Exploring Traditional Skills in Mysore – part 3 basket weaving

Despite the romantic connotations of basket weaving, my final workshop of the Curious Artisan tour used traditional knotting to create a shopping basket made of plastic. This is a hard wearing style of bag adopted by locals for everyday use. They are practical and colourful and can be seen on display throughout India. The brand name for this tubing is ‘Swastik Cane’ – a little disturbing to my western sensibilities. However, this material did mean that stretching, pulling and tightening knots was possible without the potential for fibre breakages.

My teacher for this two hour lesson was Hemavathi, with translations provided by Ravitej. I was welcomed into Hemavathi’s home and our workspace was a large room on the first floor. With no English, she gestured for me to choose two colours – my favourite green and contrasting black – and began measuring lengths from hooks on the wall.

Next, Hemavathi began demonstrating how to hold the lengths of different colours while standing. Obviously accomplished in her skills and able to work sitting or standing, I found this very difficult. There was a considerable height difference and I was not able to tuck the tubing under my arm as well as position my hands to loop, pass under and then tighten the knots. I did try – many times.

Eventually, I suggested that it might be easier for me to hold the material flat on the table and fashion loops while using both hands splayed out to keep track of the ends and lengths. This proved to be quite successful – Ravitej effectively communicating between us so that I eventually managed to create a rhythm and remember which order the loops and lengths were meant to pass over and under.

After including both colours, it was explained that we were working on the base of the basket. Though I was proud of my ability to finally make progress, it seemed a daunting task lay ahead – many hours of work would be needed. Hemvathi explained that it took her up to two days to finish this medium sized basket, working between household chores and family life.

Hemavathi now sat beside me, and from time to time would take the work from me to quickly finish a row, or join in another length. We passed the time chatting: she had learned this skill as a child from her mother, I had learned macrame from my mother. Hemavathi was pleased that I also knitted and enjoyed crafts, and felt that this was the reason I was able to pick up her techniques reasonably quickly.  By the end of the class, we had almost completed the bottom of my bag. Needless to say, Hemavathi finished the work over the next day or so, and Catherine at Skillstourism organised for its delivery to my hotel.

Although I appreciate her hard work, I do not complete my student’s work in the classroom. It is important to encourage and assist learning, rather than ‘help’ by doing it for students. This was an interesting situation for me: with gestures and an interpreter, we collaboratively worked together so that I could begin to learn, and glimpse the dedicated hard work of basket weaving. If I had more time, I could have returned and possibly finished this myself, but I’m not sure how long it would have taken, nor how patient Hemavathi would have been with my beginner knotting.

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