- Local artisans near northeast India’s Kaziranga National Park say their wildlife-inspired woodcraft is an expression of nature-friendly values, and counters stereotypes of tribal people as antagonistic to conservation.
- Small, locally owned workshops face competition from big-city businesses who control prime retail locations and can undercut their prices.
- Carving a fast-growing local wood by hand, sculptors say theirs is a green craft, and should be promoted and supported by the government.
Sitting on a wooden plank on the floor of his tiny workshop, Kushal Das meticulously uses his chisel and gouge to give the finishing touches to the rhinoceros he’s spent over an hour carving out of a 20-centimeter (8-inch) slab of wood. He pauses for a moment, inspecting his handwork with a critical eye, before making a few final adjustments and handing the sculpture to his assistant, Deepak Bora, who is responsible for dyeing it in bright colors.
Das, 48, and Bora, 19, are among some 100 woodcraft artisans running workshops and selling handmade art pieces — mostly wooden replicas of various animals — near Kaziranga National Park in northeastern India’s Assam State. The park is the global stronghold of the greater one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis), the species Das’s latest statue depicts. According to a 2018 census, 2,413 rhinos live in the park, around two-thirds of the species’ total population.
Kaziranga National Park attracts a massive tourist flow, with the 2017-2018 tourist season recording 177,431 visitors. Wood-carvers like Das and Bora rely on these tourists to keep their business afloat.
“The wildlife tourists visiting the park like to buy souvenirs from Kaziranga and their most obvious choice is traditionally crafted rhinos,” says Das, whose carving workshop and stall, in the village of Rajabari, is close to the Agaratoli range of Kaziranga National Park and sits by a national highway that connects Assam with the neighboring northeastern states of India. “We have our peak selling season during the months the park is kept open for tourists. For the rest of the year, our customers are primarily the people from different parts of Assam and the neighboring states who ply by the national highway.”
According to Das, approximately 100 families around the park depend on wood carving for their livelihoods. Many of these families belong to different local tribal communities, such as the Mishing, Karbi and Adivasi, or so-called “tea tribes.” Marginalized in the state’s politics, these groups have also been portrayed as detrimental to conservation. Even official conservation discourses have accommodated such views: a 2005 UNESCO-IUCN-WII technical report described Karbi and Mishing communities as antagonistic to the park’s values, saying they were “still to come to terms with the creation/declaration of the additional areas of the park.” In 2017, a poster used for conservation communication in Manas National Park, a protected area in western Assam, racially profiled Adivasi communities and portrayed them as encroachers on the park’s land. The Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) later apologized for the poster. In 1994, an article in the journal Pachyderm tended to only discuss tribes like the Karbi or Bodo as threats to wildlife and conservation efforts.
The wood-carvers from these communities stand in stark contrast to such negative portrayals: they practice an eco-friendly art through which they express conservation nuggets.
Wood carving and its potentials
Wood carving is a traditional art form of Assam, once patronized by the Ahom kings of eastern Assam. As such, the practice even today doesn’t involve the use of any sort of machinery. Everything is done manually. “Being a handicraft, it’s a green art,” Das says. “The woodcraft we practice is completely eco-friendly.”
Kaziranga’s carvers work with Gambhar wood (Gmelina arborea), locally known as gomari gos, from a fast-growing deciduous tree that occurs naturally throughout Assam and other parts of India. The wood is sourced from nearby villages, where the trees grow in abundance. Depending on its size and quality, a dried trunk costs anywhere from 1,800 to 8,300 rupees ($24 to $112), Das says.
There are two kinds of people employed in a wood-carving workshop: the artisan, or mistiri, and the assistant, or jogali. The artisan is often the owner of the workshop, while the assistant is a semi-skilled daily-wage laborer employed by the former. While the artisan’s income depends on the amount of finished products he can sell, the assistant gets a fixed daily wage of around 350 to 430 rupees ($5 to $6 per). “If you are lucky enough to work with a good mistiri there could also be incentive per carving. However, that depends a lot on experience and age as well,” says Bora, who has worked as Das’s assistant for over two years.
“Till date the highest sale I’ve recorded on a day is about 26,000 [$350]. That was in the peak season earlier this year,” says Das, who puts his average monthly income at 29,000 rupees ($390).
Artisans maintain that business has improved in the last couple of years. While Das is a relatively new entrant into the trade, starting his shop in 2008, Anup and Khajan, who run the neighboring stall, have been in the business for 15 years. Now both in their late twenties, they started working in woodcraft after dropping out of school in 2003. “The business has seen an uptick in the last couple years with more and more tourists visiting Kaziranga and dropping by to buy our works,” they say. “Also, locally, people’s buying power has improved over the years. They are now more interested in buying decorative items than they used to be 10 years ago.”
