Portraiture in Indian Miniature Paintings

Sourabh Ghosh

Research Scholar, Chitkara Business School and Sr. Vice President, Kotak Mahindra Bank Ltd., Chandigarh, India. E-mail: sourabhgh@yahoo.co.in

  Volume 2, Number 1, 2017 I Full Text PDF

DOI: 10.21659/cjad.21.v2n103


The art of miniature painting in India traces its origin to the Buddhist manuscript Illustrations of the Pala period in Nepal and Eastern part of India in the 8th to 11th century. The Jain manuscripts in Gujrat and Rajasthan, as early as 11th century, also point towards a practice of such illustrations. These manuscripts, apart from portraying religious literature, also covered wide ranging topics such as medicine, astrology, etc. They were profusely illustrated, and were mostly inscribed on palm leaves. Apart from serving as important treatises, they were widely used as gifts during royal marriages and accessions. However, the Mughal Rule in India brought a certain degree of sophistication, refinement and finesse to this form of art. Under successive Mughal Rulers, the art of miniature painting reached its zenith. While Babur and Humayun, who were great lovers of art and literature, could not build proper ateliers during their reigns due to their frequent military campaigns and conflicts, they were responsible for bringing to India two versatile artists, Abdus Samad and Mir Sayed Ali from the Safavid Persian Court-whose works would have significant impact on the art of miniature paintings in the Mughal Courts. Humayun’s successors Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan built some of the most significant ateliers under their rules, and some of the preeminent miniature artists like Basavan, Manohar, Bichitar, Ustad Mansur, Balchand and Murad flourished under their patronage. Some very significant works like Baburnama, Akbarnama, Razamnama, etc. were also commissioned by the early Mughal Emperors.  With the decline of the Mughal Empire, the miniature painting scene shifted to the Rajput Courts in Rajasthan and the Hill States in Northern India. Various important Schools of painting –like the Mewar, Marwar, Jaipur, Hadoti, Kangra, Basholi, and Garhwal – Schools, to name a few, started flourishing under their respective rulers. While the Mughal influence still prevailed, yet each school had its own distinctive characteristic and feature. The subjects of these paintings and manuscripts ranged from religious literature, court scenes, royal processions, flora and fauna, textiles, jewelry to elaborate equestrian and hunting scenes. However, the most riveting and captivating depictions were in the form of elaborate and brilliant  portraits of the rulers, their nobles and courtiers, which not only throw light on their magnificent reigns, but also open a window to the culture, tradition and practices of those times. This essay makes an attempt to study the fine art of portraiture in miniature paintings in the various Mughal, Provincial and Rajput Courts to bring out their historical and cultural significance.

Key Words: Miniature Painting, Mughal School, Rajput School, Portraits, Hill Schools

Art and Architecture of the Temples of Baronagar, Murshidabad

Shyamal Chatterji

Mechanical Engineer and Researcher on Hindu Iconography

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 It was a pleasant morning in February 2010 when we visited the Baronagar temples. A couple of hours of boat-journey along the Ganges brought us from a ‘ghat’ near Hazardurai, Lalbagh to that of Baronagar. After a short climb to the shore, the magnificent sight of neatly kept four-temples complex—famously known as ‘Char Bangla’—came into our view. More were to follow.

Terracotta Temples of Bishnupur: Transformation through Time and Technology

Priyanka Mangaonkar

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Clay can be considered as one of the oldest building materials in the history of man after stone. Clay was and is being used for all conceivable purposes due to its abundance and universal supply. The discovery of baking clay provided the permanence to the clay objects. This baked clay is called as Terracotta. All over the world, across the ages people have transformed this heavy, dark and formless material into a lighter building material. They created their living spaces and they adapted their architectural and constructive answers according to the behavior and properties of the soil.

The use of Terracotta as a material evolved from making objects of daily needs like vessels, pottery, toys, seals etc in ancient times to its use in temples in the 15th-16th century AD in West Bengal. Until this period Stone was the main material used for building temples. This was due to unavailability of the stone and availability of good alluvial soil, and the need to create pseudo effect, e.g. in West Bengal terracotta was used to depict stone carvings and sometimes to resemble the articulation on wooden door. In the same period, from 15th to early 20th century terracotta was used as cheaper and easily available option for marble in some parts of Europe.

Terracotta as a material till now has taken different influences to reach the urban scale. From a material predominantly used for household and domestic use, it has been slowly shifting to building and construction industry. Nowadays with the help of technology terracotta has been experimented to its fullest considering its qualities and has been used in construction in certain parts of India. This paper attempts to understand one stage of its transformation where terracotta was explored and modified according to the need of that time in West Bengal.


Historical Backgorund of temple architecture of Bengal

In Bengal art sometimes was expressed mainly through the medium of temples. Brick temples of Bengal were built between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. These temples form one of the most distinctive groups of sacred monuments in India. Due to the multiple artistic influences acting upon the region, Bengali temples show a wide range of forms and techniques. “The Bengali temples nevertheless constitute a coherent series in both their architecture and sculpture, characteristically expressed in brick and terracotta.”[i] The geographical distribution of the temples is majorly confined to the alluvial delta of Ganges River, which explains the popularity of clay as material for all conceivable purposes. “Hence, Bengali temples can be viewed as important manifestation of this region’s culture, closely associated with contemporary movements in religion, literature, arts as well as political, social and economic development.”[ii]

The map above (Fig.1) shows the different regions of Bankura district. Out of all the regions Bishnupur flourished as a great monumental expression of Hindu terracotta art in Bengal. Temple facades in Bishnupur are majorly covered with figurative sculptures, often on four sides and sometimes even extending in the interior.

Bishnupur literally means city of lord Vishnu. This may be derived from the fact that the kings of Bishnupur were followers of Vaisnavism. “During the 15th and 16th centuries, Bengal underwent a profound political, social, religious and cultural revolution, the chief result of which was the formation of a distinct regional identity.”[iii]  Mallabhoom being politically stable could concentrate on developing a social system based on Hindu (Vaisnava) philosophy. The Malla kings have invited higher castes and Brahmins to Bishnupur. Their presence was necessary to support such wide spread religious activity. Besides this, Malla kings had brought in numbers of selected master craftsmen, best weavers, expert masons, skilled potters etc to the city to provide for the best of amenities. Trade had assumed an important occupation. Bishnupur had several specialized markets. Because of all these a wide range of excellence in craft tradition had been achieved in Bishnupur.[iv] Over a period of time Bishnupur town has evolved incorporating various social concepts, planning philosophies, strategic decisions which were deeply rooted in Bengali traditions.

The few temples preserved in Bengal built before 14th century indicates that Bengali architecture was closely associated with contemporary traditions that flourished throughout northern and eastern India. The history of religious architecture in Bengal can be divided into three periods:

1) Early Hindu (up to the end of 12th century)

2) Sultanate period (14th to early 16th century)

3) Hindu revival (16th to 19th century) [v]

In primitive stage that is during early Hindu period, it takes the character of Mayuryan and Pre-Mayuryan art of India. In this early stage, the terracottas consist of stray cult pieces of small sizes.  In later stages 14th—16th centuries, terracotta plaques appeared with new designs which were different from the primitive illustration of the same theme. In the next stage terracottas appeared in larger sizes and related to architectural structures, as decorations of the facades of the temples. Popularization of Sanskrit scriptures in Bengali translation, have built up the Hindu revival which gave rise to most popular cults like Krishna, Kali, Durga.  These were the main inspiration behind the revival of Hindu art and architecture. Almost all the richly decorated temples of 16th century which still exist are mainly Radha-Krishna temples. These temples have terracotta decoration which is of Vaishnava origin. Compared to the brick structures, the result is not just constructional but also decorative.

These temples have elaborate representation of themes which are borrowed from the Puranas.  Hence these temple decorations were also acting as a medium to educate common people about our culture and traditions. Most of the decorations are typically Gupta in style. “Largeness of conception, the dramatic vigor, and the liveliness of the pictures depicted on bricks and plaques stand for the vividness of wall paintings and frescoes, the dearth of which is compensated by these pictures on bricks and plaques”.[vi]

One of the most remarkable features of the history of this monumental architecture in Bengal is the sharp break in tradition that coincided with the Muslim conquest. Architects working for Muslim patrons developed a preference for covering entire wall surface with finely worked terracotta plaques that incorporated traditional decorative motifs such as the lotus. By the end of the 16th century, a uniquely Bengali style of temples architecture and sculpture had established itself as the Hindu artistic expression of the new social, religious and cultural revolution.[vii] The wide range of temple styles embraced elements of both change and continuity, typical in the dynamic but traditionally based Bengali society. Furthermore, the temple decoration depicted the aspects of everyday life of the contemporary society, particularly the ambitions of the temple builders. This shows that temple building was the result of an intense concentration of economic and artistic resources, as well as public means of expressing power.

The temple builders

The plaques of terracotta give us a glimpse of the early culture of the people of the Bengal which is not available in Bengal literature. This proves that this plastic art supports the literary art of Bengal. In Bengal only two caste forms can be traced – the Acharyas and Sutradharas. The role of the Acharyas and Sutradharas indicates an age old relationship of working together that existed in India. These terracotta reliefs are noteworthy contribution of these artists. These artists derived their inspiration not only from the standard rules and regulations of the Shilpa Sashtras, but also from the keen observations of the daily lives of the people around. In course of time Sutradharas became capable of using materials like stone, ivory, metal etc. and became skilful artists. They accordingly developed into four different directions namely – Kastha (wood), Mrttika (clay), Chitra (painting), Pasan (stone) and divided themselves into several regional groups. The Sutradharas worked as a group and each consisting of several families and having their hereditary knowledge used to live and work under Acharyas who were responsible for planning and supervision. These teams used to travel from one place to another. The heads of these groups had readymade master plans of temples of varied size and shapes and they use to carry these plans with them. Then according to donor’s choice and even details regarding arrangements of terracotta bricks, according to the theme and pattern used to be completed and necessary instructions were issued by the leader before the commencement of the construction. [viii]

‘As the majority of Bengalis during this period were illiterate, terracotta artists had little opportunity to acquaint themselves with the Sanskrit Puranas, epics, and other source books of mythologies. For these artists’ knowledge of the epics and myths was mainly derived from the works of local Bengali poets particularly in the form of popular dramas and songs. These poets translated and retold the stories for the benefit of villagers and also introduced new episodes and their own interpretation in it without any hesitation. This brought atmosphere of contemporary society in their stories and poetries bringing their works nearer to the hearts of Bengalis and profoundly influenced the artists who decorated the temples of the period.’ [ix] For example, the influence on contemporary society is seen in Mangal Kavyas as well as in the portrayals of the marriage of Shiva and Parvati in temple art. In the depiction of this popular scene, temple artists didn’t follow the standard iconographic texts but preferred to represent Parvati as a small girl, and Shiva as a half naked old man. While describing the marriages between the poor and homeless Shiva and the beautiful Parvati, poet drew upon scenes of ordinary Bengali life in which girls of tender age were sometimes given in marriage to old men. In their descriptions of such scenes poets did not hesitate to emphasize the pain and regret of the young girl. And this was true in 18th and 19th century when marriage between old men and young girls was a common practice.  Hence this way the different epics of Puranas were recited by storytellers at village gatherings and undoubtedly influenced terracotta artists of that time.


Temple planning[x]

The overall form and arrangement is different from the other Indian temple typologies. The popular sequence of Bhogmandapa, Natmandapa, Garbhagriha is absent here. There are limited number of architectural elements used in temple plan – square, rectangular, octagonal chambers and long rectangular corridors and porches. These spaces are vaulted or domed and are limited in size. Walls are generally slender in size (75cm to 125 cm) except certain exceptions like massive brickwork at Kodla (almost 3m thick) which is obvious imitation of stonework. The axiality present in the other Indian typologies towards certain preferred direction is quite subdued. Characteristic of Bengali brick architecture is the pointed vault on the rectangular plan with curved base and spine, producing the interior of a Bangla roof form.

The pillars used in these temples with triple arches were essentially based on pillars built in stone during Pala-Sena period. When used in brick temples, some changes were introduced in these pillars. Since the pillars used on the facades of these temples became main feature, and were decorated with terracotta panels of smaller sizes, the square bases and square capitals were changed to octagonal and the shaft became multifaceted.  (Fig.2) The shafts were further divided by two to five mouldings into smaller parts to afford decoration by the terracotta panels. Stone doorways of the earlier elaborate design were not used in these temples but there patterns were copied.  The walls of these temples were generally flat and any articulation was provided by the framing of the panels on the wall.

Style and ornamentation

Sculptures on the temple façade of Bengal are carefully organized with respect to their architectural setting. Islamic builders imitated the earlier patterns carved in stone and also introduced a great variety of strip motifs. Also there is more preference for large scale figurative art, than the earlier nonfigurative themes. One significant omission on any late medieval temples is the use of the glazed tiles which were so frequently used on the Islamic structures of the Sultanate period in the late 15th century.  Generally facades of these temples were divided into panels by vertical, horizontal and curved bands. (Fig. 3, 4) On certain temples like Keshta- Raya temples, Kala-Chand temple these panels are uniformly distributed over the facades, gently growing over the entrance. Sculptural characteristic of these temples are not only crowded compositions within individual panels but also on overall facades of the temple.

Compositions above the arches, friezes and panels have a distinct rhythmic effect created by frequent repetition of identical panels. In case of Keshta-Raya temple, above the regular square panels depicting Ramayana and Krishnalila episodes is a system of beam like elements suggesting a corbelled timber construction. In Madan-Mohana temple, façade derives its essential rhythm from the manipulation of the bands framing panels in which active dramatic scenes take place. (Fig. 5) The description of the sculptures in these different parts indicates the development of decorative elements from simple vegetal ornamentation to figurative schemes till later period.

Some of the Nineteenth century Bankura temples show clear European influence in their articulation. These panels have large scale composition in high relief above their triple arched porches. (Fig.6)



Material and construction technique

The temples of Bengal form one of the most distinctive groups of sacred monuments in India, Incorporating a wide range of forms and techniques that testify to the multiple artistic influences acting upon the region. The terracotta here expresses a faithful picture of the lives of the people through a dynamic natural quality of technique. During this period for the first time local building forms were translated into permanent materials.  Hut shapes were recreated in brick vaulting, together with curved cornices and terracotta façade decoration. Typical Islamic techniques of arches, vaults and domes construction were used to create this type of architecture, and the material adopted was brick which was locally available. The Bengali temples constitute a coherent series in both their architecture and sculpture, characteristically expressed in brick and terracotta.  Even though stone was mainly used for construction till this period, there are rarely any stone temples in this province due to scarcity of stone. Very rarely temples were built or even faced with stone. (Fig.7) These temples are found majorly in southwestern periphery of Bengal where coarse grained laterite is available. Throughout the rest of Bengal, temples are almost invariably built of bricks. Also yellow sandstone is available in northern Burdwan and adjacent Purulia. Except these places throughout the rest of the Bengal, temples are invariably built of bricks. The early brick temples of Gupta, Pala and Sena period used stone as door jambs, lintels and pillars. But brick temples of Bengal have wooden doors which are decorated with terracotta depicting human and animal figure compositions as well as floral and geometrical designs in panels.

