The grass is green for the moonj weavers of Allahabad

in 2013, the UP government launched its One District One Product scheme and moonj was chosen as the distinct product for Prayagraj (Allahabad)

Fatima and Ayesha show a bunch of dried grass that will be woven into a beautiful showpiece (Photo: Priti David/ PARI)
Fatima and Ayesha show a bunch of dried grass that will be woven into a beautiful showpiece (Photo: Priti David/ PARI)

Priti David

Fatima Bibi was never one to let the grass grow under her feet. She preferred grabbing it with both hands.

A skilled artisan and craft entrepreneur today, she fashions and sells a variety of household products made from moonj, the outer blades of the tapering reed-like sarpat grass, which lends its name to a range of products made from it.

“When I was a young girl, I thought my reach would be the kitchen —cooking and managing the home,” she says, laughing at the memory. Deftly slipping off her black niqab, she hangs it on a nail near the front door and enters her home, still talking.

“But when I decided to try something, my family gave me every freedom to go out and make something of my life. I may be a young Muslim woman, but there is nothing I cannot do,” adds the feisty 28-year-old, the silver sequins on her white dupatta twinkling in the afternoon light.

Fatima lives in Mahewa town in Prayagraj (formerly Allahabad) district of Uttar Pradesh, where the pace of life largely mirrors the unhurried flow of the Yamuna nearby. “People would ask my father-in-law, ‘A girl from your house is going to go outside and earn money?’ I am not a daughter of the town, so the rules for me are stricter.”

As a girl, Fatima didn’t always know what she would do, but marriage to Mohammed Shakeel brought her to Mahewa and into the home of an experienced moonj artisan, her mother-in-law Ayesha Begum.

The young bride keenly watched how, in Ayesha’s deft hands, moonj was tamed and crafted into an array of products: baskets, with and without lids, and of all shapes and sizes — coasters, trays, pen stands, bags, dustbins, and decorative items like tiny swings, tractors, and more.

The sale of these products brought in a steady income, one that stayed with the women of the house to use as they saw fit.

Fatima with an array of finished baskets
Fatima with an array of finished baskets

“I had watched my mother do it too (make moonj products) in our home in Pipirasa,” Fatima says. In no time, she too picked up the craft. “I was a housewife, working at home, but I had a great desire to do something more. Now (with this work) I can earn around Rs 7,000 a month,” says the mother of nine-year-old Aafiya and five-year-old Aaliyan.

When she is not making moonj artefacts, Fatima is busy promoting the craft in various ways: collecting and marketing moonj products, finding new buyers, organising and conducting training workshops, and trying to shape policy around the craft.

She also successfully manages her own women’s self-help group (SHG), which she has named ‘Angel’ — inspired by stories of strong, compassionate women who take other women along. “I enjoy tales and movies where women are happy with other women, not competing,” she explains.

The recognition and respect she receives, including meeting the chief minister of the state, is a big thrill. “Earlier my husband (a motor mechanic) used to wonder about my comings and goings, but now seeing the recognition I get, he is proud of me. In the last two years, I have been home barely two days of the week,” she says, sharing her feeling of independence. Meeting her SHG members and buyers, training others, and looking after her children takes up all her time.

That still doesn’t stop tongues wagging. “When I attend training meetings where men are present and a photo of the group is taken, people come and tell my mother-in-law, ‘Look at her, being photographed with men!’ But I don’t let that kind of talk stop me,” she says, unwilling to get pulled down by the slings and arrows of narrow societal norms in small-town Uttar Pradesh.

Mahewa Patti Pashchim Uparhar in UP is ranked as a census town (Census 2011) of 6,408 people, but locals still refer to it as ‘Mahewa village’. Located in Karchhana tehsil, it lies a few kilometres from Sangam — the confluence of the Yamuna and Ganga rivers and an important Hindu pilgrimage.

