Sikki artisan at work. Photo: Rafia Kazim
Sikki artisan at work. Photo: Rafia Kazim

‘Government failed us’: Sikki artisans suffer livelihood losses amid climate change & state apathy

Sikki artisans complain about the deteriorating quality of grass due to continual spike in temperature

Sikki, also known as ‘Golden Grass’ for its colour, belongs to the zizanoides grass family. Scientifically called Chrysopogon zizanioides, it finds mention in ancient Sanskrit texts such as the Ramayana, where it is referred to as viran, sugandhimoolushir and nalad. 

This grass grows indigenously in the Tarai regions of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and has an average height of 3-4 feet. While the stem is used to make artefacts, the roots are used for extracting oil that is used both for perfumery and medicinal purposes. 

In the hilly terrains, it is also now grown to arrest soil erosion. However, what Sikki is most known for is its handicraft. It has been a source of livelihood for many since antiquity.

It is used to make traditional items such as multipurpose baskets, ornaments, show pieces and many more utility items that are still considered valuable in rural India. For instance, Sikki vermillion boxes that are considered auspicious are given as part of dowry to brides in the Mithilanchal region of Bihar. The folklore of the region mentions the significance of Sikki graciously.

State apathy 

However, despite Sikki’s beneficial properties and utilitarian values, the artisans who work with the grass fail to get the desired governmental patronage and promotion. Sikki got the geographical identification tag in 2018 along with Makhana (aquatic fox nut) and the Madhubani paintings. But it is not promoted by the governments in the same spirit as the other two. All these three items are specific to the Mithila region of Bihar and are hence invested with immense regional cultural capital.

Rajesh Kumar, a third generation Sikki artisan, laments this reality. He alleges that the government failed to keep its promise of providing financial help in setting up of Sikki stalls in countrywide trade fairs held round the year. 

Baskets made with Sikka grass in various colours that are also often created by the artisans. Photo: Rafia Kazim

One of the serious challenges that Sikki craftsmen are facing currently is the brunt of climate change that has impacted the quality of the grass. Furthermore, their economic condition worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. They are still struggling to make ends meet in the face of financial exigencies.

Rajesh, who is continuing the traditional work with his grandmother, mother, sister and wife, regrets not choosing any other career option like many of his artisan friends who have migrated to cities to work as labourers at construction sites. 

Rajesh and few others who are still associated with the craft are in a constant dilemma. But he has vowed to keep his sons away from the family business of Sikki craft. His angst against the partisan attitude of the government is too obvious to ignore. 

Sikki craft is not easy — it is labour and time intensive. One medium-sized basket takes 8-10 hours to weave. 

But before weaving, the artisans indulge in an arduous task of preparing the grass. They pick only those strands that are neither too brittle nor too soft. Then the entire bundle is boiled, dried under shade and dyed organically in different colours often prepared by the Sikki artisans themselves. Thus the entire process is environment friendly and so are the products. 

Unlike many plant-based products, Sikki items barely get mouldy or infested with fungi. But this demanding work provides meagre returns for the artists.

Rakesh poignantly remarks, “The art will soon be wiped out with our generation. We do not want our children to indulge in this trade anymore. It ruins the lives of artisans and their families and has no security whatsoever from any organisation, government or otherwise.”

Climate change, Chinese goods & health issues

Sikki artisans complain about the deteriorating quality of grass due to continual spike in temperature that impacts the softness of Sikki. Brittle grass needs extra processing time and is not suitable for making baskets or other artefacts. 

Besides, people now prefer the cheaper, ubiquitous “Chinese plastic goods” instead of Sikki items. 

“Plastic is harmful for health, whereas Sikki is organically eco-friendly, and has several health benefits. But people tend to go crazy after artificial, hazardous and cheap plastic goods”. 

Higher temperatures make the grass brittle and renders it unsuitable for Sikka craft. Photo: Rafia Kazim

Amrita, Rakesh’s wife, shows a chapati / bread box made of Sikki and highlights the health benefits of using it. “The government should make people aware of these qualities of Sikki and abstain from using plastic as it adversely impacts our environment.”

Besides, the entire process of preparing Sikki handicrafts — from the field to the finished products — is very taxing on the health of the artisans. Many complain of posture-related ailments. They suffer from chronic back pains due to sitting for longer hours at a stretch, constantly monitoring the grass being dried to ensure it reaches the desired flexibility. Women complain of skin abrasion that happens while processing and peeling off the grass sheaths.Getting treatment for health related issues is very expensive for them since most of these are not treatable at public hospitals.  

The artisans with whom I interacted expressed their concerns over their waning income, failing health and bleak future of their children. The state apathy towards them and their craft was the major source of anxiety for these families who have now started migrating to the cities where they could survive as dahardi (daily wagers) as they do not have any skills other than weaving Sikki. 

The way forward

Indian folk culture is quintessentially an environmentalist culture that is deeply rooted in the twin concepts of sustainability and symbiosis. The festivals of India, both mainstream and tribal, testify to the conservationist spirit of its people. This becomes all the more evident as one traverses the length and breadth of rural India. 

Sikki art is embedded in the ancient tradition of environmental sustainability. But it is unfortunate that governments fail to acknowledge its significance in contemporary times. It could be promoted as a better eco-friendly option than the hazardous plastic. This could happen only if the governments concerned showed genuine interest in promoting organic and eco-friendly goods. 

“If the state government can promote Makhana and Madhubani painting at national and international trade fairs, why can’t it do the same for us?” quips Rakesh candidly. In fact, an ingenious way to promote both Makhana and Sikki could be by using Sikki baskets for packing makhanas.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

Rafia Kazim is an assistant professor of sociology at LNM University, Darbhanga. She has authored Learning the Language of the Infidels.

Down To Earth