While growing up in Assam, Parasher Baruah realised that bamboo was ubiquitous. It grew in his backyard, appeared in his food, and was used for religious ceremonies at home.

This sturdy flowering plant has subsequently featured in much of the filmmaker-photographer’s work, as he travelled in and around the seven states that make up the North East of India. But it was only a few months ago that he was asked to look up photographs he has taken that specifically show bamboo in its various avatars.

Baruah’s photographs of bamboo being used to make baskets, bows and arrows, utensils, boats and even houses formed part of An Ode to Bamboo, a photography and art exhibit held in Delhi last week. It was part of a three-day art festival, ArtEast, curated by journalist and author Kishalay Bhattacharjee.

Through the photography of Baruah and that of environmental photographer and writer Arati Kumar Rao, An Ode to Bamboo highlighted the versatility of this treelike grass, by displaying the various forms it can take.

The colours of bamboo. (Photograph by Parasher Baruah).

“While visualising the second edition of ArtEast, we wanted to imagine the [North East] region through a completely different lens,” said Bhattacharjee. “While searching for links between the seven states, so different from each other otherwise, we found that the most resilient and connecting thread was bamboo.”

The inspiration to base the exhibit on bamboo came from the works of MP Ranjan, who was a professor at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. Considered to be India’s design guru, he pioneered research work in bamboo. He died in 2015 at the age of 64. That one material could take so many forms was a driving force for him, and inspired several of his designs. In his 1986 book, titled Bamboo and Cane Crafts of North-East India, Ranjan wrote:

“Bamboo is so much a part of their lives that it is difficult to think of North-East without associating it with images of bamboo products and bamboo structures. In many tribes the umbilical cord of a new born child is cut with a bamboo knife and the dead are laid to rest on bamboo beds. Bamboo shoots are eaten either roasted or pickled. Rice is eaten in bamboo plates and carried in bamboo baskets and rice beer is drunk in bamboo mugs through bamboo drinking straws. Bamboo poles with trimmings symbolise religious commitment and are used as decorations on auspicious occasions. Surely the people of the North-East region can be said to have a bamboo culture.”

The headman of the Nyishi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh getting dressed in his bamboo house before a meeting. (Photograph by Arati Kumar Rao).

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has also recognised the value of bamboo. In his Budget speech on February 1, he called bamboo “green gold”, and allocated Rs 1,290 crores to promote the bamboo sector.

A bamboo bridge across the main stem of the Siang at Tuting, in Siang district, Arunachal Pradesh. (Photograph by Arati Kumar Rao).

The photographs, paintings and artefacts in An Ode to Bamboo showcased bamboo as a way of bringing together livelihoods, design and sustainability, rather than just being a decorative object. “The brief was to not exoticise bamboo,” said Baruah. “The idea was to go beyond looking at bamboo as just a handicraft or souvenir for tourists but really show how it is ingrained into every aspect of lives of people living in the North East. From gambling to bridges to everyday things, bamboo is everywhere.”

For the exhibition, Baruah brought in baskets, small and big, made from bamboo, which are used everyday in the North East to transport a range of goods.

Ranjan’s book has an entire chapter dedicated to the various uses of these baskets, and the different techniques used to weave them. Ranjan wrote:

“Grain is carried from the fields to the village granaries, firewood is collected for fuel from the forest, water is carried in bamboo tubes placed inside a basket and fish caught from the streams are only some of the products carried in baskets. Occasionally one sees an infant perched on one of these baskets lung across the back.”

Owner of a basket-making shop in Shillong. (Photograph by Parasher Baruah).

At the exhibition, a multimedia installation by Baruah focused on archery as it is practiced in Shillong, Meghalaya, where it is more about gambling than the sport. The installation had in place a padded bamboo target that was pierced by over 50 bamboo arrows.

The sport of archery gambling in Shillong. (Photograph by Parasher Baruah).

Rao’s work at the exhibit documented the fishing communities of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh and their use of bamboo in almost all their tools – from the fishing boat and fish trap, to the mat on which the fish is dried.

Rao’s images are a testament to how this material, classified as both grass and tree, incorporates itself seamlessly into the lives of fisherfolk.

Fish caught by the Mishing community in Assam drying on mats made from bamboo. (Photograph by Arati Kumar Rao).

“When people migrate, the physical art gets lost in the process,” said Bhattacharjee. “The oral traditions like songs and stories remain, but the craft of the region suffers. So if the value of bamboo is not talked about, presented or reimagined for a modern audience, traditional wisdom will be lost forever.”