Studying from the numerous ruined temples it can observed that the brick core of the temples generally consist of well laid horizontal brick courses. Vaults and domes are also created with bricks laid as stretchers. In arches, bricks are cut to form tapering voussoirs. (Fig.15)  Curved layers of brickwork are employed to create vaults as well as swelling contours of temple cornices and roofs. Sometimes bricks are laid diagonally to decorate supporting arches and pendentives. In 18th and 19th century many temple facades were plaster coated in combination with terracotta sculptures.


Fired Bricks were laid in mortar composed of powdered brick and lime. Lime was obtained by processing snail’s shells. Fine but very hard pankha plaster was used to coat roofs, vaults and walls of temples. The surface skin of the terracotta plaques is carefully knitted into the brick core of the building. (Fig.8, 9, 10, 11)



Non-standardization in construction[xi]

Well fired brick is the basic building material for temple making in Bengal. Brick sizes vary, not only from region to region and from century to century but also within the same building. Following drawing will help to understand how different sizes of bricks were used to get required effect or to create pseudo effect of stone construction. (Figs.13, 14) Bricks are generally laid as stretchers, with half bricks to fill the gaps and avoid successive vertical joints. (Fig.12) Surface brickwork when covered with terracotta sculptures organized into overall façade schemes, displays considerable skill of the craftsman. Different shapes of bricks are used such as long thin bricks laid edgewise as framing bands, triangular bricks as filling pieces and flat plaques coordinated in large scale sculptural compositions, these all carefully interlock.


(Dimensions shown are indicative to show non-standardization of bricks.)


Deterioration of temples

These temple builders were active up to the middle of the 19th century and numerous temples of different sizes and shapes were built with excellent terracotta work till this period. From the early 19th century, Western influence on styles and themes and features became stronger and due to several socio-economic factors the quality and quantity of temple building as well as of terracotta work rapidly declined. Architects and artisans, who were dependant on local patronage found themselves without work and were forced to turn to other crafts such as wood carving, scroll painting and had to give up their own craft. The others who were less ambitious and more home loving were turned, neglected group of society and were known as chutar or wood carvers. By the middle of nineteenth century, terracotta sculptures were being replaced by stuccowork but art stayed until 1930s. Further in twentieth century, temple building continued in traditional and neo-classical style, by adopting modern building materials like steel, concrete replacing brick and terracotta. Today these brick temples are frequently disfigured or even concealed by ugly concrete additions and new concrete temples coming up everywhere.


Modern terracotta

From the above study we can say that terracotta as a material tried to fulfill the need of that time. It was modified, explored to its fullest during 15th – 19th century in West Bengal. Nowadays with the help of technology terracotta is been explored as a structural material and it’s no more a material only for Surface embellishment. At every stage of its transformation this material tried to fulfill the need of time and human need to explore, evolve and grow with time and technology.

We can also say that over a period of time Terracotta has been transformed over following parameters:





By exploring the properties of clay with the help of technology.


About terracotta hollow blocks

In India solid bricks are so extensively used in construction. But they have certain disadvantages like:

These are more expensive to lay,

Heat insulation property is poor,

Water absorption is high,

Consumes more energy and soil and due to this depleting topsoil.

These problems have been overcome by using perforated bricks with 50 to 60 per cent perforations. These perforations act as a sound and heat insulators. Also due to better manufacturing techniques water absorption is low. They effectively save clay, dry faster and require less fuel for burning as compared to solid bricks. Also these large size bricks help increase the mason’s output.  Below are certain images showing how these terracotta clay hollow blocks have been explored in architecture as well as in interiors mostly in Southern part of India.

Product range of clay hollow blocks



Exploration in interiors


End Notes

[i] (Ed.) Michell, George, Brick Temples of Bengal – from the Archives of David McCutchion, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1983, page no. 3.

[ii] ibid

[iii] Michell ,George. Opsit, page no. 3

[iv] Above paragraph is based on understanding from (Ed.) Michell, George, Brick Temples of Bengal – from the Archives of David McCutchion, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1983,

[v] (Ed.) Michell, George. Brick Temples of Bengal – from the Archives of David McCutchion, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1983, page no. 15.

[vi] Datta, Bimal. Bengal Temples, Munshiram Manoharlal pub. Pvt. Ltd, page no. 46

[vii] Opsit, page no. 6

[viii] Understanding for Temple builders is based on (Ed.) Michell, George. Brick Temples of Bengal – from the Archives of David McCutchion, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1983,

[ix] Haque, Zulekha in George Michell’s Brick Temple of Bengal – From the Archives of David McCutchion, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1983

[x] Understanding for temple planning is based on Khare, Ajay. Temple Architecture of Eastern India, Shubhi Pub. Gurgaon, page no. 186-190.

[xi] Understanding for Non standardization in construction is based on (Ed.) Michell, George. Brick Temples of Bengal – from the Archives of David McCutchion, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1983.


Bibliographic references:

Michell, George (Ed.). Brick Temples of Bengal – from the Archives of David McCutchion, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1983.

Khare, Ajay, Temple Architecture of Eastern India, Shubhi publications, Gurgaon, 2005.

Dasgupta, Pradosh, Temple Terracotta of Bengal, Crafts Museum, New Delhi, 1971.

Dey, Mukul, Birbhum Temples, Lalit Kala Academi, new Delhi, 1959



Mr. Chittranjan Dasgupta, Bishnupur (West Bengal), 3rd March 2010

Prof. Shoumik Nandi Mujumdar, Shantiniketan (West Bengal), 4th March 2010

Dr.  Sanjoy Kumar Mallik, Shantiniketan (West Bengal), 4thMarch 2010


Illustration Credits

Figure 1: http://www.calcuttaweb.com/maps/bankura.shtml, 20th June, 11.30am

Figure 2 – figure 15: self taken and self drawn.

Figure 16: From presentation done by VanReeth, Rudy, at TERI workshop on Energy Efficiency Improvements in Indian Brick industry, at New Delhi on 20th Dec 2009

Figure 17: Self taken

Figure 18: From presentation done by VanReeth, Rudy, at TERI workshop on Energy Efficiency Improvements in Indian Brick industry, at New Delhi on 20th Dec 2009

Figure 19-20: From presentation done by K, Remesh, at TERI workshop on Energy Efficiency Improvements in Indian Brick industry, at New Delhi on 20th Dec 2009

Figure 21-23: From presentation done by K, Remesh, at TERI workshop on Energy Efficiency Improvements in Indian Brick industry, at New Delhi on 20th Dec 2009

Figure 24, 25: From presentation done by K, Remesh, at TERI workshop on Energy Efficiency Improvements in Indian Brick industry, at New Delhi on 20th Dec 2009

Figure 26, 27: self taken

Figure 28: : From presentation done by VanReeth, Rudy, at TERI workshop on Energy Efficiency Improvements in Indian Brick industry, at New Delhi on 20th Dec 2009

Figure 29, 30: From presentation done by K, Remesh, at TERI workshop on Energy Efficiency Improvements in Indian Brick industry, at New Delhi on 20th Dec 2009


Priyanka Mangaonkar is an architect with a Masters in Interior Architecture and Design, with specialization in Craft and Technology from Centre for Environmental planning and Technology, Ahmedabad. She has Worked as a project coordinator with Centre for Sustainable Environment and Energy (CSEE), Ahmedabad for a project titled ‘Energy efficiency improvements in Indian brick Industry’ for promoting energy efficiency in the Indian brick sector with The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).


Documentation of Terracotta Horse of Bankura

Amar Nath Shaw

Design Manager, TI Cycles of India, Chennai, India

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Broadly Bengal clay pottery can be divided into two segments-Bankura Clay Pottery and Krishnanagar Clay Pottery. Bankura’s art form is an ancient form than the art form of Krishnanagar. It was the Kumbhokars or potters of Panchmura, 16 miles away from Bishnupur, who started to make the famous Bankura horses.  The ‘Bankura Horse’ has now come to be regarded as a symbol of the artistic excellence of Indian rural handicrafts – a fact which finds confirmation in its use as the official crest-motif of the All India Handicrafts Board.


About Bankura

Bankura is located in the western part of the state of West Bengal. It is a part of Bardhaman Division and included in the area known as “Rarh” in Bengal. It ranks 4th according to population and literacy rate of 2001 Census in the state. The district is bounded by latitude 22038’ N and longitude 86036’ E to 87047’ E. The Damodar River flows along the northern boundary of the district. The adjacent districts are Bardhaman District in the north, Purulia District in the west and Paschim Medinipur in the south. Bankura boasts some of the finest example of terracotta temple panels in the State at Bishnupur.  Some pre-historic artifacts have also been discovered at Sushunia hillock of this district.  Though basically an agricultural district, being the fourth highest producer of cereals in the State, Bankura is also developing industrially with 10,887 registered small scale industries employing about 52,864 persons as on 31.8.2000 (Economic Review 2000-2001).


About Bishnupur

Bishnupur is a sub-district and a municipality in Bankura District in the state of West Bengal, India. It is famous for its terracotta temples and the balucheri sarees. Bishnupur (the distance from Kolkata is 152 km by road and 201 km by train), now the headquarters of the subdivision of the same name in Bankura district, is a seat of crafts and culture. For almost a thousand years it was the capital of the Malla kings of Mallabhum, of which Bankura was a part, till their power waned during the times when Mughal rule weakened under the last monarchs of the dynasty. The patronage of Malla king Veer Hambir and his successors Raja Raghunath Singha and Veer Singha made Bishnupur one of the principal centres of culture in Bengal. Most of the exquisite terracotta temples for which town is justly famous were built during this period.

Apart from the unique architecture of the period, Bishnupur is also famous for its terracotta craft and its own Baluchari sarees made of tussar silk.

Royal patronage also gave rise to Vishnupuri gharana (school) of Hindustani classical music and the Bishnupur school of painting.


About Panchmura

Panchmura is the name of the village, which is located  at a distance of about 40 km from Bishnupur,  and 11 km from Thaldangra, the Thana (Police-station) of the the sub-district and is known for its Traditional Terracotta Horse and Mansha jhar, and other Handicrafts.

The Panchmura village has 60-70 kumbhkars (Potters) family who do the Terracotta works, The Crafts work has been continued for many years, and the hereditary skill has pass down from generation to generation. Earlier there was 300-400 craftsman, but now  many have shifted to other profession, or does some side business.

Only the Kumbhkars people of the village practices the Craft and they also provide formal training to other people. Although the village is not very developed, it has its rich tradition of Terracotta crafts; Even the soil on the ground looks red, similar to the terracotta clay.


Other Crafts of the Region (Bishnupur)

Silk weaving of Baluchar still retains its importance in Bengal’s handloom tradition. Famous Baluchari saris were manufactured at Baluchar of Murshidabad, which has been introduced by the weavers of Bishnupur. The Baluchari tradition dated back to the 7th century A.D and since then it has undergone several changes in style and technique in the intervening ages. Woven on unusual punch-card looms, these sarees have episodes from the Mahabharata woven into the border and pallu.

Conch Shell is one such resource which stands unique in the scenario of Bengali craft. The conch shell workers slice sparkling conch shells with simple hand tools and make bangles, bracelets and a range of ornaments. A typical type of bangle, known as sankha, made from conch shell, is worn by the women of Bengal as a sign of marriage. Conch Shell also has a lot of religious significance.

Circular playing cards called Dasavtara or ganjifa, which have hand-painted figures of the ten avatars of Vishnu on them, are also popular souvenirs. No one remembers how the game is played anymore though.



Typical Features of Bankura Horse

If  look closely it will be noticed that the Bankura horses have more erect neck and ears and look more dynamic. Their jaws are wider, their set of teeth can be seen, eyebrows are drawn and their forehead is decorated with Chandmala.

Religious Reason

The original function of these terracotta horses were a ritualistic one. People would offer them as a token of their devotion to Dharma Thakur, Manasa and numerous other village deities. Such offerings are also made on the tombs of Muslim Saints whose worshippers do not necessarily belong to the Muslim community alone. The structure of ‘Bankura Horse’ has been so fashioned as to symbolize a mark of devotion.


Introduction to the Craft

Bankura is famous for its Terracotta Temples of Bishnupur and many other places in the district. For centuries together the artisans of this area have developed this art. The most famous product of this district in terracotta handicrafts is the famous ‘Bankura Horse’. It is produced exclusively by the artisans of Panchmura, a village, about 8 Km. south-east of Taldangra Block Headquarters.

In course of the last few decades the fame of the commonly known ‘Bankura Horse’ has reached many parts of the globe. The ‘Bankura Horse’ has now come to be regarded as a symbol of the artistic excellence of Indian rural handicrafts – a fact which finds confirmation in its use as the official crest-motif of the All India Handicrafts Board.

The long-necked Panchmura Horse is made hollow with some circular vents to facilitate uniform firing in the country kilns. Panchmura Horse stands on its four legs with the neck held high and the ears and the tail erect and straight.

Terracotta of Bishnupur (Bankura) forms began under the Malla dynasty, during the late medieval period. Terracotta horses and elephants comprise the main objects of Bankura clay modeling. Bankura’s art form is a more ancient art form than that of Krishnanagar. It was the Kumbhokars or potters of Panchmura, a place in Bishnupur, who started to make the famous Bankura horses and elephants.


These horses display the skill and craftsmanship of Bengal. A pair of terracotta horses in a corner of a room adds class to any Bengali living room. These horses are not just decorative artifacts, but they also display the skill and craftsmanship of Bengal.

The potters here derive their inspiration from the glorious history of kings, soldiers and wars. The Bankura pottery is mainly used for ritualistic purposes. The rituals are almost all exclusively associated with local village gods and folk-festivals in the worship of various kinds of tribal, semi-tribal and folk deities.

The Panchmura-style of pottery is the best and the finest of all the four types. The symmetry of shape, the rhythm of the rounded curves of the body, especially of the horse, has lent a dignity and charm to its form which is incomparable. Simplicity and dynamism are the chief components of Panchmura-style.

It is more sophisticated than the other three types-Rajagarm, Sonamukhi and Kamirpur types are a little less sophisticated and more massive. In Jhargram and Gopiballavpur areas in Midnapore district, within the tribal belt, the terracotta horses assume a crude near-primitive form and are fully hand modeled.


Raw Materials

The Basic Raw Materials needed for making the Bankura horse and other similar crafts is mainly the TERRACOTTA clay, which is generally available in the region; otherwise the “Kumbhkars” (potters) get the clay from the other neighboring region of Bishnupur. The clay which they get is impure and the potters make the clay fit for the craft by removing the dust-particles – stones from it. The clay is generally ordered in bulk, and is kept outside of the house, and is covered if there is any rain.

The other Raw Materials which are mixed with CLAY are SAND, some “KHAR” -HAY, WATER & COLOR (PIGMENTS). Generally the water is either from the tube well or from the local pond. Sand and Grass is used to hold the clay together and bind it firmly.