Aasma Begum is an expert craftsperson who trains women in moonj craft
Aasma Begum is an expert craftsperson who trains women in moonj craft

The Yamuna is a vital link that runs through the lives and livelihoods of the people of Mahewa. The craftswomen here also supply small baskets woven from palm leaves filled with flowers and other offerings for pilgrims at Sangam. The men go out to work as mechanics and drivers in Prayagraj city, run small shops nearby, or work in eateries.

Interestingly, while the Muslim community accounts for 13 per cent of the population in Prayagraj district (Census 2011), Mahewa’s Muslim population is just over one per cent. Yet, it is primarily and almost solely Muslim women like Fatima and Ayesha who are leading the revival of moonj craft. “We are training all women, but ultimately, almost all the women who practice the craft are from our community. Others don’t return to complete the work. Maybe they get busy with other things,” says Fatima.

On the terrace of her home in Mahewa, Fatima opens the door to a storeroom piled with wreaths of the precious dried moonj, placed atop discarded household items.

“We get moonj only in the cold season (November-February) and we tear the green grass into strips, dry it and store it here. This is the driest place in the house and there is no wind. Rain and wind alter its colour and turn the grass yellow,” she says.

Yellow grass is not desirable as it is a sign of brittleness and will also resist dyeing. A light cream moonj grass allows the artisan to dye it the colour they want. To achieve this, freshly cut moonj must be tied into bundles and carefully dried for a week — in the open, on sunny, windless days.

Fatima’s mother-in-law Ayesha has also climbed up to check on the stock. Now in her 50s, the master craftsperson remembers a time when one could just take a short walk down to the banks of the Yamuna and collect as much grass as one needed. In the last few decades, rampant development and urban spread have shrunk the open riverside land where the wild grass used to flourish unbidden.

“Now, mallahs (boatmen) who traverse the Yamuna’s banks bring us moonj and sell it for Rs 300-400 a gatta (one gatta weighs roughly 2-3 kg),” says Ayesha, as we descend back to the courtyard where she works. With a gatta of moonj, an artisan can expect to make roughly two 12 x 12 inch baskets that are sold for a total of Rs 1,500; baskets of this size are normally used to grow plants or to store clothes.

an artisan shows deep gashes in her hands caused by the sharp blades of grass.
an artisan shows deep gashes in her hands caused by the sharp blades of grass.

The sarpat grass, which grows to a height of between 7 and 12 feet, plays the leading role in moonj craft. Playing a supporting, but important role, is another grass, a thinner reed called kaasa that is used to bind the tougher moonj; kaasa is barely visible in the final product. Sold in tightly tied handfuls, this grass is available in plenty on the riverbanks and sells for Rs 5-10 a bunch.

Seated in the courtyard within their home, Ayesha gets back to work. She’s making a few knobs to go on the lids of baskets. With just a pair of scissors and a sharp needle, she snips, pulls, pushes and tightens the fine blades of grass, occasionally dipping the stubborn ones in a bucket of water to make them more pliable.

“I began (this work) by watching my mother-in-law. The first item I made was a roti ka dabba (box for rotis) 30 years ago, when I came here as a young bride,” says Ayesha. Once she even made a small swing to hold the idol of the young Lord Krishna for Janmashtami.

Showing her calloused hands with deep gashes, she says, “Our fingers are cut from with this knife-thin but very strong grass.” Remembering the early days, she adds, “(Then) the entire household would pitch in — the women and children making the moonj products and the men selling them in the market. If two to three women in the house worked together, we could earn around Rs 30 a day, enough to run our homes.”

Around a decade ago, demand for moonj had dried up; the number of women practicing the craft had fallen, and there were few products on sale. Help came with an unexpected development: in 2013, the UP government launched its One District One Product (ODOP) scheme and moonj was chosen as the distinct product of Prayagraj, its history dating back at least seven decades.

“The ODOP status has increased demand and sale, so many artisans are returning and new people are also joining,” says Ajay Chourasia, deputy commissioner for industry, Prayagraj, who also heads the Zila Udyog Kendra, the state body through which ODOP benefits are passed on to the craftswomen. “We are disbursing training and kits to women who come forward to do this and our target is to train 400 women annually,” he adds. The Kendra also supports the craft by organising regular melas (fairs), both statewide and national.

