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Not everything about bamboo is green, sometimes it takes the colour of the sea. What with swimwear that has bamboo lining, and beach towels made from bamboo fibre, which designers claim will absorb water just fine. A line of ASUS notebooks uses bamboo instead of plastic and metal as the shell; the world's first bamboo smartphone designed by AD Creative, a design firm based in UK and China, will see the light of day early next year. A line of Gucci bags have locks, tassels and handles made of bamboo. Dell has been using bamboo for its packaging as an alternative to styrofoam, giving its lightweight products cushions to reach their destinations safely.
While across the world, bamboo seems to be the material du jour, designers and architects in India, which is the second largest producer of bamboo in the world, are also looking at innovative ways of using it. Bangalore-based Sandeep Sangaru has been working with bamboo craftsmen from Tripura to create minimalist furniture. His "Truss Me" bamboo furniture line, which won the international red dot award three years ago, was testimony to the tensile strength and pliable properties of the material. Not only was this collection lightweight but it held a funny bone, with its quirky designs, that came with detailing and fine form. From bookshelves to chairs, stools to crutches, this line was completely handcrafted. He won the British Council's Young Creative Entrepreneur in the Design for Social Impact category for 2012.
The Delhi-based National Mission on Bamboo Applications (NMBA), an arm of the department of science and technology, partners with entrepreneurs and craftsmen across the country to make bamboo products. It has been encouraging the use of bamboo in structural applications: bamboo mat boards (plyboard-like), engineered bamboo floor tiles, and corrugated sheets made of bamboo and jute have been used in earthquake-resistant buildings in Leh and Sikkim, and in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, as part of the post-tsunami rehabilitation. "With our partners, we also built homes for the army in Siachen. These bamboo structures can stand wind velocity up to 100 km/hour and snow up to three feet on the roof," says Aseem Narain of NMBA. Their office in Delhi is almost museum-like in its ode to the possibilities of bamboo. From bamboo vinegar to band aids made from bamboo fibre, there are surprises at every corner. Other products include bamboo solar lights, bamboo solar cookers, and even bamboo speakers. Not all of these innovations have found a market, however.
Champions of bamboo may pitch it as "green gold" but cultural mindsets in India are not easily changed. Bamboo is used in funeral pyres and the notion that it's cheaper than wood makes it particularly difficult to market for homes. Architect Revathi Kamath, who works extensively in mud and bamboo, says one-fourth of urban cities can be built on bamboo. "There is potential for the material to become relevant to people who live in illegal colonies, or those who wish to go vertical. From sheds, garages, and juggies to upper floor extensions, it could mean a positive aesthetic to the city," she says. Kamath Design Studio has used bamboo in the way it's seldom done in architecture in the country. In their projects, bamboo weaves are used as a roofing material. In a home in Delhi, they used bamboo in a 60ft x 50ft column-less span, as opposed to the average 30 ft span achieved in regular bamboo constructions.
Bamboo has seen many innovations in other parts of the world, from bamboo body wash and soap to bamboo charcoal fibre. Ahmedabad-based Rebecca Reubens, author of Bamboo: From Green Design to Sustainable Design, says, "We can't approach bamboo through definitions of the West. We need to find answers through our history, culture and make sense of it through our way of life." An industrial designer, Reubens' store, Bamboo Canopy in Ahmedabad, retails bamboo products made by designers working with the Kotwalia tribe of Gujarató from bamboo bookends and lights, to candelabras and cloth stands.