The making of baskets is an age-old craft of leisure which was practised by the male elders of the family in the traditional rural economy of Nagaland. It was never a profession in the old context, and hence the dwindling of this skill in present times. Bamboo and cane basketry is not art in tribal economies like Nagaland, but an intrinsic part of daily life and activity that produced essential household items like baskets to carry firewood, or bamboo tubes of water, for food and grain storage, vessels, plates, furniture, containers, spoons, and fishing and hunting traps. The craft also extended to personal accessories of adornment and headgear. Bamboo and cane can be found everywhere in traditional homes. The woven craft further penetrates into the realm of architecture and public engineering—in bridges and fencing bamboo and cane are major ingredients along with timber—which traditionally employs basic woven craft skills albeit on a larger scale. It was actually the weaving of bamboo splits or flattened bamboo culms that found application in various ways, causing this unique extension of the craft form.
Fine detailing and varied intricate weaves are the hallmarks of the traditional bamboo and cane basketry of this region. There are hundreds of designs of baskets to be found here, each designed for a specific purpose. Carrying and storage baskets form the bulk of the basketry range. The carrying basket is usually a large, typically tapering or conical form with straps and is used for carrying firewood, vegetables and fruits or water (in bamboo tubes). The open and lidded baskets with or without legs are used for the storage of grain, seed, rice, vegetables, fish, salt and even personal articles like jewellery or clothes. In addition to these types, there are also the cylindrical, rounded, open-weave bags for carrying livestock like chicken or pigs. Open round and square flat trays for drying grain, cane backpacks for hunting expeditions, waist belts for carrying the dao or machete knife, salt and bamboo-shoot solid bamboo containers with cane binding in parts, winnowing trays and fans of varied design and shape, raised woven bamboo and cane tables to support leaf plates (Konyak Naga), dao or knife shields are among the numerous uses that bamboo and cane were put to in the traditional context. The list is endless.
Khophi, a carrying basket made of cane used by the Angami tribe, Khonoba village, in Kohima district
Some of the traditional bamboo-cane crafts have a mix of other materials and solid bamboo components along with woven bamboo and cane to create amazing products of utility and ritual use. Others have a high degree of refinement, and use multiple weaves in the same product. Khophi, a carrying basket of cane made by the Angami of Khonoma village in Kohima district is an example of high-precision basketry coupled with excellent craftsmanship and superb finish. It is a very special basket in that it is given by a man to the woman that he is to marry as a symbol of his commitment to her. In the northern Mon district, the Konyak make a raincoat shield, phu, with dried palm leaves interspersed between woven cane. The janpong and the chikomong are lidded tiffin baskets with cane handles of differing double-weave designs used by the Ao tribe, which are used to carry the midday meal of cooked rice to the fields. The Chang tribe of Tuensang district make elegant boxes, cases, plates, scoops, containers and rice dishes from heat-flattened green internodal bamboo by an ingenious traditional technique of using cane rope to stitch the folded ends of the container. This technique uses seven-month old talon bamboo harvested in December-January. The Yimchunger and Phom people make bamboo mugs for rice beer with lines of woven cane binding in parts by squeezing the young bamboo neck to create a beautiful cup by a secret technique that they are largely reluctant to divulge. The Khiemnungan of Tuensang use an unimaginably intricate spiderweb weave in one of their square base yarn baskets which flares out on top into a circular rim, the weaving of which is known to weaken the eyes. The Angami and Chakhesang of the Kohima and Phek area are known for their gorgeously intricate cane basketry which stand out as exemplary examples of their unmatched craft skills. These especially fine baskets are usually associated with dishes made for marriage or special festivals. Each tribe has its own signature design of headgear whose basic structure is of finely woven cane and bamboo, with ornamentation of animal fur, feather and teeth.
There are woven containers that claim not to let water pass through them. Mats that retain the cool of the earth are used for sleeping and for drying grain. The use of full bamboo is less developed in terms of finish but not application. It is fashioned into mugs, rice beer jugs, cooking and serving spoons, kitchen tongs and spoon holders. Bamboo splits form the basis of all hunting equipment from the bow and arrow and crossbows to woven animal and fish traps. The ancient expertise and skill around the making of these products is hidden and now confined to a few.
Traditionally the dao or broad-blade machete has been the sole tool in the craft of basketry. Sometimes two sizes of knife were used in the crafting of the basket. At present, the tools commonly used for bamboo-cane processing are usually the dao, a small knife, a pin and a hacksaw. Some artisans have now started using cutter and slat-making machines for whole bamboo processing. Many weaving techniques are used in the making of woven articles, especially the different basket forms. The basic technique for weaving bamboo begins with the splitting of an one-year-old or young bamboo culm into 10-15 mm wide slats. The culm is split longitudinally into slats with a dao or machete. The length of the slat is determined by its ultimate use; it could have upto four internodes. The node points are kept away from the mouth ends of the bamboo slat which is then further split by a dao into thinner splits for weaving. Both the hand and the arm are used in this process of fashioning the splits which enables the easy processing of the slat into many splits. The two-to-three–mm thick splits are further finished by scraping the splits against the index finger with a dao to get a smooth surface texture. The split is scraped between thumb and index finger in an outward flowing stroke which is continuously repeated at both ends, until the desired smoothness is achieved. This smoothness and flexibility enhances the quality of the weave and the basket. Cane is similarly fashioned into splits for weaving.
Smoothening the splits
For a basket or headgear, the base is the starting point for the weaving which is basically the interlocking of splits in a pattern and continues first centrally outwards. The ends of the finished base splits are then turned upwards perpendicularly to create the basket walls. The edges are plaited diagonally to achieve a closed structure. Once the desired height is achieved, the ends of the warp and weft are turned down and folded over and into the wall weave. Extra lengths are trimmed.
Starting a closed basket base
Rims are added and finished in many ways by binding half-split cane which is used mostly to strengthen the basket. Many basket designs which are used for carrying heavier loads have extra bamboo slats tied onto the basket surface, or double weaves. The weave patterns and rim designs are numerous. Open and closed weaves and also diagonal and straight weaves bind warp and weft in various patterns depending on the use of the basket. Base and side weaves also differ and many baskets are made using a mould to get the required shape and form. Edges and rims are tucked backwards into the body of the basket around solid cane elements that strengthen the top and sometimes the bottom of the basket. Additional strips are added to the rim as binding elements for a clean and strong finish.
For finishing the basket, a dash of flame is carefully applied to its surfaces which burns the hair bristles of the bamboo. Smoking over the fireplace is the only extra treatment given to the finished product which acquires an attractive gloss and rich colour through constant use and exposure to smoke, besides protecting it from fungus and insect attack. Other traditional methods of treatment include the immersion of bamboo poles in flowing river water for upto four weeks to leach out sugars. These processes, though effective, are extremely time consuming. Bamboo is cut only on new moon nights to prevent infestation with borers. Every year the cutting of bamboo begins in the dry October month and continues until April when the rains descend on Nagaland. The most common bamboo species used for basketry in Nagaland are dendrocalamus hamiltonii and melocanna baccifera. Bamboo and cane basketry is a seasonal activity, as the long-drawn-out and heavy monsoon season is not conducive for bamboo or cane work.
Today basketry in Nagaland is a declining skill. It was the craft of the elderly and was honed and perfected over generations. It is a craft that needs instruction, expertise and a great deal of practice. A craft that could disappear within a few years because all that sustained it and brought it to the level that it has reached is now gone. As a hand skill, it is irreplaceable, and with changes in lifestyle, the need to adapt and preserve this skill becomes of utmost relevance.