for the buyers. Kouna is even dyed using natural colors like vegetable dyes and are woven to meet the consumer needs. More products are being developed now and it is no more limited to mats. Footwear is a comparatively recent innovation and suitable for beaches, aircraft indoors and home paddling. Cool and convenient, they keep the soles of the feet well aired and free of plastic and rubber allergies. This is an art where there is no gender discrimination. In this area, women are more involved and popular, especially if men work outside the home, but both sexes engage as they wish in basket weaving. Most weavers are imaginative by nature, and with the malleable turf, unskilled women who want to produce money for their families quickly learn how to make simple baskets.

Figure 8 Kouna Woven hat (dyed using natural colors)

Conclusion

The craft traditions of Kouna are an important part of the culture for the people of Manipur. Kouna also known as bulrush has several medicinal properties too. It is a boon to earth with multipurpose properties. It can be categorized into 2 parts – Traditional craft and modern craft. Traditional craft depicts the roots of the craft which comprises of the various kouna phak. Earlier it was majorly limited to phak. It’s an integral part of every house in Manipur as it is mandatory in marriages, feast, and festival. However, with time the craft has modernized further. It is immensely becoming popular around the globe due to the eco-friendly properties. More vital steps should be taken to increase Kouna plantation and emphasis be given on promoting it on international level. We are in need of materials like Kouna that is highly sustainable and contributes in making earth a greener planet. Made in India and Vocal for local are great initiatives started by the government. Brands like Cococesta are setting an example for everyone to move towards a greener path. The graph of sustainability is increasing and will be a boon for earth in the coming years.

References

(1) Sumila Phijam (2014). Kouna a tale of matting rush

Retrieved from: https://issuu.com/sumilaph/docs/kouna_a_tale_of_matting_rush

(2) Dastkari Haat Samiti (2019). Arts and culture

Retrieved from: https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/dwIiNxlWYgTILQ

(3) Giskaa (2015). Weaving dreams with Kouna

Retrieved from: Weaving dreams with Kouna

(4) ANI (2018). Manipur’s Kouna craft is casting spell on handicraft sector

Retrieved from: https://www.aninews.in/news/lifestyle/culture/manipurs-kouna-craft-is-casting-spell-on-handicraft-sector201808231927150001/

(5) Dr.Nuglekpam Premi Devi (2017).Wonder weaves: Study of self-reliant women workers with special reference to Kouna, EPRA Journals, vol.3, pp. 39-46