Friday, April 15, 2016

Unusual Occupations - Mudha maker from Mandi Mirza khan

M – Mudha maker from Mandi Mirza khan

 Local folklore around Agra in India has it that every groom should get married in a wedding mantap (alcove) made of Sarkanda grass grown from the locality from where he takes away his bride. When he leaves with his bride he is supposed to pull apart wedding alcove erected specially for him.  This is believed to protect him from snake bites and the curse of snakes all his life.  

Folklores as we know instill some well-intended beliefs born out of centuries of wisdom about sustainable living.

About forty kilometers from Agra enroute Fatehpur Sikri is Mandi Mirza khan, a small town which houses the wholesale market for Sarkanda Grass. (Botanical name: Saccharum bengalense Family: Poaceae  source : Good old wikipedia)

This perennial grass is harvested once a year and is a free renewable source for the farmer to make thatched roofing and chairs. Farmers also plant it on the crest of sand walls (Dola) demarcating their fields for extra income.

Sarkanda also known locally as Kuntcha grass grows in many dry riverbeds which flow only in the monsoon season carrying the seasonal run of water during the monsoon rains and on riversides in the parts of Rajasthan, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh in north India. 

Come winter, the main stalk of the Sarkanda plant dries up and the grass is harvested and ingeniously transformed into a variety of products. The thicker parts are used to make furniture known as Mudha while the outer skin is used as thatch. The tuli, top half, is made into baskets and the leafy covering, moonj, is beaten into fiber a twisted into jeverdi, rope, which is used to weave local furniture such as charpoy ( string cot), pidha and mudha (ankle length and knee length stools respectively).

The Mudha is a low circular stool made by aligning Sarkanda in a criss-cross construction that is tied along the spine. The edges are secured with pula bound by jeverdi and the seat is woven from jeverdi made either from moonj or pula. Mudha may vary in size and have innovatively been given a backrest so that they may be used as chairs and sofas.

For over a century the hand crafted Mudha chairs made out of the perennial harvest of the Sarkanda grass have adorned the British officer’s bungalows of imperial India, Maharajas’ palaces, aristocratic homes and clubs in north and west India.

In modern times they adorn as living room furniture or as garden furniture in the houses of urban dwellers. 

In the modern world where environment conscious urban dwellers are trying to do their bit to invest in sustainable and eco-friendly products, the Mudha weavers from Mandi Mirza khan find a high-demand and high margin market to sell their wares.

Kanaiyalal is one such craftsman from Mandi Mirza Khan who makes Mudha chairs and displays his finished products on the pavement and sells them to the urban customers. On the wide pavement near government high school on Vartur road in Whitefield, Bangalore, Kanaiyalal spreads out his wares every single day of the week and is engaged in weaving a Mudha chair until the next customer who comes looking evinces some interest in buying his wares.

Kanaiyalal’s father, grandfathers and their entire extended families back home in Mandi Mirza khan have been weavers of Mudha chairs.  They sell their wares to wholesale dealers, while some like him travel far and wide to practice and display their craft.

The raw material is sourced from Mandi Mirza khan by a network of relatives and put on trucks that are bound for big cities or smaller town’s enroute the big cities all over India.  

Classified as a traditional handicraft the raw material for the Mudha chair enjoys exemption from sales tax and octroi when it travels from one state to another.   Often the Sarkanda grass is used as a camouflage to escape sales tax for other finished goods like ceramics made in Khurja

The deft Kanaiyalal weaves a Mudha in about 2 hours and does about 5-6 in a day unless it is a weekend or a long holiday when there is a steady stream of customers who park their vehicle in the hope of striking a good bargain for these ecofriendly furniture that could decorate the outdoor patios in the bungalows and villas of the rich.
Kanaiyalal lives on the pavement along with his relative Amar Singh who sells ceramic ware from Khurja, another town close to Mandi Mirza khan famous for its hand painted ceramic ware. In the night they cover up the Mudha chairs and the raw material with Tarpaulin, cook their food on the kerosene stove and make their bed over a charpoy string cot that has probably been made by Kanaiyalal himself.

