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A Lesser Known Terracotta Motif Depicted in the Shyama-Raya and Madana-Mohana Temples of Bishnupur: Some Preliminary Observations

Ardhendu Ray, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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 Introduction

This essay discusses the cultural significance of a lesser known terracotta motif Navanarigunjara in the temples of Bishnupur and relates it to various types of representation of the same motif found in Pata paintings. Moreover, it looks into its origin and evolution and its position in temples.

Terracotta Temples of Bishnupur: Transformation through Time and Technology

Priyanka Mangaonkar


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Introduction

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:

From DOMESTIC USE to INDUSTRIAL USE,

Form NON-STANDARDIZED to STANDARDIZED,

From COMPOSITION to SPECIFICATION,

From NON-STRUCTURAL to STRUCTURAL,

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

 

Interviews

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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Introduction

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.

 

Process

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.

 

Drying

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.

 

Colouring

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.

 

Firing

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.

 

Testing/Sorting

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.

PACKAGING & TRANSPORTATION

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.

DISPLAY AT LOCAL MARKET

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.

 

Involvement

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.

 

Problems

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.

 

 Acknowledgment

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

Lost Game: Dashabatar Taas of Bishnupur

Tarun Tapas Mukherjee

Assistant Professor, Bhatter College, West Bengal, India


 

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The Dynasty and the Game

Bishnupur witnessed the rise of a glorious tradition of art, craft and culture since the 700 AD under the patronage of the Malla kings of Bankura. The tradition reached its zenith during the reign (1565—1620 A.D) of Malla king Veer Hambir, the 49th ascender to the throne.  His long and stable reign can be called the golden era of arts and culture—classical in taste and nature. The tradition was carried forward by his successors King Raghunath Singha and his son Veer Singha. Art, literature and music reached the heights through research, experimentation, training and application. After his conversion to Vaishnavism, according to some authors, under the influence of Vaishnav guru Srinivas Acharya  Veer Hambir was inspired to create a distinct style of art and to nurture a different type of cultural atmosphere in Bishnupur.[i]  The establishment of Vaishanavism might have had something to do with enjoying pastime in a different and non-violent way and this might have given birth to the game of ‘Dashabatar taas’. Vaishanavism also hints that the game might have been imported from somewhere else, for Dashabatar Taas of Bishnupur was none other form than Dasavtara Ganjifa which used to be played during the time in parts of India like Rajasthan, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and the contemporary Bengal. But Dashabatar Taas of Bankura developed its own distinct form and rules for playing.

Origin

The Ganjifa playing practices in India were introduced and popularized by the Mughal emperors in the 16th century A.D. Though the origin of the word Ganjifa is obscure, following the conclusion of Rudolf  Von Heyden “Ganjifa” is supposed to have travelled from Persia to India with the Persian etymology ‘ganj’ that denotes treasure, treasury or minted money.[ii] As Kishor Gordhandas has noted, “There is always one “Money Suit” named after a coin of local currency. In our Moghul Ganjifa, the two Suits called SAFED and SURKH are said to have represented money: SAFED (White or Silver) represents CHANDRA and SURKH (Red or Gold) represents SURYA.”[iii]

In Ain-i-Akbari by Abul Fazal we find a detail account of an eight suited pack of Mughal ganjifa with 96 cards and also an “ancient’ pack of twelve suits. Again the comments of  Albert Houtum-Schindler in 1895 on the usual content of Mughal ganjifa states— “From travelers to Persia in the 17th century we know that a set of gangifeh  consisted of ninety or ninety-six cards in eight suits or colors.”[iv]

Dashabatar Taas of Banura

Once established, the ganjifa cards spread all over the country in either an original form of Mughal ganjifa or in a slightly hinduized version, painted with Hindu gods and goddesses on it. The people of Hindusthan (India) have added two more suits to the mother ganjifa and named all of them after the names of “Dash Abatar” or ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu. The set has thus been known as Dashabatar or Dasavatara ganjifa. This pack generally consists of 120 cards instead of 96 of Mughal set, and in Bishnupur unlike the other states it is played by five players. The names of the suits of this Dasavatara ganjifa are respectively Matsya (fish), Kurma (turtle), Baraha (boar), Nrisingha (a combination of man and lion together), Baman (Brahmin dwarf), Parasuram (the sixth incarnation with axe), Sri Ram (the hero of Ramayana), Balaram (brother of lord Sri Krishna),  Buddha (the  ninth incarnation with absolute peace) and Kalki (the ‘abatar’ yet to come).

