Medinipur or Midnapore, considered to be one of the largest districts of West Bengal after independence is rich with ancient history, archaeological sites, culture and heritage that is deeply influenced by the royal families. It is home to some of the oldest crafts that date back to the Indus Valley Civilization. One among them is the famous madur mat weaving that finds mention in the Hindu scriptures of Atharva Veda, Mahabharat and Shatapatha Brahmana.
Though it is claimed that the origin of the craft in West Bengal is traced back to the Muslim reign, mat weaving has been an integral part of the lifestyle of India since the dawn of time. Records of Medieval India state that both ordinary floor mats as well as fine quality mats were made in West Bengal. Locals say that masland (derived from the Persian word masnad which means throne) mats of super fine soft reed with fine silk as weft (crosswise yarns) was made under royal patronage and collected as revenue under the jagirdari system. An order was passed by Nawab Alibardi Khan in 1744 to the jagirdars making it obligatory to supply masland mats for use in the collectorate. Permanent markets for these mats were established in Medinipur, Raghunathbari, Kasijora and Narajol that engaged a large workforce.
Madur which means floor mats in Bengali is the pride of the Medinipur district. Madurkathi are mats woven from a locally available soft reed that grows in abundance in the alluvial belts of East and West Medinipur district called madur kottiri (Cyperus pangorei). This cottage industry sees large groups of women working closely to weave both traditional floor mats as well as decorative products like table mats, curtains, bags etc. The artisans make three types of floor mats namely æk rokha (a thin light mat), d̪ui rokha (has a double Madurkathi weft and is thicker and heavier than æk rokha) and masland (aesthetically pleasing textured mat).
Madur mats are normally 4 feet in width and 6 feet in length and dyed with vegetable dyes only with the predominant colours being black and maroon. Black dye is made using Haritiki fruit, fruits and bark of Babla tree and red colour is made from a local tree called rang gaach. As these natural mats are perfect for the hot and humid weather conditions seen here, they are used for sitting, bedding and religious purposes.
Madur kathi cultivated here is used extensively for mat making. The best quality of madur reeds is harvested during September – November. Madur kathi is cut into strips using a special knife. The inner layer is discarded and the strips are then soaked in water to make it soft. They are sun dried and then sized and dyed and again sun dried so that there is no moisture left in them after the dyeing process.
The soft reeds and cotton or jute threads are arranged on a bamboo frame loom as weft (crosswise yarns) and warp (lengthwise yarns) respectively. Weaving of masland mats requires two persons where one places the reeds from left to right with one thread on top and another one down and the other person repeats this process from right to left. At the point where the two sides meet, the threads are turned and the process is continued. The weaving process is similar to that of saree weaving. Masland mats are unique for their intricate motifs of flowers, honey comb, barfi and jharna (lines cascading).
The edges of the mat are cut and bound with coloured cloth. It is polished to give it a glossy shine. All mats weaved are done as per the specific requirements of the customer. Locally installed looms called du dhap are used to weave mats for the decorative products.
Mat weaving requires great skill, finesse and technique and only few families retain the knowledge of making the traditional mats of masland or mataranchi. Ek rokha is woven using a single reed madur kathi weft, d̪ui rokha uses a double reed as weft and is bound with ribbon at the edges to make it foldable.
Mat weaving is the primary source of income for 77 percent of the craftsmen in this district with 93 percent of them being women. Madur kathi was granted the Geographical Indication Tag (GI) in 2018.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
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