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Kottan: Craft Upliftment Project

Palm leaf craft is an endangered tradition from the southern part of the country which consists of making baskets from fan palm leaves. This project was done to research the current status of the craft and propose solutions to preserve it.

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Project Type
Website, Product Design

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Duration
6 Months

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My Role
UI Design, Product Design, Research

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Team

Me, Divyajyoti Samad, Ajay Lamba, Pooja R, Mahima Shrivastava, Sona S

Objective

The aim of the craft cluster visit is to reach out to the artisans practicing the craft at the grassroots level and conduct a diagnostic study. The study would incorporate an understanding of the artisan, the skill of the artisan, the craft products, the market, and the consumer. Using this knowledge, the team would propose solutions to improve/preserve the craft.

My Process

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About the Craft

India, a land steeped in a tapestry of diverse cultures and age-old traditions, showcases a rich heritage interlaced with distinctive crafts. Among these, the art of Palm Leaf Weaving, predominantly practiced in the southern regions, stands as a testament to the country's artisanal legacy.

This ancient craft, utilizing palm leaves harvested from the flourishing palm trees of Chettinad, represents an intricate process of plucking, drying, cutting, and dyeing to fashion versatile strips. These strips, skillfully interwoven, manifest into a range of products, with baskets emerging as a prevalent creation.

Chettinad's conducive climate fosters the growth of specific palm trees essential for this craft, particularly the resilient fan palm, Palmyra, or Borrasus. Unlike other foliage, the durability and abundance of these leaves render them an ideal and easily accessible raw material.

Originally mastered by the Chettiar community, their woven baskets, termed "Kottans" in their vernacular, hold a multifaceted significance. These baskets symbolize wealth, prominently featured in wedding ceremonies where they are presented by the bride's family as seeru, carrying rice and embodying a legacy of tradition. Varied in sizes, from Oru Padi to Panandu Padi, these baskets measure specific quantities of rice, reflecting a practical yet culturally embedded utility.

The evolution of these baskets mirrors the dynamic societal needs, initially stemming from plain palm leaves and gradually evolving into more intricate, bespoke designs. Historically, the craft's origins trace back to the Nadar community, who utilized palm leaves as vessels for consuming toddy, extracted while climbing palmyra trees. Over time, these leaves transitioned into baskets, serving as vessels for an array of commodities, further advancing into rendu Kottan—double-layered baskets—specifically designed for transporting food.

The art of Palm Leaf Weaving thus stands as a living testament to India's heritage, dynamically adapting across generations while preserving its cultural essence.

Craft Research

We started with secondary research in which we studied about the craft from various resources online and offline available to us through our college.

After completing our secondary research, we conducted primary research. Our team visited places in Sivaganga district where we successfully located undocumented artisans.

Our primary research effort included artisan profiling, artisan case studies, evaluation of the status of the craft, understanding of the technique, product documentation and consumer analysis.

Research Outcomes

Kuruttu (Tender new leaves) is a major part of basket weaving. They are soft, pliable, and ivory-colored and appear once in 15-20 days. It is harvested before it unfolds into a full fan-shaped leaf only.

 

Availability

The decrease in the availability of kuruttu has become a huge hindrance for the practice of the craft in Chettinad. Due to this people have started switching over to materials like plastic and nylon.

 

Artisans

Many people who can’t afford to source the raw materials have stopped practicing this craft and have switched to the MGNREGA scheme introduced by the government. 

 

Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is a scheme launched by the government in 2005 that aims to provide guaranteed employment for 100 days every year in various villages across India. But still, there are a few groups of people who are practicing this craft by sourcing the raw materials from Ramanathapuram.

Organizations:

A few women have also started working in M.Rm.Rm Foundation, where they are provided with raw materials. Other than this there is a Rural Training Centre in Amravathipudur that is working toward the preservation of craft by training them and certifying them as a craftsman

Evaluating the Craft

Strength

  • Color combinations are attractive

  • Cheap

  • Different weaving designs and techniques

  • Availability of skilled weavers

  • Availability of training centers 

  • Eco-friendly product

Opportunity

  • Expandable product range

  • Aligning with modern trends

  • Rising trend of eco-friendly materials

  • Rising trend of traditional crafts

  • Government schemes to uplift artisans and preserve traditions

  • Market for packaging solutions for hampers/gifts

Weakness

  • Raw material suppliers are not available in the near proximity

  • The products made are not as trendy.

  • Slow production due to a smaller number of weavers as most of the artisan go and work for MGNREGA as they benefit more from there

Threat

  • Unavailability of raw material

  • Switch to plastic 

  • Preference for contemporary/western products

  • Lack of appreciation for local cultures and crafts

  • Declining population of artisans

  • Artisan's preference for other guaranteed employment schemes

Problem Statement

Products don't match contemporary market demands

Artisan's have stopped practicing the craft due to low demands

Unavailability of raw material locally for the artisans

Lack of awareness of the craft among the potential customers

Product Innovation

Brainstorming

The process of of innovation in product started with brainstorming of ideas. This included various areas and industries this craft can be implemented in.

Brainstorming of ideas
Shortlisted Ideas

Diwali and wedding gift packaging.

Why Diwali and Weddings?

As a symbol of social status, people tend to invest a lot in trousseau packaging. In general, weddings are an elaborate affair. According to Assocham, Rupees 250 billion were spent on festive shopping in 2016 in India.

Traditionally, the kottans were used in weddings. With this solution, we are not deviating from the original use. The proposed solution is culturally appropriate.

What wedding and gift hampers look like now

These hampers usually consist of a bigger box/basket which either has small compartments to store things like dry fruits or has smaller containers with candles, condiments and sweets.

Trend Analysis
We referred to WGSN tool to validate our decision. 
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Explorations
Product Prototype

Conclusion

The box finalized can be used as a Diwali and wedding hamper both. The sturdy wooden base allows it to carry any weight. The use of palm leaf for inner containers and lid makes the palm leaf craft the main value point of this product.

To further promote the craft, a brand and website can be created for sales and educational purposes.

Thats all folks!

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