Every suit of a Dasavatara pack consists of 12 cards each with a Raja as a king or an upper court card and a Mantri as a minister or a lower court card along with ten general numeral cards. The above mentioned suits can be identified with different symbols proficiently painted by the Ganjifa chitrakars (painters in forms of ‘patachitra’ (scroll painting). The suit of Matsya is symbolized with fish, Kurma with an image of turtle, Baraha with shell, Nrisingha with chakra (decorated discs), Baman with water pot, Parasuram with axe, Sri Ram with arrow or bow and arrow or monkey, Balaram with plough or club or cow, Buddha with lotus and Kalki with sword or horse or parasol.

Naqsh Taas of Bankura

Besides Dashabatar there is also another type of card in Bishnupur which is known as “Naqsh Taas”. Painting of Bishnupur Naqsh Taas is the most popular among all kinds of Naqsh ganjifas prevalent all over India. As the word ‘Naqsh’ (‘Naksha’ in Bengali) denotes pattern, design, shapes etc. the Naqsh taases are accordingly ornamented with beautiful Patachitras, patterns and graphic stylizations. The Naqsh taas pack consists of 48 cards with 4 equal suits of 12 cards each. These cards are generally produced in two different sets—one is large and another is a miniature deck with 2? of diameter. These small cards are also created with much attention, precision and a thorough dedication in detailing. The most significant part of this kind of card is the container pack which is also a decorative specimen with colours, paintings and accessories. Remarkably the artists of Bishnupur are most famous for this kind of artistic wonders.

Naqsh Taases are generally played for gambling purposes and it is a delicious pastime for holydays, Janmastami and an auspicious time between Dussera and Diwali or Kali Puja.

Gaming Rules  

The rules of the play of Dasavatara ganjifa is essentially the same with the Mughal one, but in case of Dasavatara ganjifa the eight suits of Mughal ganjifa are only extended to ten suits to make it more complex and interesting. In Mughal custom the game generally gets started by the holder of the Raja (King) of ‘Surkh’ in daytime. But in night the game will be started with the Raja of ‘Safed’ suit. Similarly in Dasavatara ganjifa the lead starts with the king of ‘Ram’ suit in the day time and King of ‘Balaram’ during the night. In system of Dashabatar  taas of Bishnupur the game starts with the king of ‘Ram’ during the day, Nrisingha during the twilight, Kurma during a rainy daytime and Matsya during a rainy night. All these features highlight how significant and enjoyable the game of the Dashabatar Taas was when it used to be relished with vigour by the royal courtiers.

 

The Making of Dashabatar Taas of Bishnupur

It is interesting to note that the Gangifa artists were influenced by two traditions here: one, the Dashabatar figures frequently used on the panels of various temples of Bishnupur, and another was the tradition of Patachitra. But still, this cannot explain the mysteries associated with various aspects of Dashabatar Taas.  The process of making Ganjifa card is very laborious and it involves almost all the members of a family to bring forth a single set of ganjifa. The Bishnupur Dashabatar Taas are made from old cloth pieces pasting one piece on another by a tamarind glue. After pasting layers after layers the stiffened piece of cloth is stretched, dried and cut into circular pieces following coating with a base colour.  Then the senior artist touches his brush to draw delicate outlines, details of figure cards and critical touch-ups which require master’s hands. The junior artists generally draw the numeral cards. Thus the entire family would devote itself to producing a single set of Dashabatar Taas.

