It looks like any other grass, and in many ways it is. Growing wild in forest fringe areas in West Bengal and Odisha, Sabai Grass (Eulaliopsis binata) is light, easy to work with and it can be dyed easily. Once used to make rope, this natural fibre is now stylishly fashioned into products such as baskets, cots, furniture, wall hangings, decorative boxes and coasters. Handmade, natural and eco-friendly, these products have gained popularity worldwide.
Mayurbhanj district in Odisha is a famous centre of Sabai Grass weaving but artisans in other places such as Bankura, Purulia, Baripada and Jhargarm in West Bengal and Odisha too practise this craft. It has become a source of livelihood, of women’s empowerment and even rehabilitation for many people in these parts.
Sabai Grass is known as ‘Babuii’ or ‘Bobai Ghaso’ locally. It is also called ‘Money Plant’ as Sabai Grass has become a source of income for communities in a region that offers little by way of economic opportunities.
While not much is known about the craft’s origin, it is said to go back only as far as the colonial, British era.
– It is believed that the British found the grass strong and durable, and thus perfect to make ropes for military use.
They used it to pull artillery and other equipment. The British used it so extensively that rope-making from Sabai Grass became the occupation for some communities in and around Calcutta.
Sabai Grass is also used in the paper industry, where it binds bundles of paper. In some instances, it is also used to make pulp. Since it is widely used, grass cutting, transporting and sun-drying provide employment to a large number of people in the regions where it grows.
Prepping the grass and then fashioning it into products for sale is fairly easy. After the grass it is harvested, it is dried in the sun, sorted based on its length and quality, and then packed into bundles.
To make ropes, the grass is hand-twisted and then a cycle wheel's ring is used to tighten these twists. The next step is to remove the rough edges of these twists. Once twisted, the long ropes are arranged into bundles. The grass is sometimes braided.
– Sabai Grass is easily dyed, which makes it ideal for crafts, which boast a variety of vibrant colours.
The artisans use natural dye to colour the grass strands but, nowadays, Azo-free dyes are also used. These don’t include toxic chemicals like bleach and nitrogen.
The process of dyeing involves cutting the grass strands and bunching them into bunches. This is followed by mixing dyes in right proportion to get the desired colour, and adding the mixture to boiling water. The bundles are then soaked in the coloured, boiling water before they are dried in the sun.
Woven and braided Sabai Grass is used to create a wide range of products such as charpais (cots), chairs, tables, baskets etc. The rope is woven and coiled over a frame to give it the shape of the finished product. While many women have gained employment and empowerment through this craft, it has also been a source of rehabilitation for some.
At the civil jail of Baripada in Odisha, prisoners are trained by NGOs in Sabai craft and some claim they are pioneers in making sofa sets and other items of furniture from this natural material. With the involvement of various NGOs, the industry has been able to employ a large number of people. Home decor products such as wall-hangings, coasters, baskets and boxes are popular and serve as advertisements for this craft.
You can find a beautiful collection of traditional Sabai baskets on the digital platform, Peepul Tree, which is working closely with artisans across India to bring the best of Indian crafts to a wide audience.
It is wonderful how a simple, natural fibre that grows in the wild has become a lifeline for so many communities in Eastern India.