Tools used

The Basic tools needed for making the Bankura Horse, is mainly the Potters WHEEL, with a STICK (danda) to rotate it manually. The wheel is used to make the Basic shapes such as CONE and CYLINDER, which are the main body parts of the Horse. The wheel is generally made of wood, and is 3-4 feet in diameter, it is made locally.


The Wheel is generally carried out – outside of the house, as it needs some space to maneuver.  The wheel is also cleaned after the wheel work is finished so that it is in good condition for the next session.

The Electric-Powered Wheel is not used, as there is scarcity of Electric in the village, also the potters prefer the traditional Wheel. The Slurry, which is diluted clay with water, is used during the wheel work, to give better finish to the products.

The tools that are used, after the basic wheel work is done are the mainly the scraps – such as BAMBOO TWIG, CUTTER’S BLADE, small piece of wood pointed at ends. These tools are mainly used to do the motifs and detailed decoration work, on the body of the horse, mainly the head and neck.

In local language, theses tools are called as CHIARI made of bamboo of about 4.5“ by .5 “ used for decorating clay figures. These tools are mainly made by the artists only, and the shape and size varies. Each Craftsman has his own tools to do the motifs work, and the tools are made according to the need of how motifs should look like, For example, if the motifs should be more detailed than the twig or blade with more sharper edges are used. These tools are just like pencils or pen to draw and design on the body of the Horse.

The small piece of Bamboo with rough edges at the sides is called UCHA which is a semi circular piece of bamboo used for surface finishing and also to SCRAPE gently the clay surface before putting the motifs work.

The sphere made of stone is called BALYA which is a stone tool of about  diameter about 3.5 “ (inches)  and is used as a beater of the inner surface of a pot, and the wooden bat is called Pitna which is a wooden beater of about 10 “ by 4 “ used for beating and shaping the outer surface of the pot.

The cloth is an important tool, It is used to keep the lump of clay together, when motifs work is being carried out, so that the clay does not get dried too early and also to keep the clay away from dust.

The Piece of wet cotton cloth (NAIKRA) is also used to rub on the surface of the Horse, before putting the motifs, so that its get stuck well to the body of the Product.

A wooden Planck (PATARA) is an important tool to carry out the detailed patterns and motifs, the Planck is used to roll out long and thin rods of clay (like threads) which are used to decorate the horse and other similar crafts product like clay elephants, fighting bull, etc.,

Also some ready-made MOULDS made of plaster of Paris (POP) is used for parts such as EAR, and of snake-head to make the ‘MANSA -JHAR’ which is the figure of the goddess MANSA surrounded by similar looking snakes head.



The complete process of making the product from the first stage to the last is shown below as a flow chart:-

  • Preparation of the materials
  • Mixing the Clay properly
  • Wheel work
  • Drying
  • Hand work
  • Detailed Motifs work
  • Final Drying
  • Colouring
  • Firing
  • Testing/Sorting


Preparation of the materials

The Preparation of the materials starts with removing the dust particles – small stones from the Terracotta clay to make it pure and refine for the wheel work. The clay is generally impure and need to be refined, this is done by breaking the lump of clay and making it into more finer and powder grains, and also refining it by removing the sand particles either by hand or by using some fine nets.

After the clay has been refined, the next step is to add the other raw materials such as sand, khar (dried paddy plants) and water. Generally the other raw materials apart from terracotta clay is available locally, and the kumbhkars (artists) does not have to go far to get these materials.

Mixing of the Clay

Mixing of the clay, after adding the other Raw materials is an important step in the process of making the BANKURA Horse,  the better is the mixing of clay with other ingredients, better is the outcome of the final product. Generally the mixing is done by hands if the quantity of the clay is less, but if the quantity is more than kumbhkars prefers using their legs. The mixing of the clay takes about 5-6 hours and sometimes even 2-3 hours depending on the number of person doing the work, and the working conditions.



Wheel Work

The mixing of clay is followed by the wheel work, which is mainly to make the basic shapes such as CONE, CYLINDER, etc., which acts as the main body parts of the horse or the elephant, for example, the four legs are conical, the belly is a cylinder and also the jaw of the horses is a cone, with a shape of inverted onion on it. The clay for the wheel work is much more refined and pure. The wheel work is done by the male person of the family, and its been done 2-3 times a week depending upon the demand of the products in the peak season.



The drying of the product which has been made on the wheel, is an important step, Although the drying is mainly a Natural Drying, and it takes around a day or 2 for the product become a bit tough, so that it is ready for the next step. Care is being taken to put the put the products in sunlight and also to protect it from rain.

Sometimes the drying process is carried out on the corridor and not directly in front of bright sunlight, also care is taken that only the products are being dried just a bit and not become very hardened. Also small products are also covered with clothes to protect from excess drying during hot and humid day.


Hand Work

After the wheeled products are dried a bit, the hand work is done, which is mainly the joining of the different parts made on the wheel and to assemble it together to give a basic structure and shape to the product. This step is primarily done by the male person of the family.

The images below shows the step by step joining of the basic shapes made on wheel to give a basic structure to the HORSE.

  1. This picture shows the first step, where the basic conical shapes are kept uncover.
  2. The four Inverted cones are kept at equal distances, and will form the legs of the horse
  3. A cylinder is kept on the legs, which becomes the belly of the horse
  4. Joining the basic shapes and filling the gaps are all being done by hand only.

The filling of the gap is also an important step, and being done carefully.

  1. The filling of the gap, is a delicate step and needs a bit experience & patience.
  2. Small holes are left on the body for the tail, to be put at later stage.
  3. When completed the horse takes it basic shape, and followed by the detailed work.

Detailed Motifs Work

The detailed motifs work is done after the Horse/ Elephant have taken a basic shape, and have dried a bit to carry the designing work, also before this step, the surfaces are scraped to make it even and smoother using the small piece of semi-circular bamboo (chiari), also additional clay are put where ever needed to bring the horse into a perfect shape.

The Pictures below shows how the detailed work of Decoration and Pattern making is being done by using simple tools (chirari) made from Bamboo. The Motifs and Patterns varies from one lot of Horses/ Elephants to the other, and also from one artists to the other.

The upper and lower parts of the body are put together during the motif work, so that the Design on both the parts looks similar. An application of wet cloth followed by little scraping is done so that the motifs sticks well to the surface.


The Motifs work is generally carried by the female member of the family, and is done by bare hand only, and the motifs/decoration can be simple or can be more elaborate, depending upon the demand from the client.

The Decoration work takes about 30-45 minutes for a horse, of size around 3 feet, and more for bigger sizes and elaborate work.


Final Drying

After a little drying in the sun, holes are made on appropriate parts of the body. This is done before full drying, otherwise the inner and the outer surface of the body will not be equally dry. Cracks may develop in the body for unequal drying of the inner and the outer portions. The dehydration is slowly done in the normal temperature of a closed room for about six or seven days.



After Final Drying they are brought out of the room and heated in the sun. On the figures thus heated the colour coats are given and the main work of coloring is done before firing in the kiln. The whole work of coloring is done by women from natural colours prepared from clay.

The natural earths (clay) are generally of three types. (1) Khadigad, looks white like chalk (2) Bhalogad, looks yellowish, glazy and oily and (3) Banak, looks brownish, oily and glazy. These earths produced from natural resources, are powdered and dissolved in water. The ingredients are placed in earthen vessels for about two or three months, while testing the water and sifting the sediment of sand from time to time. The residual portion is thickened into pigment under sun and preserved for coloring. The three kinds of pigments, Khadigad, Bhalogad and Banak are mixed with water and applied one after another on the pot and animal figures. Firing is done after coloring.



The old traditional village kilns are generally of circular or parabolic (Kula-type or bamboo fan shaped) with enclosures on all sides with a permanent stoke-hole. It is locally known as Sheuna Poan and the circular type is known as Berasal Poan.

Genarally the Firing takes about 10-15 days, or even a month sometimes depending upon the size of the Klin (Bhatti).

Generally the terracotta horses and elephants of Bankura are turned out in two different shapes (COLOUR). The normal terracotta red color is obtained by letting out the smoke through the vents of the kiln after firing, and the black color, by sealing the vents and not letting out the smoke. The red color horses are more known and famous owing to the natural terracotta color.



After the Firing work is completed, the sorting and testing of the  Product is carried out, the damaged pieces are separated from the good ones, and are kept together, also there are few pieces which does not burn properly in the kiln and the outer colors does not comes good, so, those products are also removed. Finally the good ones are kept together for display and the damaged ones are either repaired or sold at a lesser price otherwise thrown.


Working Environment: the Village

The working environment of the village is very peaceful, although the village is not very developed in terms of electricity and other facilities, but the Kumbhkars (potters) make out it. The name of the Particular area or Para is “Kumbhakar Para” owing to the name of the Kumbhkars (Potters) which have been there for many generations. This is the center of the village, it is a kind of Sitting Place (BAITHAK) where the village Gram Panchayat gathers for important meeting.  The Craftsmen have also formed a community “Panchmura Murti Silpi Samabha Samity” which looks after the overall growth and problems/issues related to the Crafts and its people.


Storage/Display at Home

The storage and display of the Handicrafts are mainly carried out in the verandah (corridor) of the house and also are kept inside the house, depending on the space availability, but not on the open air. Also the Horses are arranged according to the size, the bigger goes to the back and the smaller at the front.

Generally the ear and the tail are kept separately, as they are similar and can be put later.


The Packaging of the Product is also done by the kumbhkars or by the family member if someone purchases the craft directly from them.  The material used for packaging the delicate horses and elephants is HAY, and generally its packed in a Carton of fruit or something else which is locally available. The hay are used as a shock-absorbing material against some kind of shock or damage. In local shops also HAY and stuffed Newspaper is used as packaging material. After stuffing the hay and Newspaper the carton is tied with a rope and a handle is made from the rope to carry it.

The Transportation of the Handicrafts products are carried by 3-wheeler pedal rickshaw for smaller distances and by buses for larger distance,  such as to Bankura or Bishnupur, which are the nearest tourists spots of the District, and also to the yearly fair at Bishnupur.


The picture shows the display at the local market at one of the tourists spot near Rasamancha temple (BANKURA). Generally the local retailer buys the Horses and other Terracotta Handicrafts from the Kumbhkars of Panchmura and sell to the tourists.

The range of the prices of the Bankura Horses varies from rupees 20 to 2000.  The price gets higher with more detailed and elaborate work, and also with size.  The size varies from 4 inch tall to 6 and half feet.  The bigger horses are made in several pieces for the convenience to carry it during transportation.

Nowadays the Horses made of WOOD are getting more popular among the tourists,  because its more rigid, and does not get broken if  it gets some damage. The shape and style of the wooden Horses are similar to that of the clay one, but its much more expensive than the terracotta ones.

The prices of the products are higher in the local shops, so many of the Agencies and NGOs directly buys the Handicrafts from the Craftsman at Panchmura, But in the shops there lots of varieties offered and also one can get almost all the Handicrafts from that region.


Display/Sale at Fairs (Mela)

The outlets sale during the Annual Fairs provides a good opportunity to the craftsman to display their crafts and also to sell the Crafts and earn something for a living. Generally the Horses and elephants are kept on the ground and displayed in open air, and the smaller crafts in the stalls.

The Mela or Fair happens yearly, one of the famous fair is the “CHARAK MELA” which happens at the CHAITH month of the Bengali calendar, also the other festivals such as Kali puja, Durga Puja provides good opportunities to the local craftsman for some earnings, the peak season is from October to January.



The Crafts council of West Bengal is highly involved with the Craftsman of Panchmura, and is concerned with trying to find avenues for a better life for craftsmen both as part of their larger community and that of the natural environment. The Council also helps the Craftsperson to develop prototypes, introducing advanced methods of production, encouraging exports through overseas expositions and assisting the craftsmen to market their creations at a better price.



There are few problems which the Craftsmen from Panchmura are facing, which also forces few of them to shift to some other occupations, especially if the family is big and there is only one earning member.

The first is the LACK OF SPACE – there is not much space for the craftsman to make their crafts, and they have to adjust in small spaces inside their home.

The other problems are: still the same OLD METHODS/TECHNIQUES are used for years and new advanced methods of Production have not been introduced or adapted by the craftsman.

New Designs and New methods have not been adapted by the craftsman they say, that the  new Designers comes and give them new ideas and guidance, but it does not work in market to attract customers, so they did not experiment with new designs. and they make what they can sell and earn a living.

Also nowadays People who like Terracotta work buy the Handicrafts, and is not famous among the younger generations, where Rapid Prototyping and other things is more easily done.

One of the major problem that I find during my craft-visit was LACK OF QUALITY & DETAILINGS, most of products did not had a very good finishing, and lacked the quality to attract customers, there may be numerous reasons for that, but the quality was not Upto the mark.

Another important problem, as told by the kumbhkars, was the UNAVAILABILITY OF THE TERRACOTTA CLAY. the raw clay for the terracotta products is not available easily and the craftsman have to pay extra and also sometimes wait longer to get the clay. Similarly the colour used before firing is not easily available.

One of the problems that were mentioned by the Kumbhkars is that they don’t get much opportunity to go out and see what people like what are their tastes, so they can’t come up with something new which people would appreciate. Also they feel that there is not much co-ordination at the National & International Level to promote the Terracotta Handicrafts from Bankura.


A craftman’s Profile

Name            – Baul Das Kumbhakar

Age                 – 42 years

Place              – Panchmura, Bishnupur

Status            – Married

Experience    – 23 years

Award            – District & State Award

Baul Das Kumbhakar is from the Panchmura Village of Bankura District, which is known for the famous Bankura Horses and Mansa Chali, He comes from a traditional Potters family, that pass down their skill from generation to generation. His father and grandfather were both National Awardees and they were the first class craftsmen. He has received State & District award from the Government of West Bengal. Below are some of his certificates.


Proposed Guidelines for Future Development

The Proposed guidelines for the Future Development of the Terracotta Crafts at Panchmura are follows as:-

There should be more encouragement from the Government or from the State Craft’s council to promote the Craft at National Level. More Exhibitions and Sales outlet should be done so that common people get to know more about the Terracotta Craft. Also a good Network should be build at National Level to bring out the Terracotta crafts to the tourists. The Craftsman should be given liberty to experiment with their crafts so that more new Design/Pattern/ Motifs can be generated. The Craftsmen should be given exposition to the outer world so that they know what people like and what they should add more to their crafts.



Documented in the year 2007-08 with the support of the following persons:

Ruby Palchoudhuri – Executive Director,

Crafts Council of West Bengal.

64 Lake Place, Kolkata -700 029, INDIA

Baul Das Kumbhakar – Master Craftsman, Village & P O – Panchmura,

P.S – Taldangra, Dist. – Bankura Pin -722 156, W.B., INDIA

Rabindra Prasad Banerjee – Faculty/ Artist St. Joseph & Mary’s School, New Alipore, Kolkata -700058

Indrajeet – Crafts Council, WB.

Rabi Kinkar Nandi – Artist.

Sital Fauzdar – Artist.