The Decline

Though this craft was a remarkable instance of the superb craftsmanship of the Ganjifa artists of Bishnupur, with the introduction of European printed cards in 19th century the adoration for the Dashabatar Taas gets gradually went down and viewers as well as the players got much attracted to the stylized figures of French King, Queen and Jack. Moreover the cost of hand painted Dashabatar  Taas was less affordable to the poor and middle class players. The Dashabatar set thus got gradually replaced by the attractive European cards and Ganjifa card artisans faded away into oblivion in the harsh course of time. Many of their families sank into a great poverty, many of the master craftsmen are no more alive today and some of them are suffering from an acute poor vision without any hope. With the decreasing demand and the lack of interest and awareness among the tourists and general public about the Dashabatar Taas the artisans of the present are no more interested in taking up Dashabatar Ganjifa as a secure way to earning their livelihood. Only the Fouzdar family of Bishnupur is still engaged in creating the traditional Dashabatar ganjifa and Naqsh taas. But unfortunately they are on the brink of leaving this glorious tradition because of lack of patronage and security for livelihood and minimum respect and recognition for their art.  Soon Dashabatar Ganjifa will become extinct and the pieces will find their place in various museums as the things of the past unless very urgent measures are taken to save this delicate and precious traditional craft.

 

A Few Last Measures

To revive this craft the following recommendations may be helpful:

  1. The Government (which had been actively passive!) and/or NGOs and societies should immediately arrange for monetary help for the ganjifa artists.
  2. Frequent exhibitions and workshops will encourage the students of fine art and crafts to work and experiment with this craft and invent new ideas to popularize this age-old creation.
  3. Creating general awareness among tourists in Bankura and people outside is necessary so that they can know the history and learn to adore them as precious pieces of traditional handicraft.
  4. Initiatives should be take to spread the knowledge about this through essays, articles and books on it and through including it in the syllabi of fine arts courses.
  5. In our time of digital technology the gaming industry is always looking for traditional games to be taken on to the virtual world. Gaming software can be made for playing Ganjifa cards in order to spread the awareness about it throughout the world.

The famous collector of Ganjifa cards Kishor Gordhandas almost pleads with the readers for its survival: “It is important that the artists get some pushing and encouragement from the Art world, and from the local Government. Indian people must have awareness and knowledge about the Indian Ganjifa, and be ready to purchase a few items, either for collecting, or for the games that are played with Ganjifa cards so that the Ganjifa Art can survive.” [v]

An Interview with Sital Fouzdar

Sital Fouzdar claims to be the 87th generation of artisans who had started making Dashabatar Taas of Bishnupur 1200 years ago under the patronage of the Malla kings of Bishnupur. He is a born artist making Dashabatar Taas and Naqsh Taas, Patachitros and clay idols. He has been awarded with Kamala Devi Award. He has exhibited his works in places like Kolkata, Bangalore, Mumbai and Andaman.

He can be contacted at 09732083428.

Chitrolekha: You have been creating Dashabatar Taas for many years as your forefathers had done for generations. What do you know about its history?

SF: As far as I have learnt from my father and uncle and grandfather, our Taas is 1200 years old and we are the 87th generation working on this.

Chitrolekha: Can you tell us how and when it started?

SF: I don’t know exactly. But our forefathers used to create Dashabatar Taas for the Malla Kings.

Chitrolekha: We see you have the title ‘Fouzdar’. That means you were soldiers or you had soldiers working under you?

SF: Yes, I have heard so. We worked for the kings.

Chitrolekha: But then how did they move on to creating artistic Taas?

SF: Our forefathers were also artisans and they worked for the temples and built the idols. Even now we create and repair the idol of Mrinmoyee temple and paint three Patas for it.

Chitrolekha: When you entered into making this, there were other professions open to you. But why did you choose this profession which brings very little money?

SF: When I was in reading in class IV or V, I went with my uncle Bhaskar Fouzdar to Bangalore at a handicrafts fair. I was exposed to numerous items of handicrafts from all over India. But sadly people paid little attention to our Dashabatar Taas. At that time I decided to learn the art. Later on I noticed that the Taas would not survive if nobody plays it. So I decided to learn the rules. My father and uncle and others did not know how to play with the Taas. So I requested the companions of our late king Kaliprasanno Thakur to teach me the rules since they played with the king. I hosted the game at my house. But I found they just went on playing and I could learn nothing.