However, there has not yet been any concerted effort to link wildlife tourism and conservation to the handicraft industry in Kaziranga, says Deep Jyoti Gurung, a doctoral researcher at Tezpur University, Assam. “It’s a fact that ensuring decent alternative livelihoods for local forest-dependent communities helps a big way in earning their support for conservation initiatives,” says Gurung, who co-authored a study on Kaziranga’s handicraft industry and wildlife tourism. “If we succeed in creating a stable market tapping on the huge wildlife tourist inflow Kaziranga draws every year, the handicraft industry around the park has tremendous potential to create livelihoods.”
But little has been done so far, Gurung says. One problem is the lack of a regulation or standard price rates in the handicraft market. As a result, cheap imported items flooding the market make it hard for local artisans to compete. Locals also have little access to the prime spots for attracting potential buyers. The stalls closest to major tourist hubs are owned by big businessmen from outside Kaziranga who don’t run workshops and instead sell items sourced at a low price from disadvantaged artisans, Gurung says.
The industry is also lacking in proper promotion, says Gurung. “There’s little online promotion and selling of Kaziranga’s handicrafts,” he says. “The industry has to tap into what the internet has to offer. And while promoting, an emphasis on the fact that Kaziranga’s handicraft is a sustainable green art anchored on a local tradition could attract more international buyers.”
Conservation nuggets through handcrafted art
Despite the challenges, Kaziranga’s artisans continue producing handcrafted works of art, not only to make a living but also to express their opinions and concerns about conservation issues.
“See, this is my handmade Kaziranga National Park,” says Golap Kutum, displaying a photograph on mobile phone. It shows a tableau of various life-size wild animals as well as a forest guard, all crafted from bamboo cane. In the middle of this art installation is a heap of ashes of an effigy of a rhino poacher, burned by villagers celebrating rhino conservation and condemning poaching. This theatrical installation of bamboo-made figures was Kutum’s creation, which he handcrafted on the occasion of the Assamese festival of Magh Bihu in January this year.
“In the installation, I wanted to show how important conservation is and that the local communities have a stake in conservation efforts. It’s time local communities were duly acknowledged,” says Kutum, a resident of Baligaon, a village in Golaghat district abutting Kaziranga National Park. Kutum is a not a professional artisan; rather, he uses his bamboo craftsmanship to express his opinions and messages on a range of social issues, including those related to conservation and the environment. He drives an electronic rickshaw near Kaziranga for a living.
Some of the stalls near Kaziranga sell a type woodcraft known as jambili athon, a traditional art from the Karbi, a local tribe inhabiting fringe villages of Kaziranga National Park.
Considered a sacred totem of the Karbi, and made of bengwoi ke-er (Wrightia coccinea) wood, a jambili athon consists of a central axis and a whorl of four branches, all with beautiful carvings on them. Carved birds, symbolizing the various clans of the Karbi tribe, perch on the tips of the branches and atop the central axis. It is forbidden for the Karbi to kill the species of birds that embellish the jambili athon.
“The very fact that we use birds to symbolize our different clans in the jambili athon totem poles shows that the Karbi worldview is intrinsically rooted in nature,” says Lindak Hanse, a veteran baroi — one of the specially skilled Karbi artists who are entitled to carve jambili athon. Hanse says he believes these nature-friendly values behind the traditional Karbi woodcraft of jambili athon should be included in conservation discourses.
In Kaziranga, wood-carvers believe that, in addition to earning them a living, their works serve the cause of conservation. “The keepsake animal replicas we make help people [enhance] their appreciation of the wildlife — or at least make them familiar with species they haven’t seen in reality,” Das says.
‘We carve rhinos, don’t kill them’
The tribal artisans like Kutum, a Mishing; Hanse, a Karbi; and Anup and Khajan, Adivasis, near Kaziranga damn the stereotype of tribals as detrimental and antagonistic to conservation efforts and Kaziranga National Park’s values.
Pointing to a half-carved rhino replica in his workshop, Anup says: “You see this piece. It takes a lot of effort to make this rhino replica. In comparison to the efforts put, the money we get is meager. We keep clinging to this painstaking business just because we love Kaziranga and these animals.”
“If one or two members of a particular community go astray for some reasons, or go against some decisions of the park, will you hold the entire community responsible for that? Definitely you won’t,” says Hanse. “Therefore these gross negative portrayals of tribals as ecological villains are apparently fallacious.”
Kutum says that since time immemorial the tribals have nurtured the forest and have in turn been nurtured by it in an age-old symbiotic relationship. “In Kaziranga, we carve rhinos, don’t kill them,” he says.
Banner Image: Kushal Das at work in his woodcarving workshop at Rajabari, Kaziranga. Image by Sumit Das.
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