Amar Nath Shaw is currently working as Design Manager in TI Cycles of India in Product Development Department, Chennai, India. He completed 4 years (2005 – 2009) of Graduate Diploma Program in Design (GDPD) Specialized in Product Design from National Institute of Design (NID) Ahmedabad, India, and studied one Semester at Hochschule Pforzheim University, Germany, in Industrial Design as an Exchange Student from NID. He has done Industrial Internship at Nexgeris, Paris, France. He was awarded DAAD Scholarship from Germany, for Exchange Program to Pforzheim University, won FORD Foundation Scholarship at NID, Received Special mention at International Bata Shoe Design Competition. His Professional interests are Consumer goods, Lifestyle Accessory Products, Systems Design, Eco-friendly & socially relevant design, Healthcare design, User Co-Design. Email: amarnaathshaw@gmail.com

Terracotta Craft of Panchmura: Problems and Possibilities

Dr. Milan Kanti Satpathi

Assistant Professor, Balarampur College, Purulia, West Bengal

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Bengali people—as mentioned by renowned Bengali linguist Acharya Suniti Kumar Chattopadhyay in his book Bangalir Sanskriti (The Culture of Bengal)—evolved as an amalgamation of the Austric, the Dravidian and the mixed Aryans from north India. Naturally the character of this mixed culture is still prevalent in the contemporary mainstream culture of Bengal. In enriching the collective Bengali culture the rural folk elements play an essential role, and the tradition is to be traced back to its ancient Austric roots. In the later stages what we have as urban life is actually a larger extension of this rural tradition.

Contacts with north and south India and connection with the rich culture of Nabadweep helped Bishnupur in becoming a famous town of art and culture during the medieval period. The art and crafts of Bishnupur spread to the rural and muffasil areas of Bengal in the 18th century and afterwards. The crafts based on natural products like wood, cane, bamboo, bricks and stones are still to be found scattered in different parts of Bengal. Among those many art and crafts terracotta craft emerged as one of the most significant artistic practice and Bishnupur became the main centre for this because of the patronage of the Malla kings. The fame of terracotta horse, elephant, cat, monkey, Manasachali, images of Sankirtaniyas (a singing pose of the Vaishnav cult), Ramayana, Mahabharata and other mythological engravings, leaves, creepers, household items of Panchmura village of Bankura has spread from the local through national to international level.

The people who once started the terracotta carvings on temple-wall-panels gradually scattered to various parts of southern Bengal like the villages of Bardhaman, Hooghly, Nadia etc. Only the ‘Kumbhakar’ community of Panchmura is still struggling to keep this craft tradition alive with their sincere effort and dedication. This present centre of terracotta consists of 60-61 families of Panchmura. Some of these craft-persons have extended this traditional practice to the villages like Bibarda, Chhilumpur, Joykrishnapur, Sandra, Ruisar etc.

According to the tribal census, as we find in the book of Hindu Samajer Garan (the structure of Hindu society) by Nirmal Kumar Basu, the social position of the potters in the first three decades (1901-1931) of the 20th century remained as follows:

Potter’s census

Year 1901 1911 1921 1931
Total population 195533 278206 284514 289654
Earning people x 92659 75326 53506
Rate of income x 33.32% 26.48% 18.47%
Rate of literacy 6.56% 8.04% 10.18% 9.66%
Involved in own business    75.16% 73.80% 61.69% 58.87%
Involved in agriculture 16.60% 13.40% 19.69% 19.89%
Involved in industry x 78.14% 64.5% 65.66%
Involved in professions for the middleclass (lawyers, doctors, Govt. servants etc.) x 0.857% 1.288%  

From conversations with the old people of Panchmura it is evident that a massive diversion took place in occupational field after the independence as many people wanted to take up other profitable jobs leaving their own traditional profession. The potters of Panchmura fall in the category of OBC (Other Backward Classes). 10-12 families of this potter’s society are inconceivably poor. Many of them do not possess the BPL (below Poverty Line) cards, nor do they avail of the facility of health cards. They complained that ailing craft-persons or their families do not get adequate treatment for their health problems, nor do they can get sufficient attention from the governments.

Before a thorough discussion on the crisis and potentialities of the potters and potteries let us have a glance at numerous facets of the contemporary practice of Panchmura terracotta crafts.


A lump of clay is formed from alluvial soil with a little amount of sand and fresh water from pond (no tap or tube well water). The lump thus gets ready to be pressed in dice or put on a wheel to produce several items like elephant, horse, Manasa Jhar, the idols of gods and goddesses with hands with utmost care or simply joining one part with another. Generally the articles like dashabatar taas, conch shell, astray, agarbatti stand, home decorative items, tiles, panels are developed with hands or dices. We also find the monkeys and cats sculpted under the African and South Indian tribal art category. In the cottage industry fairs in metropolitan cities we often notice use of metal in following the African tribal art. But with an inborn skill the Panchmura potters can apply all these intricacies to the mere earthenware. The styles reflected in the handicrafts made of wood, stone, feather, animal fleece etc., exhibited in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Kanyakumari, Pondicherry, the tribal art gallery of North India and the exhibitions organized by the small scale cottage industries are to be found partly reflected in the terracotta tribal art of Panchmura. Here lies an instance of a terracotta craft influenced by the Keralian art category.

As per the report of the terracotta artist Taraknath Kumbhakar, an effort was taken to modernize terracotta craft by introducing some modifications in style with the help of some trainee artisans from Ahmadabad (Gujarat). The motifs of gamchha (a wiping cloth), curtain, herbs, leaves and creepers were introduced to create a new trend to make the wall panels and frescoes. But this was much laborious and also lacked suitable patrons too. The craft persons hence intensified on creating household items besides working on the themes taken from Ramayana, Mahabharata, other mythological stories, Sri Chaitanya, nature, non Aryan deities with other human and animal figurines.

At first a special slip of bamboo, known as “kabari’ or ‘chiaria’ or ‘uncha’ is used to smooth the surface of raw craft. Mostly this kind of work is done with hands—the dice is less utilized in this matter because dice prevents innovative creativity. A period of minimum 7-10 days is required to dry the objects properly. The Panchmura potters never use any artificial colour. Instead a special coloured soil is used, which is brought from the villages like Jambedia, Natungram and Nakaijuri of Dharai river side. For the high prices of coal dry leaves, sticks, wood are chosen rather to bake these clay crafts. Sometimes the use of kills and metal wires are essential to attribute a firm structure and beauty to the items like ‘Manasachali’, monkey and cat that fall under the tribal art category, Sankirtanya (dancing and singing poses of the Vaishnavs) forms of Sri Chaitanya tradition, idols of women with water pot, earrings and some more articles.


The initiatives taken from Government and other organizations for pottery

The scope of this terracotta art form got a shot when late Sri Rasbihari Kumbhakar got the President’s Award in 1969. As a result of this some initiatives were taken then for the revival of Panchmura crafts:

i.             A training centre was established in 1970/71 by the Central Government of India, which unfortunately continued only for two years. The aim of this project was to encourage the people—not only the potters but the people from other occupations as well. It did not work due to the lack of personal enthusiasm and a crisis of proper remuneration for the trainers.

ii.            The ‘Panchmura Potters’ Society’ was set up in around 2005-2006.  The aim was to properly organize the craft production and providing a suitable marketing opportunity by the Society. The endeavor of the society for purchasing soil is laudable. It charges the same amount if somebody works more. The fund for the Society is inadequate. Naturally the supervision of preservation and marketing of the crafts gets neglected. The society cannot help the marginal craft-persons.  Yet it carries the expenditures regarding the arrangements for transportations of the artisans to Kolkata, Delhi and other areas of the state.


iii.            Kharagpur IIT set up a huge furnace spending an amount of Rs. 1000000. But it still remains unused because traditional fuel consumption costs only Rs. 400 to bake the clay crafts where as the furnace will cost Rs.1000 for the same task. For their inability bear this huge cost the furnace remains abandoned. But everybody, however, received a potter’s wheel from the IIT initiative only for Rs. 400 while the actual price of such wheel is Rs. 2200. This Rs. 400 has been collected by the Society to build a special fund for them.

iv.             KBIC (Khadi rural bank) under certain conditions has lent the willing artisans Rs. 1 lakh each. They have received Rs. 55,000 from that amount Many of them told of the subsidy of Rs. 37000 and the security of Rs. 2000. They have to pay Rs. 1400 as interest per annum. The people with mediocre income can’t even spend whole amount of this money for their craft. They are forced to spend some amount on higher education of their children and other essential activities of the family.

v.            ICCI of Machantala, Bankura branch helped in getting health cards. Everybody got the card, but it was never renewed though everybody spent Rs. 200 for this.

vi.            Many have travelled outside Bengal with an honour of trainer. Baul Das Kumbhakar has visited Nainital, Chhattisgarh; Taraknath Kumbhakar visited Allahabad, Mysore as well. They received good dealings from the Government officers. They even earned Rs. 20000 monthly or a sum of Rs. 400/500 on daily basis. They witnessed a massive enthusiasm among the trainee artisans outside Bengal.

vii.            Many have participated and been awarded in handicraft competitions organized by small scale cottage industries of district, state and central levels. Here follows a list of these artisans.


Age (appro.)

Year of award

Award level

Pashupati Kumbhakar




Dhirendranath Kumbhakar






Jayanti Kumbhakar



District and State

Taraknath Kumbhakar




Buddhadeb Kumbhakar



District and State

Baidyanath Kumbhakar



District and State

Bauldas Kumbhakar


1997-98, 1999-2000

District and State level, Chhattisgarh, Moscow, Honolulu

Biswanath Kumbhakar



District and State

Chandidas Kumbhakar




Narugopal Kumbhakar




Kanchan Kumbhakar


1997-98, 2001-02, 2010-11

District, State, State

Brajanath Kumbhakar




Kartik Kumbhakar




Bhutnath Kumbhakar


2001-02, 2002-03

District, State

viii.            Foreign Tour: Bauldas Kumbhakar was one of those 10 artisans who were sent to Honolulu for a trip of 40 days in October 2004 by Craft Council of West Bengal. He crafted a sculpture for a museum of ‘Academy of Arts’ there. He went to Moscow in 2006 to participate in a trade fair as a representative of an Indian craft artisan. But many of craft-persons don’t get this opportunity, or many, like Taraknath Kumbhakarn can’t go abroad (America) in spite of getting offer.

ix.            Pension: Artisans who are recorded above 60 years in the certificates awarded by the state and central governments, get a cheque of Rs. 1000 monthly. A few people like Jayanti Kumbhakar and Pashupati Kumbhakar can avail of this facility; but according to them, this is a paltry amount in respect of the present market. The people who even don’t get this little amount could not draw any response from the department of small scale cottage industry after repeated appeals and applications.

x.            Marketing: The department of cottage and small scale industry has partly arranged for the marketing process so that artisans can avail of the opportunity of selling their products in districts, subdivisions, metropolitan cities like Kolkata, Delhi etc. But still for them it is inadequate.


In spite of the initiatives mentioned above by the governments and various organizations, problems the artisans are facing are manifold and gradually crippling the art and artisans:

  1. For the entire process of production, from soil collection to final formation, total help from the family members is indispensible. But many of the family members are lacking interest in helping the main artist for their lack of passion for this art. This impels many of the craft artisans to give up their traditional practice of pottery.
  2. The daily income of the poorest craft-persons of the community is around Rs. 80/100 in average and the comparatively wealthier artisans earn Rs. 300/400 daily on average. It is difficult with such a poor income to maintain their life properly and maintain their children’s education. Hence many of them are being compelled to give up this job and take up other occupations for better living. Artisan, Gopal Kumbhakar regrets—“an average income of Rs. 100 daily would have been adequate to remain interested in the craft. But even this is at times irregular.“
  3. They don’t have proper place for maintaining and preserving the craft items from weather. Many of them keep their crafts left out in open verandah of their houses due to the lack of suitable space. Naturally shortage of space is quite responsible for lesser production of this craft. The richer people who have their own houses with adequate space for preservation though are relieved a little bit from these usual hazards. Still they feel uneasy and face dilemma in dealing with outsiders—where to offer them seat and entertain them. It has been mentioned earlier that Panchmura Potters’ Society does not possess any preservation room of their own.
  4. Many of the artisans are not able to buy colored soils as those are not available in Panchmura proper. The Society holds no responsibility on purchasing this soil. There is also emerging a growing crisis of wood, leaves etc. which are generally used as fuel.
  5. Inadequacy of capital and steady indifference of the governments are gradually pushing the poor and marginal artisans to extinction. The demand of the craft as artistic specimens, puja equipments, household items, and ornamenting devices doesn’t last for the entire year. In spite of a greater sale in occasions like Dasahara, Ambubachi, Daak Sangkranti, Makhan Sangkranti, Makar Sangkranti, Charak-Chaitra Sangkranti, lack of selling opportunities in other times leaves frustrated with their profession.
  6. Dearth of proper marketing strategy is evident. Though some of the artists send their crafts to Kolkata-Delhi through their personal endeavor, most of the people only opt for the local markets of Bishnupur, Bankura, Durgapur, Medinipur etc.  Some of the businessmen from Kolkata come with their own interest to buy these crafts. But there is no opportunity of selling from the Society at all. Consequently the crafts men cannot market their products properly and despite the assurance from government no marketing centre has been still set up.
  7. The people who are engaged in their traditional art of craft making are not familiar with the modern forms of terracotta like tiles, panels and frescoes. Naturally they are lagging behind the modern standard and naturally they are being deprived of the financial opportunities. Lack of suitable training and modernization of the art is a great for them.
  8. The West Bengal Government said many a time to develop Panchmura as a local tourist centre. But most unfortunately nothing has been done yet.
  9. Many of the aged artisans like Gopal Kumbhakar rues while working — “working all the time is not enjoyable. It is irritating.” The reason is that with financial problems there are physical problems too. Many of them feel that the portion from the waist to the feet is getting numb. Gradually they fall prey to many diseases and they cannot get proper treatment. This is also engendering the artists and the art.
  10. In the recent globalised market the demand for clay craft has also declined. Many of the artists are using artificial colour to coat the items though no one of them is from Panchmura. They have no formal training for colouring and it is expensive too. Consequently the art is diverting from its origin, which is an alarming sign for the art.
  11. Many of the artisans have been awarded in subdivision, district, state and central levels. But only the people above 60 years get the regular monthly pension of Rs. 1000. But others are still deprived of this honorary remuneration. They lead their life in uncertainty and wait for government or non-Government aids.
  12. Newer generation is losing interest in this laborious craft. Many of them want their children to be educated and seek new profession. Artist Bauldas  Kumbhakar asserts with a sigh, “We don’t want our children to do this job.” Those who are engaged in higher studies or any kind of Govt. service are least interested in this craft.
  13. This craft couldn’t cross the boundary of the potters’ traditional inheritance. The people of other occupations were not at all interested in the training organized in the 70s. A tradition of almost 100 years is shrinking slowly but surely. A less dignity as an artist, inability to adapt new technology and methods to grapple with a soaring competitive market, uncertainty steadily driving the practice towards a total decay.  Many of the people who live below poverty line (line—financial standard set by the central government) have left this craft and opted for low occupations like attending to shops, collecting dry sticks and leaves as fuel and other general works. With the collective effort of the Society this has been prevented though in a little measure.
  14. The people who posses their own farming land, are to some extent self sufficient and have their well constructed houses too. Many of them have participated in several crafts fairs in several parts of India. But they are very few in number. Many of them said that annual tours every year can enrich their power of innovation. But it remains unfulfilled due to the lack of sufficient fund of the Society, dearth of Government aid etc. Many haven’t even crossed Panchmura in their whole lifetime.
  15. Just as many of them have no home for themselves, they don’t get adequate food. Naturally they can’t afford any technological facilities like internet, email etc. except the mobile phone which is even rare to many of them. The lack of facility of using these communicative systems they have remained miles behind modern marketing strategies.
  16. A sunny atmosphere and a moderate temperature are considered to be the best suitable situation for this craft production. The month of ‘Ashwin’ (October-November) is regarded as the most appropriate time for this craft cultivation. Only in the month of ‘Baisakh’ (April-May) the wheel is kept stopped. It is a belief among the local people that lord Shiva appears this time through this wheel. The work commences again paying homage to the local deity on an odd numbered Saturday. Though many put forward a scientific reason that terrible heat, on one hand, can develop crack among the pottery items during this time, on the other hand, the people get easily exhausted struggling with the unbearable heat of this month.
  17. Artisans who have participated in small and cottage industry fairs in several provincial states have witnessed a considerable enthusiasm among the buyers and appreciators. But unwillingly they had to hike the craft prices to cover up the expenses to make up their food, lodging and transportation costs. Here follows a chart that shows differences between the local prices of the crafts and the prices outside Bengal.
Products Local price Other states
Giant horse Rs. 600 a pair Rs. 800—Rs.1000
Manasa Jhar Rs. 500—Rs. 600 Rs. 1000—Rs. 1200
Women’s water pot Rs. 250—Rs. 260 Rs.350—Rs.400
The tribal art monkey, cat Rs. 80—Rs. 100 Rs.150—Rs.200
Small horse, doll,astray,flower vase, agarbatti stand Rs. 2—Rs. 10 Rs. 20—Rs. 30
Board with inlay works Rs. 5000 Rs. 6000—Rs. 7000
Palanquin, house boat, articles for Jhulan festival Rs. 4500-Rs. 5000 Rs. 6000—Rs. 7000