On days when it rains they seek refuge in the verandah of the BBMP (Local municipality) office at the corner of the school playground which also serves as the place that provides them with a toilet and bathroom. When the BBMP officials had received strict orders to clear up pavement dwellers as part of Swachch Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India movement) Kanaiyalal and Amar Singh had to shut shop at the pavement.  

The usual greasing of palms of the local municipality officials did not seem to work. The pressure came not from their immediate higher officials, but straight from the Prime minister of India. For a few days their trade came to a complete standstill. Huge stocks of inventory had to be packed and stashed away. They pleaded with the local officials who were sympathetic towards them. But the overriding factor was that regular money that greased their palms was drying away as a result of Swachch Bharat Abhiyan.            

Soon they struck a deal.  Kanaiyalal and Amar Singh would keep the place and the adjoining pavements clean without letting anyone urinate, defecate or dump garbage. They would need to keep a constant vigil for law breakers.  In return they would be allowed to spread their wares and adequate warning would be sounded off to them when there was going to be an inspection from the higher authorities. During such days they would need to completely evacuate the place and keep the pavement clean. The risk now was substantially higher. And so the cost of greasing the palms had also substantially increased. 

As they say there are very few things that money cannot buy.  

Kanaiyalal and Amar Singh are back on the pavement under the shade of the gulmohar trees near the compound wall of the government school, the approach to which is clean and neat and unlike many other places that smell of urine  and garbage.  
Eight months after he has spent time in the pavement making Mudha chairs, Kanaiyalal would send in a word for another cousin to come by so that he could go home to his family.  A month later another relative would arrive with the raw material and relieve Kanaiyalal who would board one of the trucks carrying the goods back to Mandi Mirza khan. 

His family consists of his wife and two children who live with his parents and the families of his brothers all under the same roof practicing the same craft. Some of his brothers and cousins also work on pavements in other cities, or set up their wares near National highways where there is a ready catchment of city dwellers who head out from the city for a weekend getaway.

Mudha chairs unlike many other hand made products from India do not find an export market. The rustic raw material made of untreated Sarkanda grass has still not passed the stringent test of export quality and may be perceived as a threat to biodiversity of many nations. 

Thanks to which the lovely Mudha chairs are still an affordable commodity in India.
Sitting on a Mudha chair is not only ecofriendly but is also laden with health benefits. It is apparently known to reduce blood pressure and acts as acupressure to stimulate the nerves that aid blood flow.

Very reserved and and soft spoken, Kanaiyalal is not worldly wise, says Amar Singh who helps him get a good bargain from the wealthy urban dwellers for his craft.  Between the two of them, Kanaiyalal is the rustic artisan while Amar Singh is the businessman. They are relatives by marriage and have families in and around Mandi Mirza khan near  Fatehpur Sikri enroute Agra. Amar Singh has set up his hand painted ceramic ware in the adjacent pavement. It is at his calling that Kanaiyalal came to Bangalore.

Kanaiyalal has been weaving the Mudha chairs for over fifteen years now.  About five of those recent years have been in Whitefield on the pavement near Vartur road.  He was working for yet another relative in Bhopal near the national highway weaving Mudha chairs before he came to Bangalore.

He yearns to go back home for a long break.  It is not an easy life living on pavements, he says, but the business is good he adds as if to correct his own point. Unlike at home where the margins on the finished products are abysmally low where the middlemen take a huge cut in procuring the finished goods wholesale.  Over here since he sells directly to the customers, he could make good money especially during the weekends.

When he has made enough money he would call for yet another relative from Mandi Mirza Khan to take his place at the pavement and head back home to his wife, children and parents.  After a few months, the need for money to support his family would once again push him back to board yet another truck to the big city to make a living.

He would come back to the pavement creating what he knows best. 

A Mudha Chair. 


  1. very interesting... there are so much to know in this world..this long days i thought moda is from BAMB00 ....NOW that i came t know that its from this kind of grass.

  2. I enjoy reading the detailed post from the harvest of Mudha to selling them on the market,facing the ire of corrupt babu. I have one at home and beautifully sitting in the hall. Hardly sit on it but it's an industry that should be encouraged.
    You are nailing the A to Z Jayanti.

  3. Is there any market of sirki in agra.


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