Chitrolekha: So how did you know the rules?

SF: Then one day a German lady came to me. She told me that in a museum in Germany they had a collection of the Dashabatar Taas of Bishnupur and they also possess the gaming rules.

Chitrolekha: Excellent!

SF: But she said that she would teach me the rules on the condition that I would give gaming instructions to only those customers who would buy a set of 120 cards.

Chitrolekha: Why?

SF: May be because we reduced the numbers to ten only as no one was interested in playing and did not know the rules. They were colleting the cards just as craft items.  

Chitrolekha: How do you give instructions for playing the cards?

SF: I supply a leaflet with sets of 120 cards.

Chitrolekha: Where are the cards sold? I mean outside does it have markets Bankura?

SF: Only in Kolkata. You can find my art works at Artisana.

Chitrolekha: But do you know your work is available also in the USA with Kalarte Gallery? We wanted to use one of your Patochitros and they were delighted to give us permission for free use?

SF: No. I don’t know.

Chitrolekha: Your works are also available with Art n Soul India and they were also delighted to give us permission for free use of the images.

SF: Ok. Very good.

Chitrolekha: But in India there are some organizations which have got collections of your cards and they charge some amount for using images. Do you get any portion as royalty or help?

SF: No. I am not aware of this. Many people come to us and we don’t know what they do with the items.

Chitrolekha. Ok. What is the condition of this craft now?

SF: Like many of the crafts of Bankura it is also in a poor state. Very people buy it and many come just to see it. We create the cards with hard labour, but when customers bargain hard we understand that they don’t know its tradition and we feel disappointed. Then tourists come mainly in winter and for the rest of the year we can sell few.

Chitrolekha: If so, it is very difficult to maintain a family. Do you depend on other things?

SF: Yes, we have to. We make Patachitro and clay idols of Hindu gods and goddesses.

Chitrolekha: If you don’t mind…what is your average monthly income from these crafts?

SF: [With great hesitation] It is not stable. Sometimes we make ten thousand in a month, sometimes five thousand and sometimes only one thousand.

Chitrolekha: Ok. With this kind of future would you want your future generation to continue making Dashabatar Taas? Are they interested in this or looking forward to other jobs?

SF: Yes I encourage them to learn the art because I think we have to keep alive an artistic tradition of 1200 years. I hope even if they seek other professions they will not give it up. There are other members of our clan who are making Patachitros and cards in spite of doing government service.

Chitrolekha: What has been the attitude of the governments to this craft? Have you got any financial support from them?

SF: Nothing…nothing. Nothing we have got. I want to set up a training centre here for attracting people from other professions to these crafts. I have applied but so far no response so far.

Chitrolekha: Do you have any expectation from the new state government?

SF: We don’t have time for politics. The leaders may be interested. But we have to go to the officers and we don’t get proper dealing. Only colours change, everything remains the same. 

 

Acknowledgements

  • Picture 1, 3, 4 & 7. (by Sital Fouzdar): Courtesy and Copyright— Art n Soul India (http://artnsoulindia.com)
  • Pictures 2: Courtesy and Copyright—Shyamal Chatterji (http://przmm.blogspot.com)
  • Pictures 5: Courtesy and Copyright—Anupam Gangopadhyay
  • Pictures 6: Courtesy and Copyright—Kalarte Gallery, (http://kalarte.com)

 

Notes



[i] Utpal Chakraborty, ‘Karusilpo’, Bankura. Bankura (Loksangskriti o Adivasi Sangskriti Kendro, Tothyo o Sangskriti Bibhag, Paschimbango Sarkar, Kolkata, 2002), p. 51.

