June 29, 2022
  • June 29, 2022

A master craftsman reimagines bamboo

By on November 4, 2021 0 46 Views

There’s something zen about everything Rajeev Wind, 44, creates out of bamboo. The design is minimalistic and measured, the material never wasted, and the end product always useful. “We don’t want to create unwanted things or waste what nature has given us,” says Wind, who’s recognised in India as one of bamboo’s master craftsmen.

Growing up in the hills of Idukki in Kerala, he watched his grandmother weave bamboo baskets for a living while his parents worked as farmers. He studied for a diploma in telecommunications at a polytechnic in Malappuram but couldn’t get a job. “That’s when I started working with natural fibre, to make ends meet,” he says. “Bamboo was a given because in Idukki, it’s abundant; the forest is teeming with it.” Today, he describes reed, the bamboo he works with, as magical.

He began by making wind chimes in the early 2000s. “Growing up in Idukki, I would watch the river Periyar flowing through the forest,” Wind says. “I wanted to recreate the beauty of nature through sound and so chose to make wind chimes.” It takes him 10 days to fine-tune one to produce the sounds of the tropics, forest, streams, rivers, or mountains. “There are no nuts and bolts, and very few fixings and tweaks,” he says. It’s almost a form-finding process. “It’s about letting the bamboo do what it wants to; let nature take its course”.

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Wind, who has taught himself to play the tongali, or nose flute, sees himself as a craftsman and an artist. “I have the skill to work with bamboo,” he says. “But there’s also a creative curiosity in me that over the years has led to experimenting with the material a lot more”; since 2019, he has started mixing it with other materials, such as metal, for installations and sculptures for a more contemporary, longer-lasting look.

His work has not gone unnoticed: It has been mentioned thrice since March 2019 by the Beijing-based International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation (Inbar), possibly the first time Inbar has named an individual Indian artisan. He has now been invited by Inbar to work on bamboo-plastic packaging.

Does the Wind in his name come from the wind chimes? “Sort of,” he says. “We are all striving for breath, for air. Every breath is new yet historic. So I decided to use Wind in my name.”

A meeting in 2001 with Sushanth C. Sathyendran, who leads the National Institute of Design’s (NID’s) Centre for Bamboo Initiatives, made him think beyond wind chimes. “That’s when I started to realise that not only could I create wind chimes but that endless other possibilities exist with this fibre,” he says. “I found that bamboo is chic and people will always want things made from it.”

Bamboo, which can grow as much as 1m in a day, has been gaining popularity as a sustainable material. But to Wind it is about mindful consumption too. “Every single thing I design and make has to be of use. Otherwise taking things from nature is futile,” he says. So there’s an amplifier that doesn’t need charging; intricate lamps and lamp shades; delicate yet functional fruit trays; even bracelets, earrings and necklaces.

Wind, who usually works alone, putting together a team only for big projects, retails on social media, mostly Instagram and Facebook. Products range from ₹50 (a paper clip, for example) to ₹50,000 or more, depending on the design and size. The best-sellers are decorative pieces; most of his clients are people who are interested in bamboo or the concept of sustainable living.

“People in Kerala have used bamboo for centuries,” Wind says. “Tribals made their homes with bamboo. Fishing nets, mats, flutes, baskets—in that sense, it isn’t a new fibre at all.” Indeed, the first mention of bamboo in Kerala is to be found in the 14th century writings of Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta, who recorded the use of bamboo mats as sails on the Chinese ships in Kozhikode (then Calicut).

The word bamboo is thought to have come from banwu, a term from south-west India, possibly Kannada, that was taken to the forests of Indonesia by Dutch explorers. It first captured the Western imagination in the 16th century, when travellers to the Far East sent back tales of a wondrous plant that an Englishman called “a thick reed, as big as a man’s legge”.

Kerala has 28 species of the genus Bambusa—essentially a grass. Wind is a fan of the reed bamboo found in Idukki. “It’s strong, sustainable, versatile. It’s like steel, sturdy, and highly renewable because of its abundance in nature.” It’s perfect for weaving.

“The beauty of bamboo is in its degradation,” Wind says. “There’s a season to collect it; a way to collect and store it.” It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that the master craftsman has his own way of treating and seasoning bamboo to make it usable and protect it from insects.

He collects it from the forest when it is at what he calls its “smiling” stage. “This is when the bamboo decides it’s time to say goodbye to life,” he says. Reed reaches this point when it matures, turning a deep red in colour; this takes two-three years. “This is a sign that biologically speaking, there’s no life in the bamboo and now is the time to collect it,” he says. The bamboo is then kept at room temperature for a year. “At room temperature it gets treated with the weather and is naturally preserved,” he says. Once this is done, it’s ready to for use.

Wind has a government permit to source bamboo directly from the forest. “So I pick and choose my own raw material, always bearing in mind to take only what I need,” he says. If he needs younger bamboo, he buys it from the Kerala State Bamboo Corporation.

Lately, Wind’s work has been attracting the attention of architects and engineers and he has begun to pursue collaborations with colleges in Kerala and even lead workshops at NID, Bengaluru. “Often, we think of our lives as totally separate and independent from the environment,” Wind says. “I think it’s time we find a way to live a life that’s well integrated with nature.”

Kochi-based Anubha George writes on culture.

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