The craftsmen feel helpless in this regard and this discriminate policy creates a great hindrance in generating demand and a proper marketing procedure.



In the persisting crisis, uncertainty, obstacles and lack of enthusiasm I asked them whether the new generation will feel at all interested to continue the tradition or how they will plan to keep this inherited art alive. The aged people replied—“We want our children to work with terracotta”. Sri Gopal Kumbhakar (whose son is an M.A. in history remarks), told me, ‘I’ll continue my job even if my children secure other occupations, for I am an artist and the wheel is my life. Even if I can make only moderate amount out of this craft, I won’t like to give it up totally.”

The artists who are associated with this craft from their very childhood to the very old age are eager to bring their children’s attention to this and keep the huge possibilities of this craft alive. From conversations with people of all categories ranging from men to women of different ages it is clear that:

  1. The village can be regarded as a model village of terracotta art centring round these 60-61 potter families residing in this area.
  2. The Government proposal to turn up the village to a tourist centre is to be accomplished soon. The eagerness of the craft production is proportionately related to the opportunities of craft selling.
  3. The artists inflicted with extreme poverty have to be extensively taken care of. Some steps are to be followed for this are—
  • Providing bank loan facilities in low interest,
  • Health insurance,
  • Creating a suitable atmosphere for their children’s education,
  • Housing plan construction under Indira Housing scheme,
  • Creating suitable craft preservation centre,
  • Guidelines for proper marketing procedures.
  1. To expand the whole feature of this traditional art the artists have to be promoted not only in subdivisions, districts, Kolkata and Delhi, but also sponsored to join the small and cottage industry fairs held in several provinces. They should be encouraged to tie up cultural bond with each other.
  2. A proper training centre is to be set up, where the people of other occupations too will show their interest for this craft cultivation. Extensive workshops should be arranged with these artisans. It is to be taken care that these artists are receiving adequate honour as trainers within and outside this state.
  3. They have to be encouraged to follow the modern arts besides the traditional ones. They have to be trained to create hollow terracotta bricks, make items for interior and exterior decorations so that other avenues may open for them.
  4. Plans and programmes have to be undertaken to make sure that inborn talents of the artisans are protected and promoted. This is not possible just with the help of only Panchmura Mritshilpi Samiti.
  5. They have to be secured financially so that they don’t live with constant crisis anxiety. Many have asserted that a steady income of average Rs. 100 daily can inspire this craft production. So the governments should make sure that this minimum expectation can be covered up. It is to be assured that all the old people from all categories can avail of the facility of the pension scheme.
  6. Terracotta craft is a family production. All members of a family—from a child to an old person, participate in this act.  Naturally with field surveys and collaborative projects from several organizations can protect craft persons from a total indifference and bring prosperity to the overall craft production.
  7. It is also to be ensured that they can sell their products in state and other provincial cottage industry fairs in local prices. With the help of the government the terracotta craft can find a thriving market all over India.
  8. The attempts taken by Kharagpur IIT are worth appreciating. The steps have to be taken to pick it up again in a way so that a vast amount of crafts can be produced spending a lesser amount of fuel at low price.
  9. If terracotta craft practice can be spread as an additional source of an extra income among people of other professions, it will attract the new generations from different communities. Otherwise, a time will come when the old artisans will no longer be there and this rich traditional craft of Panchmura will gradually be extinct just as the highly advanced terracotta temple art.
  10. It is heard that the famous film director Mrinal Sen one did a documentary on the Panchmura artisans in the 80s. But unfortunately the people of Pachmura never had the luck of watching it.  Had there been any conscious attempt at making people of various quarters aware of the problems and prospects of this craft through the film, this craft could have been much benefited.





  • Picture 1: Courtesy and Copyright—Sambit Chatterjee (sambitntour@yahoo.co.in)
  • Pictures 2, 3, 6, 9, 14: Courtesy and Copyright—Partha Pratim Saha
  • Pictures 5,7,15: Courtesy and Copyright—Sarah Kousik
  • Pictures 18: Courtesy and Copyright—Major General H. G. Mukhopadhyay



Dr. Milan Kanti Satpathi is Assistant Professor, Balarampur College, Purulia, West Bengal.

Jamini Roy’s Art: Modernity, Politics and Reception

Debmalya Das

Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India

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 “Although it is with Matisse that his [Jamini Roy’s] nature of art can be compared, from one perspective, the diversified richness of his development finds parallel only in Picasso…”1 (Bishnu Dey)

“Jamini Roy’s neo-folk painting had no valid lore to back itself with, its intentions were apparently confined to aesthetic parallelism. So it never rose to any degree of authenticity; it never had the earthiness and verve (or the sly humour) of its close prototypes, whether those of Kalighat or Puri; its linear and formal conventions—the almond-shaped eyes, the dead pan looks, the phlegmatic lines were terribly formulaistic.”2 (K.G.Subramanyan)                                                                                                            

Jamini Roy’s re-imagination of the folk art, his appropriation of pictorial idioms from other cultures and his “strategic” mode of producing paintings are the issues of seminal importance in the perception of modernity in Indian art. This paper seeks to probe into the diverse responses to the artist, thereby problematizing the notions of modernity, tradition, and the validation of the marginal folk culture in a colonial reality.

The critical reception of Jamini Roy (1887-1972) and his art oscillates between two extreme poles of profound admiration and wholesome disregard, as is apparent from the above quotes. The first group of critics sought to canonize Roy as an artist, who, all through his life, painstakingly tried to define the notion of modernity in the scenario of Indian art from an entirely new dimension, while the later group adhered to their critique of Roy’s formalistic infertility, stressing his insignificance as an Indian artist of the twentieth century.

In one of his essays, Robin Mondal trenchantly disapproves the relevance of Roy. Mondal’s points of attack are threefold. First, Mondal holds that Jamini Roy’s debt to folk art was so direct and unmediated that his uniqueness is put to question. The breach between blind appropriation and insightful assimilation rendered his art “restrictively frigid”.3 Secondly, although Roy’s attainment of unprecedented fame and recognition in his contemporary time is rarely seen, it is this mass admiration and the lure of financial stability, that compelled him to repeat the simplified structural pattern of his works ad nauseam.4 Thirdly, according to Mondal, Jamini Roy’s art was alienated from his contemporary historical reality altogether. Despite being situated in a world of socio-political turbulence, Roy’s “painting reality” never encountered any kind of conflict, which could have directed the artist to explore novel horizons. Rather, Roy’s artistic vision was “deeply immersed in a complacent existence. In this respect of accepting the wavelessness he is very close to the Bengal School.”5

The hyperbolically malign stance of Robin Mondal vis-à-vis Roy elicits some of the seminal issues regarding art, the re-imagination and appropriation of folk art, artistic mode of production and the artist’s social responsibility. What exactly was Roy trying to communicate with his viewers? How could he establish a unique approach to Indian art different altogether from that of the Bengal School and made it popular single handedly? Was his artistic vision a politicized one or whether he conjured up the folk idiom only to dehistoricize it? Interspersed with these questions are the notions of modernity and tradition. By contextualizing Jamini Roy in his contemporary history, this paper tries to probe into such questions by problematizing the varied responses to the painter regarding the question of art and modernity.

It would be useful for us to briefly chalk out the time and the condition of art, in which Jamini Roy worked. Ratnabali Chatterjee views that during this period, the middleclass intelligentsia was oscillating between two extremes: “a colonial hangover and a feeling of nationalism bordering on chauvinism.”6 The works of Roy provided three possible way-outs to this intellectual stasis. The incorporation of folk tradition revived the lost cultural bond, that somehow worked as an antidote to the prevalent colonial hangover. The bold lines of Roy’s paintings were compared with the contemporary European artists like Leger, resulting in the expansion of outlook of Indian art in the realm of the international during the late 1930s. Thirdly, for the young artists Roy’s art offered a “rescue route from the stylistic conventions of the Bengal School, which acted as a constraint on the depiction of contemporary eventsthe war and the famine.” Further, “Jamini Roy offered after a long time a backbone of drawing and an anatomical framework to Indian art.”

Jamini Roy was born and lived for a number of years at Beliatore, a village in the Bankura district, which had a rich tradition of terracotta sculptures and folk art. Bishnu Dey holds that this isolated, idyllic backdrop contributed in Roy’s search of the life in art and the dream of attaining self-completeness in the social life. “This is the memory that did not let him forget the fakely constructed bourgeois space of Calcutta, and its fascination with morbid western naturalism in art, although it reached an indisputable height of success in his hand.”8

As a child Roy’s first encounter with the Santals here left a permanent impression in his art. He received his formal training at the Government Art College in the then Calcutta, where he got rigorous training in the European mode of art. But soon, he became dissatisfied with the limitation of expression that this mode presupposes. His search for alternative artistic forms began. Roy’s reputation as one of the best portrait painters and his brief but fascinating post-impressionist period did not thwart this search. He was called to the school run by the Oriental Society of Art. Here also he was quite discontent:

The reason why I want to discard European painting is not because I wish to be “Swadeshi” or Indian but because even the best European artists including Raphael drew forms like Mary carrying infant Jesus standing among clouds in the sky, but with the use of light and shade made to appear like a full human being  how is this possible?9

The illusion of the European naturalist art tradition was thus thoroughly discarded by Roy. Inspite of his close acquaintance with Abanindranath, he could not but critique the art of the Bengal School. Roy was critical of the soft lines and paleness of this school, which was disseminated as “Indian art” from an essentialist / generalized stance. He found support of his personal views in the paintings of Rabindranath Tagore:

While observing the man painted by Rabindranath, I do not feel that it will droop for a moment, or swing with the wind. I clearly see that the man has weight and a strong backbone. That Rabindranath’s painting is powerful, is because of this power of the bone, and for his ability to create rhythm. I think Rabindranath wants to protest against the lack that had been increasing in the paintings of our country for the past two-hundred years, since the Rajput dynasty to the present…his protest is against everything including the entire tradition of the sophisticated Indian art, and the orientalist art.10

In 1923, while reading Rabindranath’s essay “Tapoban”, that advocated the restitution of India’s rural heritage and critiqued the naive imitation of Western civilization, Roy had a realization: “Today I have read what was there in my mind. Just before eight months I realised this.”11 Thus his personal search of artistic form gets related to the dialogic discourses of colonialism and those that countered it. At this point of time his familiarity with Sunayani Devi’s paintings and with Kalighat pata reshaped his artistic perception. The influence of Kalighat pata was soon to be discarded by him, since he found that the Kalighat artists were alienated from their traditional rural ideal, as they had moved to Calcutta to serve an urban population. Roy turned back to the villages of Bengal in search of the “traditional” pata paintings. The terracotta-reliefs of his native village also introduced in his works the simplified, thick outlines, providing his art with such a verve that was unseen at that time. Roy tried to incorporate the immensely expressive power of the village artisans by emphasizing the “lines at the expense of colours, using black outlines painted with a brush on white paper. He forsook oils for tempera and concentrated on primary colours.”12 This yearning for formalistic simplicity also took him to the wooden puppets of Bankura and later to child-art. He was a collector of paintings made by children and took great interest in them: “not because of my affection for them, but because they are vitally important for me.”13

Roy tried to transcreate the folk idiom to communicate in a symbolic, yet recognizable language that possessed universal validity. The technical virtuosity of his academic training combined with his newly acquired simplistic formalism enhanced the volume, the rhythm, the decorative clarity and monumentality in his work.14 Even his mode of artistic production also transformed significantly. Abandoning the medium of oil, he started to use the seven basic colours made from organic matters such as rock-dust, tamarind seeds, mercury powder, lamp black etc., and painted with them on his canvas of home-made fabric. The enormous unreality of the metropolitan Calcutta, laden with hypocrisy and a non-spiritualistic world-view (finding its apt expression through the Western naturalistic convention of art) could be easily juxtaposed by him against the down-to-earth honesty of the folk artist. This honesty, according to Jamini Roy, was the most essential thing for a painter’s artistic integrity. Partha Mitter holds that Roy’s idea of transforming the homely sphere of North Calcutta into a permanent exhibition was no less than a “political manifesto.”15 The exhibition space was converted into a traditional Bengali environment. Shanta Devi, who saw the exhibition held:

The artist gives evidence of consummate stage management, embellishing three rooms with his paintings emulating village pats…Actual village pats are on display in an adjacent room…Little lamps are lit and incense burnt. Floors are covered in traditional Bengali alpona patterns. In this room decorated in a Bengali style indigenous seats take the place of chairs, which are of European origin.16

In an extreme phase of nationalism in India, that was essentialist by its nature, Roy’s persistent emphasis on the local was, according to Partha Mitter, a well-thought ideological move to counter the onslaught of colonialist capitalism.