[ii] In 1895, General Albert Houtum-Schindler described Ganjifa thus:

“The word ganjifeh is in Persian now only employed for European playing-cards (four suits, ace to ten; three picture cards each suit), which, however, are also called rarak i âsrarak i âsanâs – or simply âs, from the game âs or âsanâs. From travellers to Persia in the seventeenth century we know that a set of ganjifeh consisted of ninety or ninety-six cards in eight suits or colors. At present a set consists of twenty cards in five colors or values. These values are:

  1. Shîr va Khurshíd or âs: Lion and Sun, or Ace.
  2. Shâh or Pishâ: King.
  3. Bîbî: Lady (or Queen).
  4. Sarbâs: Soldier (or Knave).
  5. Lakat (meaning something of little value): generally a dancing-girl.

The backs of the cards are always black or of a dark color, but their faces have grounds of different colors, viz: The Lion and Sun, a black ground; the King, a white ground; the Lady, red; the soldier, gold; the Lakat, green. The pictures on the cards show much variety and are often obscene, particularly those on the card of the lowest value. The ordinary types as now made are: Ace, a Lion and Sun, as in the Persian arms; a King sitting on a throne; a European lady in a quaint costume; a Persian soldier shouldering his rifle; a Persian dancing-girl.” Quoted in David Parlett’s A History of Card Games (USA: Oxford University Press, 1991). Also available at

(http://www.davidparlett.co.uk/histocs/poker.html#Xservice.)

[iii] A Short History Of Ganjifa Cards, Epic India  http://www.epicindia.com/magazine/Visual-Arts/a-short-history-of-ganjifa-cards (retrieved on 25.06.2011)

[iv] Quoted in David Parlett’s A History of Card Games (USA: Oxford University Press, 1991)

[v] A Short History Of Ganjifa Cards (http://www.epicindia.com/magazine/Culture/a-short-history-of-ganjifa-cards-part-two)

 

Tarun Tapas Mukherjee is Assistant Professor in English, Bhatter College, Dantan, Paschim Medinipur, West Bengal. He is interested in E-literature, digital technologies, documentary photography etc. He is a web and graphic designer. He is the editor of Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities (www.rupkatha.com).

Baluchari Sarees of Bishnupur

Gautam Patel

Working in Gujarat in social development


 

Baluchari sarees are hand-woven in richly dyed silk, depicting stories from ancient India, including from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.  The famous characters of Ram, Sita, Krishna and Gopis are displayed exuberantly along the borders, and whole scenes are presented on the large pallus.  Some designs include kings, noblemen and graceful dancing girls with celebratory scenes and ceremonies.

The tradition of Baluchari Sarees originates from a village called Baluchar in Murshidabad District in West Bengal.  Over two hundred years ago Murshidkuli Khan, the Nawab of Bengal patronized this weaving tradition and the Baluchari art flourished.  Over the years there was decline in Baluchar and many weavers gave up the profession.  In the twentieth century, Subho Tagore, a famous artist, made efforts to revitalise the rich tradition of Baluchari weaving. He showed Akshay Kumar Das, a weaver of Bishnupur, the technique of jacquard machine weaving.  Akshay Kumar Das then began using the Baluchari designs to weave sarees in Bishnupur with jacquard looms.

Baluchari styles are now part of the weaving tradition of the town Bishnupur.  Bishnupur was the capital of the Malla dynasty and different kinds of crafts flourished under the patronage of the Kings.  Bishnupur is also famous for the terracotta temples of the Malla Kings.  The temples are covered in detailed scenes that are a major influence for the designs and motifs of Baluchari sarees.

 

The Baluchari saree designs are first sketched and then copied on to punching cards which are used in the jacquard loom to weave the pattern.  The cards have punched holes which correspond to the design. Thousands of punched cards are required for one saree design. Where there is a hole punched this raises a hook carrying the warp thread to be woven with the weft thread.  These hooks can be connected to more than one thread, allowing multiple weaving of a repeat of a pattern.

The vivid colours, intricate fine silk designs and deep traditions combine to create the elegant beauty of the unique Baluchari Sarees.

 

Note

Photographs by the author.

 


 

Gautam Patel graduated from London School of Economics in Development Management, which included a study of local governance in rural West Bengal. Currently working in Gujarat in social development. Email gaukhnh@gmail.com

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