Cheaper and better kitchen appliances from outside the country are killing the culture

Bamboo craft: One obvious reason the trade  deficit is widening and economy is increasingly becoming rupee driven is because Bhutan imports even goods as basic as a toothpick, which could be produced easily from its rich forest resources through tshazo (bamboo craft) practising communities.

This, according to those in the tshazo business, is impeding the growth of the tradition, which is also a source of cash income for hundreds of people.  The onslaught of imported wooden, bamboo and plastic kitchen appliances, they say, is killing locally made bamboo and wooden products.

Bjoka gup Tshering Wangchuk said communities in Dechenling in Pemagatshel, Bjoka in Zhemgang and Samdrupjongkhar hardly bought any kitchen appliances. “A lot of appliances like spatula, bamboo cask, ladles, chopping board, whisk, containers, pestles and even spoons would be made from wood and bamboo,” he said.

But imported kitchen appliances fill kitchens today leaving those still practising tshazo looking for markets in handicraft shops.

“In Dechenling, except for some old folks using wooden ladles and bamboo spoons, others mostly prefer imported products to local,” Wangchuk from Dechenling said.

With better choices of imported plastic materials, the trend of making cups and mugs, known as tokpala or tokpaling, from bamboo is also almost disappearing.

“People used to make tokpala earlier, but now it’s only made during gatherings, while its use in the village houses is totally non-existent,” Wangchuk said.

Sangye Wangpo from Pasaphu said everyone used imported products, whether plates, mugs or spoons.  He said that, even if these appliances were of wood or bamboo, they were imported.

Sangye Wangpo is a tshazo practitioner himself, but admits to using the cheaper imported plastic or ceramic appliances.

While plastic and ceramic products are cheaper, locals cannot compete with the better finished and cheaper imported bamboo and wooden items.

“Despite trying to learn tshazo since 1991, I’ve never had a chance to attend any trainings to advance skills to produce diverse quality products,” Wangchuk said.

Local tshazo practitioners feel that trainings are needed to compete with the imported products. “Trainings provided for couple of weeks weren’t enough to enable us to diversify and produce quality competent products,” Bjoka tshazo tshogpa chairman, Sangye said.

Earlier, an attempt by tshazo practitioners from Jangbi, Bjoka and Pasaphu to diversify into products, like furniture, decoration pieces and kitchen appliances, failed miserably in the market.  The attempt failed solely for its relatively inferior quality to imported products.

For instance, Nakari from Jangbi, who made cane furniture, gave up the idea after facing great difficulty in marketing it. “People refused to buy my furniture, saying it’s inferior in quality,” Nakari said.

Similarly, tshazo group from Bjoka also gave up an idea to attempt diversification of products after facing similar problems. “Since, new products failed to perform in the market, it was decided to fall back on traditional products only,” Sangye said.

Tshazo today is practised only as part-time job, despite the tradition being practised for many years in Bjoka, Jangbi and Pasaphu.

“No one has taken up tshazo as fulltime job, although it’s the chief source of cash income here,” Pasaphu tshogpa, Wangda said, adding products, such as bangchung, are woven either during leisure time or while guarding the fields.

No one tried to live off from tshazo because the meagre income from sale of its products cannot support a living.

Not long ago, Sangye tried to take it up as a business, employing villagers for 30 days to weave bamboo products in Bjoka.  But he suffered a huge loss.

“After paying the labourers only Nu 160 a day, I still suffered a loss of Nu 25,000 because products like bangchung are sold at much cheaper prices,” Sangye said.

Weaving a bangchung, which takes around three days to complete, fetches about Nu 250, while its real cost should be around Nu 350.

“The prices can’t be increased from the fear of turning the customers off,” Sangye said. And Bjoka’s cheaper tshazo products, especially bangchungs, are also affecting the costlier products in Kangpar.  Unlike, Bjoka, Kangpar buy raw materials from Rimung and Gomdhar in Samdrupjongkhar.

“I had to bring back everything since people preferred the cheaper bangchung from Bjoka during an expo in Thimphu in 2008,” Kinzang Tshering from Paedhung said.

Already challenged by the lack of resources for tshazo, the communities that took pride in weaving cane and bamboo products are now reduced to making a few handicrafts.

Tshazo products were once so widely used that people even from places like Haa flocked here to buy bangchung,” Tshering Wangchuk said.

By Tempa Wangdi