Critics like Ratnabali Chatterjee, although deduce some conclusions, that are entirely opposite to what Mitter holds regarding Jamini Roy’s transcreation of folk art. She finds that the dynamism with which Saheb Pata and Santhal Bidroha Pata writes back to the new problem of colonialism, is lacking in Jamini Roy’s “conditioning” of the form. The ironic depiction of contemporary city-life, that we find in Kalighat Pata has also been intentionally erase from Roy’s picture frame.17  Roy creates a series of binaries vis-à-vis the urban and the rural values and morality. As has been discussed earlier, his conservative approach regarding the Kalighat patuas actually delinked him from his own times:

The Patuas who came to Calcutta moved from the ethics of their vocation. They were rural people, their themes were also rural. When they came to the town, they expressed the ideals of urban life and they fell from their vocation (swadharma).18

Unable to grasp the inherent dynamism within tradition, his paintings turned out to be static, where the pattern of narration was broken altogether. There was no referentiality that could be time specific, and the notion of time itself attained a fixation on the frame. The adopted form was diluted into mere decorative mannerism, through which the stereotyping of folk art was achieved. In his attempt of subduing the chaotic with his sense of artistic ordering, was Jamini Roy ultimately catering to the increasing demand of such “popular” stereotypes among his metropolitan admirers? Did the peripheral folk art turn into a culturally conditioned commodity in his canvas, appropriating ultimately the colonial grid against which his village and tribal subjects were made visible and normalized as the authentic members of the pre-modern India? Regarding the popular stereotype of woman in Roy’s paintings Ratnabali Chatterjee holds:

The concept of the unchangeable village society was still popular among both the Marxists and the liberals…The artist and his patrons located it in Beliatore. It reinforced the notion that woman’s place was at home. It denied the torments and insecurities, that resulted from a woman’s total dependence on a male-dominated society. Yet paradoxically this was put forward as the symbol of general security shutting war, famine and death.19      

The importance of the local in Roy’s work, which Mitter observes as posing resistance against the grand discourse of nationalism, is to Chatterjee yet another generalized topos, where truncated stereotypes are created to feed the metropolitan centre. Ashok Mitra, too in this respect holds, “He has no hesitation to regard the life and the Bengal that have permanently disappeared and will never return, as truth.”20   Thus, Roy’s false perception regarding tradition led him to abandon the socio-political basis of modernity.

Interestingly, despite his dehistoricized perception, among Roy’s admirers were some eminent Marxists and intellectuals of Bengal like Bishnu Dey, Sudhindranath Dutta respectively, who were also the leading avant-garde poets writing in Bengali. Roy’s championing of the popular art (which had a social basic, as it was created in a mode of communitarian participation, thereby subverting the capitalist notion of the lone genius), was hailed by this group of intellectuals. A debate was generated by this group regarding the role of folk art and that of the artist in the modern class-society, in which Jamini Roy was posed as a model in the centre. In his essay “Lokashilpa O Babusamaj” Bishnu Dey observes:

We, the unfortunate inheritors of chaos and exploitation of a number of centuries can still save ourselves by participating in the reawakening of our indigenous mass. The folk culture will get a new life in the mass culture.21    

In another essay Dey observes that Jamini Roy has not only emancipated our art, but he also has modified the urban way of seeing by making us perceive through the eyes of the marginal people.22 Discarding the immense subversive potential in the works of the folk artisans, Dey admiringly appropriates the way in which Jamini Roy artistically manoeuvres rural art into the urban middle-class Marxist thought:

He is an extremely capable selector: a conscientious artist. His taste has not for a moment abandoned his brush. On the other hand, the folk artists are craftsmen by habit. Devoid of conscience, it is natural for them not to possess the degree of good taste that Roy has.23

It is important to note that Dey prefers the conditioned form of art, rather than the raw. This disregard for the art of the mass indicates the intellectual elitism, in which the Marxist thinking of this phase of Bengali politics was restricted. Jamini Roy’s art not only provided them with a model to follow, but it also participated tacitly in the politics of “modernization” and “reality” to be expressed in art. The aristocratic / exclusivist bourgeois art that the Marxists perceived as “unreal” was thus substituted by the art of Jamini Roy with all its peripheral associations, yet tampered by a sophisticated artistry. Robin Mondal holds that the support of these intellectuals was influential in giving Roy the acceptability to the wider section of art lovers. Foreigners like John Irwin, Mary Milford, Maie Casey came to visit Roy primarily as the friends of these intellectuals and from the 1940s, Roy’s international reputation began to grow. In 1945, Roy’s first exhibition in the foreign was held at the Arcade Gallery in London, which was inaugurated by the novelist E. M. Forster. An attempt was made by these foreigners to appropriate Jamini Roy’s obsession with pure form into the prevalent discourse of modernism. Mary Milford’s essay “A Modern Primitive” in the influential literary magazine Horizon introduced him to the modernist intellectual milieu in London.

 Interestingly, Partha Mitter finds an indigenized version of the notion of primitivism in Jamini Roy and goes on to perceive a “structural affinity” between Roy and the German expressionists / primitivists like Carl Einstein and Oskar Schlemmer. Moderism is generally perceived as an ahistorical phenomenon. Yet the Western avant-garde has been historically situated with its own set of conventions. Mitter observes that, in contextualizing Roy, to the modernist enterprise we cannot just add him to an existing narrative of modern art forgetting Roy’s regional specificities. He perceives Roy’s contemporary Calcutta as a hybrid metropolis, which as a locus of colonial modernity, experienced a hybrid intellectual encounter “underpinned by a dialogic relation between the colonial language, and the modernized vernacular.”24 The opening up of the window to the West, according to Mitter, was instrumental in giving rise to a globally “imagined community”based on print capitalism. Its membership being anonymous, there was no need for direct communication between one another. But still the members of the community shared a corpus of ideas regarding modernity.

The Bengali intelligentsia admirably demonstrates the negotiation of the wider cosmopolitan modernity through the print medium. To explain this community’s critical engagement with modern thought, I put forward the notion of “virtual cosmopolis” here. This was a hybrid city of imagination, which engendered elective affinities between the elites of the centre and the periphery on the level of intellectual creativity.25

Mitter feels that on an intellectual level virtual cosmopolitanism enables the periphery to contribute to the project of modernity in Jamini Roy’s empowering concept of primitivism. It is in this manner, that the resistance to urban industrial capitalism and the ideology of progress: the two cornerstones of the colonial empire, is articulated through the very ambiguities, instabilities, and fractures within primitivism itself.26 Thus, the notion of ahistoricality that we perceive in Roy’s art appears to Mitter as a counter-modern strategy against the notion of teleological certainty that modernity provides.

His [Roy’s] world-view consisted in restoring through his art the pre-colonial community that had been severed from national life during the Raj, causing the alienation of the urban elite from its cultural roots…His communitarian primitivism…[is] an iteration of “critical modernity.”27

Mitter emphasizes the importance of a coherent mythological tradition revived by Roy through his paintings. It is through the revival of this pre-colonial, sacred world view that Roy could generate a synchronic critique of the nationalist grand narrative. The sacred Byzantine art attracted Roy for this reason. He even tried to adopt the texture of the Byzantine mosaic in the Bengali folk medium, when he painted Christ on a palm-leaf-mat. But his famous series of painting depicting Christian icons was not direct imitation. Rather, he was assimilating the motif of Christ’s Western iconography within his own pictorial idiom by giving Christ the face of a Santhal peasant. In doing so, he was building a bridge between traditions by highlighting the underlying humanity of the motif. Ratnabali Chatterjee, however, views:

In the paintings of Jamini Roy, the myths undergo a change, they become private myths, divorced from the economic order which supported them. The artist however made no conscious efforts to rework the myths, to reflect or sustain the anti-colonial struggle; the major task then confronting the Indian bourgeoisie.28 

The non-naturalist treatment of subject, the importance of symbols and myths to restore the collective urban conscience from crisis, close acquaintance with the communitarian folk cultures and the emphasis on political heterogeneity are, according to Mitter, some areas where the ideology of the German primitivists and that of Jamini Roy converge to create structural affinities in a virtually global community.29 But there are points of difference too.

While Western primitivists aimed at merging art with life in a disavowal of the aesthetics of autonomy, they never ceased to believe in the unique quality of aesthetic experience. Roy sought to erase it, deliberately seeking to subvert the distinction between individual and collaborative contribution in a work of art.30

Mitter holds that in Roy’s artistic perception traditional village art was a collective aesthetic experience, opposed to the individualist aesthetics of urban colonial art. Roy tried to subvert the later by producing paintings, that were done in collaboration with his son. The so called artist’s studio was converted into a workshop, where on the finished paintings Roy used to put his own signature; whether they were primarily done by his son did not ever matter to him and sometimes he even left them unsigned.31 Referring to Walter Benjamin’s notion of the decline of “aura” in the modern milieu Mitter holds:

Roy’s objective of making the signature meaningless was his playful way of subverting what Walter Benjamin calls the aura of a masterpiece. In addition, he turned his studio into a workshop to produce his works cheaply. This was art for the community, cheaply produced and anonymous, inexpensive enough to be afforded by the humblest.32

Thus Roy sought to dismantle the attribute of uniqueness in colonial art by making the signature insignificant and reproducing paintings cheaply in a rapid succession. He was severely criticized for this mode of production, as is explicit from the remark of Venkatachalam:

This I know is very much used against him. He is strongly condemned for this mechanical craftsmanship, for this soulless repetition of an original idea for the sake of money and popularity. Truth to tell, there is something to be said in favour of this criticism.33

Geeta Kapur, however, problematizes Mitter’s perception regarding Roy’s attempt to demystify and subvert the notion of the colonial high art. While Roy tries to make signature meaningless, it is his synthetic signature style that sustains legitimizing a middle-class sensibility.34 The process of canonization, that started during his lifetime was further strengthened within five years after his death. The price of his paintings was doubled.35 Jamini Roy was appropriated as a brand in the market of art, whose paintings, divested of any politicized aesthetics, remained merely as the remnants of a lost cultural ethos, the imprint of which made the paintings “auratic”. The hunt for the “original” Jamini Roy still goes on among the connoisseurs.

Jamini Roy, the person, thus emerges as a site laden with various mystifying anecdotes, that operates as a focal point in which many pertinent voices regarding Indian art is vocalized. “The Jamini Roy phenomenon” thus seeks to problematize the notions of tradition, modernity, indigenous art, artist’s social commitment, and the complex encounter between the centre and the periphery.




1  Bishnu Dey, “Jamini Roy”, in Dhruba Kumar Mukhopadhyay, ed. Bishnu Dey Prabandha   Sangraha, Vol.1 (Kolkata: Dey’s, 1997), p. 117. Translations are mine.

2 K.G.Subramanyan, “The Indian Art Tradition and the Modern Indian Artist”, in Visva-Bharati Fellowship Lecture (Kolkata: Visva-Bharati, 1978), p. 5.

3 Robin Mondal, “Jamini Roy”, in Shilpabhavana (Kolkata: Banishilpa, 2007), pp. 181-182.  Translation is mine.

4 Ibid., p.182.

5 Ibid., p.182. Translations are mine.

6 Ratnabali Chatterjee, “‘The Original Jamini Roy’: A Study in the Consumerism of Art”, in Social Scientist 15.1 (January, 1987), p. 5.

7 Ibid., p. 6.

8  Dey, “Jamini Roy”, p. 117. Translations are mine.

9 As quoted in Chatterjee, p. 7.

10 Dey, “Srijukto Jamini Rayer Rabindrakatha”, in Mukhopadhyay, Vol. 2 (Kolkata: Dey’s, 1998), p. 107. Translations are mine.

11 Dey, “Bideshir Chokhe Jamini Roy O Tar Chhobi”, in Ibid., p. 114. Translations are mine.

12 Partha Mitter, “Jamini Roy and Art for the Community”, in The Triumph of Modernism: India’s Artists and the Avant-Garde, 1922-1947 (London: Reaktion Books, 2007), p. 106.

13 As quoted in Ibid., p. 112.

14 Ibid., p. 113.

15 Ibid., p. 105.

16 Shanta Devi, “Shilpi Srijukta Jamini Ranjan Rayer Pradarshani”, in Prabasi 1 (April, 1932), p. 25. Translations are done by Partha Mitter.

17 Chatterjee, pp. 11-12.

18 As quoted in Chatterjee, p. 11.

19 Ibid., p. 16.

20 Ashok Mitra, Bharater Chitrakala, Vol. 2 (Kolkata: Ananda, 1996), p. 136. Translations are mine.

21 Dey, “Lokashilpa O Babusamaj”, in Mukhopadhyay, Vol. 1, p. 227. Translations are mine.

22 Dey, “Jamini Roy”, p. 122.

23 Ibid., p. 119. Translations are mine.

24 Mitter, “Interventions: Decentering Modernism: Art History and Avant-Garde Art from the Periphery”, in The Art Bulletin 90.4 (December, 2008), p. 541.

25 Ibid., p. 542.

26 Ibid., p. 543.

27 Mitter, “Jamini Roy and Art for the Community”, p. 114.

28 Chatterjee, p. 11.

29 Mitter, “Jamini Roy and Art for the Community”, pp. 117-119.

30 Ibid., p. 119.

31 Ibid., p. 119.

32 Ibid., p. 119.

33 G. Venkatachalam, Contemporary Indian Painters (Bombay: The National books, 1927), p. 91.

34 Geeta Kapur, “Jamini Roy”, In Six Indian Painters, exh. cat. (London: Tate Gattery, 1982), p. 22.

35 Chatterjee, p. 17.


Debmalya Das is a research scholar at the Department of English and OMEL, Visva Bharati, Santiniketan, India. He is also working as a Part-time Lecturer in Suri Vidyasagar College, Suri, Birbhum, (W.B.), India. Email: malya.hat@gmail

Kherwal Tukou: a Confluence of Indigenous Artistic Traditions in Bankura

Subhamay Kisku

Vidyasagar University, Midnapore, West Bengal, India


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In Indian society cultural festivals hold immense importance, they create opportunity for people to exchange their cultural heritage and showcase their talent in front of others. India is a country where multi-ethnic groups are living together possessing diverse cultural traditions for ages. Each state of India in terms of cultural attributes differs greatly from other states. Indian culture is like a mosaic and represents the coexistence of unity in diversity of cultural traditions among the ethnic groups of India. Tribal ethnic groups are the autochthones of this country and have been carrying on their age old cultural legacy even today, in the age of globalization.

