Chhattisgarh tuma craftsmanship: how craftsmen put art to the service of the calabash

It took two days before Meeta Raheja gave in. She was looking at a Diwali lantern during a craft display at the Chhattisgarh Tribal Dance Festival, held in Raipur in November. It costs 3,500, but it wasn’t the price that held her back. “I have so many lanterns at home. I really didn’t need another one,” says the founder of a Delhi-based PR agency.

This one, however, was special. It was made from tuma, a local wild gourd grown in Chhattisgarh, aged for two months on the vine and carefully transformed into artistic objects by the tribal artisans. The squash itself has a bitter taste – few households cook it. But hardened and dried, it makes for a surprisingly tough and flexible material to work with and perfect for carving. Raheja’s pickaxe, a hanging lantern about a foot long, had small circles carved into it. When illuminated, it emits a soft glow, much like a stationary disco ball. “How can you resist something that looks so beautiful and is handmade,” says Raheja.

Dried, hollowed-out tumas have traditionally served as containers for storing water, grain, and juices. Today, artisans also turn them into lamps, jewelry, toys, cutlery, boxes, and other handicrafts. “The practice started 15 to 20 years ago when some artists started experimenting with tuma,” says 22-year-old Sunil Vishwakarma, who won the Kamladevi Puraskar, an annual award from the Delhi Crafts Council, for the excellence in craftsmanship, in 2014.

Vishwakarma belongs to a family of artisans who traditionally create dhokra, decorative and utilitarian objects made from non-ferrous metals using wax casting techniques. His father, Kashiram Vishwakarma, was among the first artisans to start working with tuma to make handicrafts. Their early experiences were promising – the works found many takers at exhibitions in Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Kolkata, and were recognized by craft enthusiasts.

Tuma has a bitter taste; few households cook it. But hardened and dried, it makes a surprisingly tough material, flexible and perfect for carving. (Photo: Software Organization)

In recent years, as the craft has become more well-known, artisans have received commissions from across the country. K Monika, head of women’s self-help group Software Organisation, Bastar, Chhattisgarh, trained 30 rural women to create tuma product art. The items are sold through the organization’s social networks and to tourists who visit their center. “People love it for its simplistic beauty and because it’s made by local tribes,” she says. “We have also innovated with designs and fused seashells, wrought iron and Chhattisgarh tussar silk to make different products.”

Jugri Kashyap, 40, from Narayanpal village, 282 kilometers from Raipur, joined the organization and learned how to make tuma products a year ago. She had 15 other women who have since won 30,000 in profits, which they share. “Before, I worked as an agricultural worker, earning 2,500 per month. Today, my income has doubled to 4,500 from the manufacture of tuma products,” says Kashyap. “I use the money for my daughter’s education and for household expenses.”

The pandemic has slowed things down, as many craft shows, a major sales platform for artisans, are cancelled. “We know that tuma art has a lot of potential and now we are focusing on building online platforms to promote and sell tuma craftsmanship,” says Vishwakarma.

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Christopher S. Washington