A woman weaves with sirahi, a sharp needle.
A woman weaves with sirahi, a sharp needle.

Mahewa’s enterprising women wholeheartedly welcomed the move to promote moonj and grabbed the chance to supplement their income. Fatima says they now get orders on WhatsApp and the work and earnings are distributed equally among the women.

ODOP has also brought funds to their doorstep. “This scheme gives us access to loans. In my SHG, many have taken Rs 10,000 to Rs 40,000 to start work,” says Fatima. The scheme offers a 25 per cent subsidy on the total loan amount — that is, 25 per cent of the loan amount is waived. The balance, if paid back within three months, is interest-free, and after that it invites an interest of 5 per cent per annum.

The scheme is expected to help draw women from other places as well. Ayesha’s married daughter Nasreen lives in Andawa village in Phulpur tehsil, just 10 km away. “Here (in Andawa) the same grass is only used to thatch roofs before placing tiles to prevent rain water from seeping in,” says the 26-year-old, who has a bachelor’s degree in education and psychology.

Having seen the economic potential of moonj work in her home, she is trying to get the craft started here.

Twenty years ago, a moonj basket for rotis would sell for Rs 20. Today the same basket goes for Rs 150 or more, and despite inflation, it is seen as a respectable earning.

Which is why even at 60, Fatima’s neighbour, also called Ayesha Begum, has a passion for the craft that hasn’t dimmed — unlike her eyes, which do give trouble if she spends too long working.

“I can earn around Rs 150–200 per item I make. Instead of just sitting around, I am earning money and using my time well,” she says, seated on a floormat in the front courtyard of her home, her back against the wall as her fingers fly in and out, crafting a lid for a basket.

“She will complain of pain in her back after this,” points out her husband, who is listening to her speak. Mohammed Mateen, a retired tea-shop owner, smiles when we ask him if men do this work. “Some men can do it, but I can’t,” he says.

The afternoon is drawing to a close and Fatima’s mother Aasma Begum has dropped in at her daughter’s home with finished pieces. Fatima will take them to display and sell at a small exhibition being held at the Circuit House in Prayagraj the next day.

Aasma picks up a basket with an elaborately detailed lid to show the work she has done. “A fine coaster for hot dishes can take up to three days to make. You have to do it slowly or the grass tears,” she explains.

Artisans use narrower strips of grass to produce a more supple, slim item that also takes longer to make, and demands a higher price.

In her early 50s, Aasma is a well-regarded craftsperson who recently trained 90 women in moonj craft at her home in Pipirasa, about 25 km from Mahewa. Her students range in age from 14 to 50. “It’s good work. Anyone can learn, earn money and get ahead in life doing this,” she says. “As long as I can, I will do this work. I’m very happy with the work Fatima is doing.”

Aasma studied up to class 4 and was married at the age of 18 to Fatima’s father, a farmer with roughly 2 acres of land. As a trainer, Aasma earns Rs 5,000 a month from the Zila Udyog Kendra, and the girls attending the six-month training sessions are paid Rs 3,000 a month.

“These girls are (otherwise) free and now they are learning something and earning money within the home. Some will use that money to study further,” she says.

For the moonj artisans, next up are plans for a museum and a workshop. “We are waiting for a museum so that visitors can see and appreciate the work we do. It will have the most finely crafted products on show and you will be able to see the process,” says Fatima.

The workshop attached to the museum will encourage more women to step forward. Last year, according to Chourasia, the Union government allocated Rs 3 crore for a craft village that will house this museum. “It has started but will take some time to complete,” he adds.

“In the workshop, some will do only weaving, some will do only colouring work — tasks will be divided. It will be nice, all of us sitting together and working, the community of moonj craftswomen,” says Fatima, her vision for the future tightly woven with the sturdy grass.

Priti David is executive editor of the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI). (This article was first published by the People's Archive of India and is reproduced with permission.)

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