The festival of Kherwal Tukou at Siulibona

Bankura of West Bengal, one of the districts of Jangal Mahal, is a cradle of multi-cultural heritage. Tribal cultural heritage has been wielding at the central part of this district. Tribals of this district have been continuing with plural cultural traditions through their day-to-day ritualistic cultural activities. In the era of globalization this indigenous cultural tradition is no more limited within the ritual performances of the tribals only. Siulibona village of Bankura is one such example of a global village where tribal cultural tradition is thriving under the sponsorship of Geetha Ashram1, a Hindu religious organization. This organization has been playing a nodal role in terms of organizing a tribal cultural festival at Siulibona village under the name of Kherwal Tukou. This uncommon name of the festival was derived from the Santali language, which means the ‘nest of Kherwal ethnic group’. For the last twenty years on 1st January this tribal cultural festival has been organizing by the Geetha Ashram authority in this village. Gradually the festival has increased its size and glory. Now the festival has reached the stature of national festival where various traditional folk cultural dances of India are performed including Bankura’s own cultural arts. Many spectators and performers have been coming from all over India and even sometimes outside the India. On the occasion of that day many eminent guests like district administrative officers and reputed folk poets are invited to chair the opening ceremony of the festival. Therefore, the Siulibona village gets the prime importance to perform their traditional cultural performances in front of the spectators of diverse origin. Thus, the villagers get enthusiasm for flourishing their cultural beauty. Moreover, they get invitations for performing their cultural dances from many eminent guests at their own place. Thus a process of cultural exchange has been spontaneously exercising at the Siulibona village through the festival of Kherwal Tukou.

The village Siulibona

The geographical location of the Siulibona village is 23°24’224” North in latitudes and 86°59’826” East in longitudes. The Siulibona village is inhabited by Santals (a Scheduled Tribe of India) comprising 374 individuals living in 67 households. It comes under the Susunia Gram Panchayat and Block Chhatna of the Bankura district of West Bengal. The Siulibona village is very close to Susunia hill, a well known tourist spot in Bankura district for rock climbers in winter season. The Siulibona village is accessible from the district town Bankura (the administrative Headquarters of the district) through two different routes. The most hectic but economic route is to board on a  Bankura-Durgapur  bus from Gobindanagar bus stand and getting down at Hapania bus stop and then walking down to about one and half kilometer of rural, non-metal, serpentine, dusty road across the undulating agricultural land. It took us about one and half hours of journey.  The other less hectic and expensive route is to make a train journey from Bankura railway station on the Howrah-Adra South Eastern Railway track to Chhatna railway station and then one has to hire a private car from Masjidgarha bus stop to reach Siulibona village by covering about fourteen kilometers which takes only forty-five minutes.

The making of Kherwal Tukou: a brief history

If we look back at the history of this village, it will be convenient to understand the background story behind the initiation of the Kherwal Tukou festival. The Siulibona village is located almost on the bank of Gandheswari river. According to the local villagers, the village was established by felling the forest on the slope of Susunia hill. The villagers narrated that about hundred years ago, two Santal brothers Ram and Raghu came to this place as land grantees of the Raja of Kashipur of the adjoining Purulia district. The descendants of Ram and Raghu are regarded as the founder of the village. The founders of the village are called ‘Ram Haram’ and ‘Raghu Haram’. In Santali language, the word ‘Haram’ is used as a suffix to show reverence to a particular person. Subsequently, the heirs of Ram Haram and Raghu Haram have been using their surname as ‘Hembram’. During the time of one Kamal Kanta Hembram, a direct descendant of Ram Haram at Siulibona, the community had come in touch with a Hindu religious organization, named Geetha Ashram about 20 years ago. The founder of the aforesaid religious organization named Prabhuji (a devotee of Lord Shiva) was a resident of Bankura district who established a charitable homeopathy clinic in a village named Rajamela about five kilometers from Siulibona. The villagers of Siulibona used to visit the free clinic for the treatment of their ailments. Gradually, a cordial and friendly relation developed between the voluntary workers and the villagers and the former used to visit Siulibona to render medical services to the villagers. At a later stage, the health workers of Geetha Ashram built up a health and social service centre at Siulibona village and a free health clinic began to function in the village primary school. A few years after this event, Prabhuji came to Siulibona on 1st January, 1995 and organized a communal feast with the villagers. Though he has been coming in this festival for six consecutive times since 1995, thereafter the festival has been organizing in absence of the Prabhuji by the Geetha Ashram activists and the Siulibona youth association named Atwadeep Foundation. A day-long programme took place in which the villagers performed tribal dances and songs. Since then the feast and the tribal cultural performance are being observed every year on the same day and the participation of the villagers of the region as well as the variety of cultural performances have been expanding every year.

The festival has now become a great cultural event for the villagers, particularly, the Santals, and they call it Kherwal Tukou. More interestingly, Prabhuji, the spiritual guru of Geetha Ashram is being called by the Santals of Siulibona as Dharti Baba (Father of earth) and the name has become very popular among the inhabitants of the region. About ten years ago, Kamal Kanta Hembram donated about 1.5 acres of agricultural land for holding the aforesaid communal feast and festival organized by Geetha Ashram. The organization has built up a permanent building on 0.5 acres and the rest area is being used for holding the communal feast and festival in January.  The Geetha Ashram has developed its own infrastructure on this land, which is named as Milan Mela. In a more recent period, the Geetha Ashram expanded its activities in various developmental works of the village in collaboration with the governmental bodies, like statutory panchayat. Geetha Ashram has been providing various other developmental inputs for the Siulibona villagers in different sectors like development of infrastructure, agriculture, human resource, income generation, women empowerment, entrepreneurship and so on. At present, the opening ceremony of this festival is inaugurated by Rshiriddha Anahata Maa, the spiritual mother of Shamayita Math, on behalf of Prabhuji. Shamayita Math is a women’s spiritual and religious centre of Geetha Ashram.

A brief description of the Festival

Every year on 1st January this festival has been taking place at Siulibona village although; the preparation for the festival starts prior to 1st January. Because events like tribal sports, for example tribal indigenous archery competition, shot put, sprinter, stick fighting is held earlier. On the eve of 1st January all the tribal dancing competitions are completed.  On the festive day, name of the winners of different competitions are announced and rewarded with trophy. The following description is based on my personal observation made on 1st January, 2009 and interviews of the organizers and the performers of the festival.

For the purpose of this festival a welcome gate was prepared on the village entry road with the material of bamboo slice and paddy straw like a Hindu temple gate. The gate was  decorated with thermocol inscribed with the Santali words Jahar Dharti Baba (meaning in Santali ‘respect to Dharti Baba’) in Bengali script and the gate is festooned with the welcome address in Bengali, i.e. Swagatam. The main stage of the festival was structured on an arable land given by Kamal Kanta Hembram. The main stage was also prepared with bamboo slices and paddy straws making a marvelous structure of Hindu temple with Shikhara (the rising crown roof) and both sides of the main stage were prepared for the spectators. Another temporary shrine structure in the boundary of the Milan Mela was made just like a rural hut with the same materials used for making the temple structure and a Trishul (a traditional trident weapon used by the Hindu Lord Shiva) shape, made up of the same raw material, embedded on the roof of the hut. This hut structure is exclusively kept for the spiritual guru Prabhuji.

Village procession

The festival started with the village procession which is known as Gram Pradhakhin by the villagers and the Geetha ashram activists. In the procession they carried a garlanded standing portrait of the Prabhuji on their shoulders, which symbolizes the presence of the Prabhuji. The procession was guarded by the village youths wearing their traditional attire and holding ancestral swords, spears and fire torch. They were followed by the village girls and women wearing red bordered white Sharee. After them rest of the other devotees of neighbouring villages joined them. At the time of procession women chanted a devotional song in the name of the Prabhuji which is generally chanted at the time of morning and evening worship of the Prabhuji at the Geetha ashram. The entire event was quite symbolic in nature which repeatedly tries to establish the fact that in spite the absence of the Prabhuji, he was all the time from beginning to the end of the festival present there with them. After the completion of the village procession the portrait of the Prabhuji was taken to shrine hut and enshrined on an altar. Then everybody who present there bowed one by one in front of the hurt by bending their head, some of them lay with the face and body downwards. This gesture is known in Bengali Astanga Pranam. Then a big cake was cut by Rshiriddha Anahata Maa on behalf of the Prabhuji at the central part of the Milan Mela by surrounding all the devotees. During then exultation was expressed by the participants chanting the name of the Prabhuji. Then the cake was distributed among all as a grace of the Prabhuji. The whole event was depicted in such a way that an impression is created among the villagers about the Prabhuji as incarnated living God.

Opening ceremony

Thereafter the auspicious festival was inaugurated by Rshiriddha Anahata Maa igniting a lamp surrounded by tribal girls in front of the main stage. The inaugural song was sung by Amarnath Murmu, a Santal resident of the Siulibona village. After that the inaugural speech was presented by Rshiriddha Anahata Maa appealing in front of the epicurean sensual society to stand beside the tribal community to restore and preserve the tribal cultural heritage. The inaugural song was followed by the performance of the Siulibona dancers. They performed a traditional Santali dance known as Dansai2. When performers performed their performances one by one a section of festival volunteers, mainly the Siulibona villagers, headed by the Geetha Ashram activists were engaged in reception of the guest like administrative officers and spectators who came from others part of Bankura and Kolkata. Among the distinct eminent guests like the Zilla Parishad Sabhadhipati, the Additional District Magistrate and the Sub-division Officer of Bankura are presented their speeches on the rich traditional tribal cultural heritages and they emphasized upon the necessity of festivals like the Kherwal Tukou so that these ancient Indian cultural heritages can be preserved.

Tribal performances

The Santal traditional dance like Dansai was not only performed by the local Santal communities but also by the Santal performers who had come from distant places like Dumka of Jharkhand district. A clear difference in the way of presentation of Dansai was seen between two groups of Santal dancers mainly because of their discrete geographical differences. This highly rich variety of dance performances increased the opportunity to the interior villagers like Siulibona villagers to share their own cultural nuances through their first hand contact. Apart from Santal traditional dance like Dansai many other Santal traditional dances (which are generally performed in diverse occasions of the Santal cultural rituals) were performed one by one. Santal dances like Baha3, Saharai4, Langre5, Natua6, Karam7, Dang8, Rinza9 etc were presented by the Bankura and Dumaka performers in the festival. The presentation of these different Santal dance forms on a single platform not only makes the spectators from non-tribal community to get the idea about tribal culture but also makes the opportunity to extract the charms of the highly energetic group dances. The performances were not only limited to the experienced mature performers, a group of Santal school children aged within ten years from Marang Buru Chanch Marshal Ashram performed  traditional Santal dances with Santali songs. This kind of traditional performances from the younger performers encourages the younger generation of their own community to carry out their cultural bequest.

Non-tribal performances

Apart from traditional Santal dances some local traditional indigenous dance forms and songs were presented by a group of artists. They came from Purulia district and performed Ranpa10 dance, Chhou11 dance and Jumur12 songs. All these dances and songs are the identity of Purulia district for their unique art forms and styles.

Folk performances from out-side West Bengal

The festival not only creates chances to the spectators of Bankura to be familiar with their own indigenous cultural heritage but also creates opportunity to be acquainted with classical and traditional dance forms of others states of India. Performers from Assam and Orissa performed Bihu13 and Gutipoa14 dances respectively. These two dance forms are quite popular art forms of both the states of India. The Bihu dancers of Assam performed in a group in which girls were dressed with their traditional red Sharee and propped with caps and bronze plates. They were accompanied by the boys dressed with Dhoti, Kurta and scurf and equipped with drum, flute and cymbals. On the other hand girl dancers from Orissa performed the act Dasavatar. The girls were dressed with yellow Sharee in a unique way and hair-plaited with white flowers. They were accompanied by a group of male singers and musicians, who explained the act of Dasavatar through singing in Oriya and playing percussion instruments.

Blessed meal

The festival organizers made an arrangement of providing a lunch meal for all the devotee-cum-spectators as a grace of Prabhuji. In that meal they provided Khichuri (a popular Indian vegetarian cuisine prepared with rice and cereal) and a mixed curry. Peoples sat on the post-harvested agricultural land and they were served Khichuri by the festival volunteers on leaf plates. While taking their meals with cheer the devotees chanted the name of Prabhuji with respect as ‘Dharti Baba ki, jai’.

Stalls at the festive ground

On the occasion of the festival many local artisans set up stalls for exhibition and sale. These artisans brought different interior decorative items like flowers, basket, mat prepared from natural ingredients like palm leaves, and also statues prepared with baked pottery. Many itinerant traders came to sell their items. Apart from these, many food stalls were also there. Therefore, the festival not only had the cultural values but economic values as well. Peoples purchase their necessary items besides having the entertaining flavour of the festival.

Stage performances

At the end of the day after sunset two stage performances were organized. The first performance was a social awareness drama in Santali by the Siulibona villagers. The drama was titled Aven Sankoa (the literal meaning of the words is ‘conches of prosperity’), in which an endeavour was made to revamp the tribal cultural heritage by means of not blindly following the non-tribal cultural traits, which will ultimately supersede the tribal cultural richness and put them into oblivion. The Santali drama was followed by another stage performance which was a puppetry to spread a message of social harmony. The puppetry was presented by the puppetry artists of Bankura who are internationally famous for their art. They scripted the act where the performance was being acted by the puppetry of wild animals to extend the message that if wild animals can show the way of harmony then why can’t the human walk on the way of communal harmony.

Closing ceremony

The festival ended with the display of fireworks through the hand of local manufacturers and presenters of those fireworks crackers. Different forms of fireworks illuminated the darkness of the night sky. Some of those were sound makers and some of them were light makers. This entire fireworks presentation was transformed into happiness in the mind of the tribal villagers, because few of them probably were watched this kind of fireworks for the first time in their life. At the end of the fireworks the heart of the villagers were brewed up with grief and with the expectation of another Kherwal Tukou in the next year.


            Depending upon the religious and spiritual consciousness cultural rituals and practices have evolved in our society. Folk dances and arts are the part of such cultural rituals and practices as an expression of ecstasy, melancholy and so on. Cultural festivals have emerged and developed as a platform of cultural milieu of various cultural practices. Here is the necessity of folk festivals in the rural villages of India as a platform of folk arts to thrive in the era of globalization. This is a single shed under which vibrant pluralistic indigenous cultural talents can be demonstrated and shared with rest of the outer world. The indigenous culture of Bankura is the amalgamation of folk art since the period of ancient India. In Bankura the heritages of such indigenous folk culture are being cultured during diverse occasion. The Kherwal Tukou is one such occasion when the effervescent indigenous culture is exhibited. The Kherwal Tukou has been advancing with the endeavour of preservation and prosperity of indigenous culture of India. Though, this endeavour may have religious flavour which in turn has been influencing material and religious life of indigenous tribal culture. However, in spite of that the importance of indigenous festivals like Kherwal Tukou is inevitable. Therefore, more and more initiatives should be taken from either side of state and civil society to encourage those folk people to engage themselves actively in the preservation and perpetuation of the heritage of folk culture with urban way of behaviour simultaneously.




1 Geetha Ashram is being operated from Ranbahal of Bankura District, headed and founded by Prabhuji for the downtrodden poor people, for more than 20 years in Bankura and many other districts of West Bengal. This non-governmental organization is especially working among the tribals for the betterment of their society, economic empowerment, educational and infrastructural development. The Geetha ashram has its other sub-branches in the form of devoted temples at Howrah and Burdwan districts. In Jhargram, Paschim Medinipur, the organization has a publication centre which distributes mainly the devotional books. Geetha Ashram has one branch, in the name of the Shamayita Math for women only. The Geetha Ashram provides vocational training for agriculture and helps the farmers by providing the service of soil test, good high yielding seeds and sapling of different fruit trees. It has its own infrastructure for the accommodation and canteen for the daily visitors and devotees of Prabhuji in lieu of a nominal charge. Geetha Ashram has also established a convent school for girl children from nursery to higher secondary standards by keeping them in a hostel at Ranbahal, the Headquarter of the organization. Recently, it has taken an upcoming project for the schooling of physically challenged children.

