The last shepherd basket weavers: An octogenarian is among the few surviving 'Dhangars' to practice the craft

“If you make one mistake, you have to start all over again. There is no correcting it,” says the 85-year-old Siddhu Gawade. A shepherd weaver, he makes this reference while talking of the symmetrical baskets which he has been weaving for the past 55 years.

He doesn’t use a needle for crafting the baskets. “You just have to make loops of the threads [using hands] and maintain the symmetry,” he explains. Siddhu is a Dhangar, traditionally a sheep and goat herder community classified as a nomadic tribe.

As a shepherd, he has travelled hundreds of kilometers to the villages of Karnataka and Maharashtra herding goats and sheep. When leaving for six-month-long such journeys, the shepherds take home-cooked food (which lasts for four days), grains, and clothes. For several centuries now, the Dhangars have been weaving these baskets called Jal in Marathi. They are used to store the food safely on the travels and sometimes also for retaining an extra pair of clothes. Siddhu himself is from the Karadaga village in Chikodi taluka of Belgaum district in Karnataka which is closer to the Maharastra border.

 The last shepherd basket weavers: An octogenarian is among the few surviving Dhangars to practice the craft

Siddhu showing the basket he crafted. All images courtesy of the author.

Intricate weaving

After sixty hours of weaving spread across a month, Siddhu manages to craft one basket. At the age of 30, he picked up the art form accidentally. “One of my friends was weaving something, and I was interested to know more about it. That’s how I learned it,” he recollects smilingly. However, it wasn’t an easy task to learn the complicated weaving process. He made several mistakes before developing his own technique. Taking about how he practised, he says, “You have to pick up the thread, twist it, turn it, weave it and keep doing it again and again.”

Before starting the process, the cotton thread has to be made thicker. For this, Siddhu uses traditional wooden equipment called Takli. Recalling his late wife, the late Mayavva, he says, “She was a master in hand spinning thicker threads.” He quickly places the Takli on his right leg, gives it some momentum, rotates it clockwise and immediately lifts it in the fraction of a second maintaining the balance. Without disrupting the Takli’s momentum, he raises his left hand and pulls away from the thread which has now been made thicker. “I do it every day for two hours now,” he says controlling his breath.

Siddhu calls his wife an expert in performing this art form. He finds it difficult to control the Takli

Siddhu calls his wife an expert in performing this art form. He finds it difficult to control the Takli

Earlier, he used to collect the fallen off cotton from the cotton carrying trucks that passed from the Athni block [77 km from his village]. This cotton was later converted into the thread. After several decades, he started using the cotton threads produced as waste in the power looms from the nearby Rendal village and Ichalkaranji town in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district. Today, a kilogram of thin cotton thread costs him Rs 80. For every basket, he uses 500 grams of thick spun cotton. Carefully pulling the threads, he says, “Each basket I make lasts at least for a decade.”

However, the complicated and intricate art puts a strain on the eyes. Two years ago, he had to undergo a cataract eye surgery for both the eyes. After resting for a few months, he picked up the craft again.

It takes at least sixty hours to craft one basket

It takes at least sixty hours to craft one basket

Several shepherds from the nearby villages in Karnataka and Maharashtra get their baskets designed from Siddhu. “Dhangars give me the thread, and I make these baskets for them,” he elaborates. For his community service for 55 years now, Siddhu hasn’t charged a single rupee. “What money should I take from my fellow shepherds?” he asks me. “This is my hobby, and I like crafting [the baskets],” he adds.

Living a nomadic life

Siddhu never went to school. “From my childhood days I was travelling with goats and sheep,” he says smilingly. At the age of 15, he started traversing hundreds of kilometers for six months a year with his father, the late Balu.
His wife used to hand spin the sheep’s wool and hair into fine threads. “Every day she used to spin at least three kg thread,” he recollects. “We don't have a charkha. We use the traditional wooden takli,” he adds. Twice a year, he cuts the hair of sheep and goats using his metallic scissor. The hair known as lokar in Marathi is then hand spun into thread. This thread is then used to make ghongadi [blanket].

A Ghongadi made by Mayavva

A Ghongadi made by Mayavva

A Ghongadi requires at least five kg thread. The Dhangars get the ghongadis weaved by another community named Sanghars on a handloom. Usually, the Dhangars provide the thread to them, and for a ghongadi they charge Rs 100-150 [as labour cost]. In the market, a ghongadi is now sold for around Rs 800-1,200 depending on the quality of the hair used.

From 100 sheep and goats, he manages to get six kilograms of hair twice a year. The wool and hair are bought by a few traders who pay as less as Rs 6 per kg. “If we spin the hair and wool into fine thread, then we get Rs 125 per kg [for the threads],” elaborates Siddhu. In the early 1990s, they used to get Rs 50 per kg for the same.

The continuous spinning of the wool and hair can cause asthma, says Siddhu. “This work is not good for health. But the final product [ghongadi] is good. Mayavva used to do this even while rearing the goats. Of the three sons and a daughter, only his younger son, Balu, 45, remains a shepherd. His daughter, Shara, in her late 30s, is a homemaker and his sons, Mallappa, 50 and Kallappa, early 40s, work as farmers. Siddhu stopped performing the traditional shepherd occupation two decades ago because of old age.

Siddhu and his grand-daughters

Siddhu and his grand-daughters

“Everyone now cultivates cash crops like sugarcane. Where is the open land available to rear goats now?” he asks. Siddhu who once reared 100 goats, but with time sold all of them and bought a three-acre land in the village. He divided the land amongst his three sons where they each have an acre leaving the daughter with none. Today, his son, Balu rears 40 goats of the fellow community members and gets money in return for the same. Talking about the dying art form, he says, “A lot of people come to see my artwork, but no one wants to learn it. Now everyone wants to work in the industries.” Today, the craft is kept alive only by a handful of Dhangars [all in their late 70s and above] in the village.

Updated Date: Mar 30, 2019 10:49:42 IST