The Patni Community, a village in search of an alternative
Patni Community basket weaving

The Patni Community, a village in search of an alternative

28.02.2020

Today we were in a village, or rather in a community, the Patni, who have undergone an amazing change. Today they are a group of basket weavers who offer their skills to the market and are only poorly rewarded by it. Their raw material is bamboo, which they cut fresh into small pieces and process in a variety of ways. The fresh bamboo can be cut into very special thin strips, from which they weave mats. Somewhat thicker parts of the bamboo serve as frames on which they stretch these weavings. These are then made into winnowing trays, baskets and sieves. Their history as basket makers is a very short one and is only 4 generations old. They were actually once ferrymen and ferry families on the rivers here throughout Bangladesh.

There was a mighty river some 4 generations back, now you can walk through. Picture: Claudius Günther, 2020

Hindu mythology also has a story about the Patni. They were the ones who had to take the god Rama across a river on his way from his birthplace in Ayodhya to his wedding in Mithila. The Patni provided this boat for him, and since then they have been ferrymen in East Bengal. They were ferrymen until 70 years ago, when the water of the river receded, bridges were built, roads now determined the path through the countryside and the Patni were deprived of their livelihood.

When their services as ferrymen were not needed in the rainy season, they used to sail their boats on the rivers and on a lake (bheel) 2 km away from here to fish. This bheel has now also gone dry and the area no longer offers fishing opportunities. So the Patni needed alternatives. They found these in two areas of life. As they are a low Hindu caste and have always kept pigs, they expanded the pig business and move in with their pigs all over Bangladesh as grazing on harvested plots. These pigs dig here and give their dung as a service to the farmers.

The patni do their nomadic pig rearing within a radius of 400 km from their homes, selling their pigs from the herd locally. The herders go away from the pig herd heading home, every two weeks. The owner of the pig herd is a certain Mohajon, a rich family in their community. Many people in the village work for him. For 100 pigs, about 5 people are needed for nomadic husbandry. For the whole herd, he just needs about 25 people to take care of his herd. He does not really know how many animals he has in his herd, he has to rely on the information of his hired herders.

The Patni found the another alternative in making baskets. Since they were needed as ferrymen by the surrounding population almost all year round, they charged the farmers for their ferry services every year at the time of the rice harvest with a predetermined amount of rice. They collected their rice in self made baskets from each peasant family that used their services. Their number and size was fixed to the amount of service. This basket-making was extended by the Patni from self-supply to market supply. Now middlemen come to the village and collect the baskets from the families before each bazaar day and pay them on the spot. They do not run their own businesses at the market. Rarely, people from the surrounding villages come directly and order their baskets on the spot. Most of the business is done through the market.

Working together in front of the house, Picture: Claudius Günther

The price for the bamboo, of which they need a special variety with long stalk segments, has risen dramatically in recent years. They now pay about 180 to 200 thaka (1.8 – 2 euros) for each stem. From one stem they can make about 25 (kula), which they then sell for 30 cents each. It takes two people to make the baskets. The women make and The women make and weave the frames and mats, the men make the necessary frames, which require a lot of strength to stretch the baskets and winnowing tray.

After selling their baskets, the Patni are left with about 500 thaka, or about 5 euros, for two days’ work.

The income of the Patni has increased somewhat in recent years compared to the time when they offered their services as ferrymen. But the advent of plastic tubs and buckets has a strong impact on their current income, also the mechanisation of agriculture and the industrialisation of rice production brings further disadvantages. In the past, each farming family processed their own rice and needed new winnowing trays for the household. However, since the rice mills are getting bigger and bigger and hand made winnowing tray can no longer be used for the quantities refined here, the demand for these utensils is also getting lower and lower.

That is why at present the children of the basket makers are looking for new work. The sons of this village now mostly go to work for the tin smiths and earn their living in their workshops outside the village. This brings new problems. In the past, the basket makers worked hand in hand in their families, the women passing on the wickerwork to their husbands to string the frames, the men doing the finishing. This family-like way of working could quickly defuse any conflicts that arose during the joint work. Problems were solved together in discussion. Now the young men go to the workshops while the young women stay at home alone with the children. Everyday problems can thus only be discussed in the evening and conflicts build up more quickly. There is also no handing down of the craft to the next generation in the families, the children are without activity and instruction. The money earned is not enough for school and many of them have no or only a short school education. The son of Balal Chondra Das, one of our informants, decided to work in the tin smithy in the sixth grade. The circle of friends at school played a big part in this decision.

Since basketry occupies a low social position in society, he did not continue with the trade he learnt from his father. In the Patni jhati, the professional caste of the Patni, people marry among themselves. Marriage relationships are maintained with other Patni villages and are also cultivated over many kilometres. School-leaving qualifications are an important criterion for choosing a partner. The daughter of the village chief Lokkhi, for example, is the first to attend a higher school. But she is unable to find a suitable partner because hardly any Patni boys ever reach this level of schooling. The search has been unsuccessful so far. The chief of the village Binod Bihari has his duties within the village as a ritual master and as a justice of the peace.

In the village they have a village council, called the mohot parichot, which includes five village elders. This council is chaired by the chief of Binod village. For civil society and state representatives, the village chief is available as a contact person.

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