2 Dansai is a kind of Santal dance form in which only male dancers perform in the disguise of women during the month of Aswin (September-October) in the Bengali calendar. It is known among the Santal society that Santals were the descendants of Rav ana (non-Ariya leader), who was attacked by Rama (Ariya leader). So, Dansai is a symbolic hide and seek dance of the descendants of Ravana to escape from Rama.

3 Baha is a traditional religious festival of Santal community. It is held during the month of Falgun (February-March) in the Bengali calendar. It is performed both by the male and female dancers. The purpose of this festival is to offer the newly grown flowers, leaves and trees in front of the God Marang Buru. Santals never use any newly grown natural products without offering them to the God Marang Buru through Baha.

4 Saharai is a big traditional Santal festival held during the month of Kartik (October-November) in the Bengali calendar. In few places it is held during the month of Poush (December-January). This festival is celebrated during the post-harvesting period with hope of better agricultural prosperity for the coming season.

5 Langre is a popular dance form among the Santal community performs any time of a year for the celebration of merrymaking at the Majhi Than (a place of Santal traditional village council meeting). Generally women dance in a group forming a row by interlocking their hands and male counterparts accompany them with traditional musical instruments.      

6 Natua is also a popular Santal dance form performed as a symbolic representation of warfare during the period of traditional Santal marriage. It is believed in the Santal society that at the time of Santal marriage when groom’s party reaches at the door of the bride’s home they confront each other through this dance form to obtain the bride. This dance is performed only by the male dancers with swords and shields.

7 Karam is a traditional Santal festival celebrated on the eighth day of the month of Aswin (September-October) in the Bengali calendar. The purpose of this festival is to pray for ameliorating the future life of the community. During the Karam festival Karam tree (Nauclea parvifolia) is worshiped and the Karam guru chants for the whole night about the origin of earth as per the Santal mythology with traditional Karam songs. At that time Karam dance is also performed

8 Dang is a kind of Santal dance form which is performs during traditional marriage ceremony both by the men and women.  

9 Rinza is also a kind of Santali dance form performed during the Karam festival.

10 Ranpa is a kind of exhaustive dance form performed by the rural people in which performers ride on two bamboo poles and dance with the rhythm of drums, flutes, cymbals. It is known that previously it was an art of dacoits of Bengal to run quickly. Now it has become a folk dance observed in the districts like Purulia of West Bengal.

11 Chhou is another dance form popular in Eastern part of India. In this dance form performers take indigenous mask of many Hindu God, Goddesses and animals to act on mythological tales. Chhou performers dance with the rhythm of indigenous musical instruments like dhamsa, madal, sanai, kansi etc. This dance is performed mainly by the members of Kurmi and Mahato communities. The Purulia district of West Bengal is characterized by the popularity of this dance form.   

12 Jhumur is also a dance form of rural folk of eastern India. This dance is performed by young girls and accompanied by their male counterparts. In Jhumur dance girls dance in a group by holding their own hands and waist. Whereas male dancers play musical instruments like drum, flute, etc. During this dance performance duet Jhumur songs are sung.

13 Bihu is a grand festival of Assam. The festival is performed to offer their first yielded crops in the name of their God Brai Shibrai or Father Shibrai for the prosperity and peace. During this festival both young male and female perform Bihu dance. This dance is characterized by typical dance movement of waist and hands rapidly.

14 Gutipoa is a traditional dance form of Orissa in which adolescent boy dancers, dressed like girls, perform critical acrobatic steps on Hindu mythological themes. Here in the Kherwal Tukou festival this dance was performed by adolescent girls.



I am grateful to my teacher and Ph.D. supervisor Dr Abhijit Guha, for inspiring me to write this paper in its present form. I am also thankful to maternal brother Mr. Swarupananda Hansda for his expertise in taking the snaps.  Last but not the least, I express my heartiest gratitude to the Geetha ashram members and the Siulibona villagers for providing me immense help and cooperation to conduct my fieldwork.  


Subhamay Kisku is Research Scholar, Department of Anthropology, Vidyasagar University, Paschim Medinipur, West Bengal, India. E-mail ID: uksikyamahbus@gmail.com


Gomira Dance Mask

Tulip Sinha

 Founder, FolkUs Design Interventions, Bangalore

The craft of Gomira dance masks is practiced in a specific area in North Dinajpur district of West Bengal, in and around the village of Mahisbathan (Khunia Danga) located approximately 50km south-east of Raiganj, the district headquarter. North Dinajpur district lies in the Gangetic plain.

Origin and Tradition

The word Gomira is a colloquial form of the root word Gram-Chandi, a female deity. The Gomira masks are inexorably linked to the Gomira mask dance prevalent in this area. The exact origins of this craft and the dance are not exactly traceable and lie somewhere in the hoary past. One of the craftsmen claims it is at least as old as the beginning of Kaliyug, which does seem unlikely.

Gomira Dance

The Gomira dances are organized to propitiate the deity to usher in the ‘good forces’ and drive out the ‘evil forces’. It is usually organized within the months of Baisakh-Jyestha-Asarh, corresponding to mid-April to mid-July. There are no fixed dates for organizing these dances, but each village organizes at least one Gomira dance during this period according to their convenience, at a central location.

Another occasion for arranging Gomira dance is during the puja of Amat Kali, which coincides with the harvesting of mangoes, usually in the month of Jyestha. Such dances are also organized during puja of Smasan Kali, which does not have a fixed time.

Amat Kali and Smasan Kali are local deities, closely related to and derived from the Goddess Kali, basically a form of Shakti. The traditions are an amalgam of animist traditions, which have been absorbed in the Shakti cult, with its predominant female deity. The Shakti cult is deeply entrenched and every village has its own small temple devoted to Shakti, in her many forms, as the guardian deity of that village.

Every village of reasonable size, say a thousand inhabitants, has its own Gomira dance troupe. The dancers usually perform dances during the ‘season’, to supplement their income, but have other vocations relating to agriculture and business or crafts such as smithy, carpentry. The dancers are all male, without exception, and portray one or may characters, male, female or animal.

The Gomira dances have two distinct forms. One is the Gomira format, which has characters with strong links to the animist tradition. The characters are Buro-Buri (Old man-Old woman), Smasan Kali, Masan Kali, Dakini Bishwal, Signi Bishwal, Bagh (Tiger), Nar-Rakhas and Narsingha Avatar. The other format is the Ram-Vanwas, which derives its characters from Ramayana, with special reference to the Van-Kand. The characters are Ram, Sita, Lakshman, King Dasarath, Kaushalya, Kaikeyi, Sumitra, Angad, Jatayu, Hanuman, Sugriv, Jambavan, Surya-Bhanu (Sun) and Ravana. Some animist characters have also crept in to this format – Yamdoot and Kaaldoot! Interestingly, the Ram-Vanwas dance is not linked to any season and is actually organized year-round, but is more popular during October- November, closely matching the times for Durga Puja and Kali Puja.

Traditionally, the Gomira dance starts with the entry of two characters Buro-Buri, who are actually the human forms of Shiva and Parvati.

According to the Gomira tradition, these gods took human shape and descended on earth so that they may bless the humans and help them to fight the forces of evil and establish a righteous way of life. They appear in the dreams of people and remind them to worship Gomira and lead a righteous life. In the dance proper, they dance to the accompaniment of Dhak (percussion drum ethnic to rural Bengal) and Kansar (bell-metal disk used as cymbal). After the initial round of dancing, characters are called on to the arena or stage. The last and perhaps the most powerful character is Narsingha-Avatar, symbolically showing the ultimate triumph of good over evil.

The interesting aspect is that the total absence of any vocal or oral part in the dance. There are no songs or chants. The dancers choose their own movements, which include gyrations and hops. An interesting feature of these dance performances are the trances, probably due to autosuggestion. Some particular members of the troupe are entrusted with the job of restraining the member in the frenzy and breaking the trance by sprinkling water consecrated with tulsi leaves and white togore flowers.

Gomira Masks

Villagers pledge a certain type and number of masks to their favoured deity when they put forward a wish to be fulfilled. Thus the craft of Gomira mask-making, in its pristine form, catered to the needs of the dancers and any villager wishing to give a mask as an offering to the village deity. A villager makes a ‘promise’- called ‘manat’, to offer a mask to a deity if his or her wish is fulfilled.

The wood crafted Gomira masks represent the characters of the two distinct forms of dance – the Gomira and the Ram-Vanwas. Most Gomira face masks have subsidiary characters crafted along the periphery of the main character. So, the mask is a composite of a principal character, surrounded by the subsidiary characters, both of which always have a mythical link between them. For example, the character of Dasarath always accompanies the mask of Jatayu. This can be seen in the fourth photograph; on the left Jatayu carries a middle-aged Dasrath on his head while on the right a young Dasarath. The friendship of Jatayu with King Dasarath is well documented in Ramayana.

Masks from Ram-Vanwas pantheon are not given to deities as offering.


Photograph 1 above depicts Jambuban (L) and Hanuman (R). The vivid colours are due to the use of modern enamel paints.

Photograph 2 has two characters, Hanuman (L), with the subsidiary character, seated his head, which is Adyashakti (Tilottama). The mask on the right is that of Naro-rakhsha with two incarnations of Kali- Smasan Kali and Masan Kali on his earlobes.

Photograph 3 shows three unpainted masks,from the left, Bishal, Hanuman and Signi Bishal. In this mask of Hanuman, the subsidiary character Bhanu can be seen placed on the head of Hanuman.

The interesting point to note is the portrayal of the same mythical character of Hanuman in so many ways with such radically different features.

The Gomira craftsmen do not belong to any particular caste, although they might be followers of either the Vaishnav cult or the Shakti cult. Their tribal or original family surnames have been lost and most of them use Sarkar as their family name. The women folk have never been a part of mask-making, but they do practice natural fibre-weaving on simple home-made looms and these naturally dyed mats, called ‘dhokra’ are sold in the local ‘haats’.

The portrayal of characters through the mask depends upon the craftsman and the tradition he has inherited. The Gomira masks are crafted from wood, but any villager who cannot afford a wooden mask, usually offers a mask made from shola pith, which is a cheaper alternative.


The contrast between the traditional style and the current, evolved style is evident in the picture below, one from a Kolkata-based artist and connosiuer and the other a  ‘Modern Mask: Mahishbathan’. Both the masks portray the character Bishal. The finesse of the facial features and the vivid palette, seen in the modern mask is entirely missing in the traditional mask, even though they both portray the same mythical character.

The craft itself is evolving. The exposure to the outside world influences the craftsman and is later reflected in his work. Their visits to trade-fairs and handicraft-fairs bring them in contact with other art forms and artists of other traditions and regions.


Materials & Process

Historically the masks were made from ‘pure woods’ such as neem, as per Hindu mythology. Later locally available and cheaper wood such as mango, pakur, kadam, gamhar and teak came to be used. The craftsmen choose the appropriate wood depending upon the ability of the customer to afford them.

The wood is usually purchased from a nearby sawmill or sometimes cut from a tree by the craftsman himself. The village craftsmen are very conscious of the environment and always plant one tree for trees cut down, usually of the same species.

Originally the Gomira masks were painted with natural dyes. Red dye was made from segun, green from seem (a form of bean), violet from jamun, and black from jia tree.

However, these dyes were not permanent and tended to fade with time and were very time consuming. The craftsman had to gather the material, grind it, and mix with water and strain through cloth before use. Slowly the use of chemical dyes and even enamel paints have gained acceptance mainly because of ready availability and permanence, which is not very appealing to traditionalists.

The other important raw material is varnish. Many customers want the pristine shape with only varnish. The performers however use coloured masks. The mask making begins with cutting the log of wood, given the sizes of masks, the initial piece of wood is about 18? to 24? long. This is then immersed in water for seasoning, which renders the wood soft and thus, subsequent cutting and crafting becomes easier. The basic form emerges first with the use of the adze, followed by emphasis on facial features. Once the basic shape has emerged, they use the broad chisel and heaviest hammer to bring out the final shape. As the work progresses, the narrower chisels and lighter hammers are used. Once the front of the mask is complete except for finer finishing, the reverse side of the mask, where the face of the wearer is expected to fit, is scooped out very carefully. The router chisels are used to gouge out cavities such as the opening of the mouth and eyes. If the mask is to be used for the purpose of dancing, only then the eyes, mouth etc are hollowed out.

The final procedure involves fine chiseling of the entire mask. This whole process takes about 4-5 days, or more depending upon the complexity of the mask. Once the mask is complete, then comes finishing; the first step to which is smoothening of the mask, which is done by using sand papers of various grades. Next, the mask gets a coat or two of varnish, which provides smoothness to the mask and ensures durability. Many a times the masks are sold in this condition itself. In case the masks are to be sold to the Gomira dance performers, they need to be hand-painted, in colours particular to the characters to be portrayed. For example, the character of Jambuban is always painted in deep violet.

Current Practice

The craft was studied at the Mahisbathan Gramin Hasta Shilpa Samabay Samiti Limited. This center operates as a cooperative of craftsmen and artisans who live in the nearby villages and are devoted to this craft of Gomira mask making. The center is trying to resurrect this art, which is on the verge of extinction, by giving the craftsmen a place to work, ensuring payments for work done and promoting the sale of masks and other artifacts. The masks are made at the center from wood and material purchased centrally. The center pays the member-artisans based on the quality and quantity of masks produced and mutually decided rates. For most of the artisans, mask making is a supplementary source of income, since they share their time with other vocations such as agriculture, animal husbandry or running of small shops in their villages.

A notable exception is the master craftsman, Mr. Shankar Sarkar who has devoted his life to the craft of making Gomira masks and this is the only source of income for him. Individual craftsmen are able to produce about 6 to 7 masks per month and are paid according to the size, complexity and time taken. On an average, the Samiti is able to deliver 90 to 100 masks per month, where the selling price varies from Rs. 700/- all the way upto Rs. 3000/-, depending on the complexity.

In recent times however, to augment their product range, newer products have been adopted from the adivasi culture, which include the bas relief decorative panels or chodol and the ektaras. Chodols are fabricated palanquins, an art which strangely, the adivasis have themselves forgotten and buy them from the Samiti or such craftsmen instead, for their marriages and ceremonies. With the increasing efforts from some artists and connoiseurs, this craft has found meaning with some discerning buyers. Hope these endeavours pave a judicious way forward for this rich performing art !!


[Documented in the year 2004 with the support of Mahisbathan Gramin Hasta Shilpa Samabay Samiti Limited and Mr. Abhijit Gupta.]


Tulip Sinha, Founder, FolkUs Design Interventions, Bangalore.  Email:  tulip.del@gmail.com