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The Decline of Varanasi Silk Handloom Cottage Industry: A Case Study of Brocade Weaving Community in Varanasi

Sana Faisal[1]

  Volume 6, Number 2, 2016 I Full Text PDF

Article DOI:  10.21659/chitro.v6n2.07

Received on July 22, 2016.
Accepted on July 30, 2016.
Published on August 29, 2016.

Abstract

The brocade of Varanasi is the distinct workmanship of the weavers where gold and silver thread is practised on fine silk. Kinkhabs, one of the finest known Varanasi brocades, have more Zari visible than silk. The brocades fabrics are woven in workshops identified as Karkhanas. The weavers are known as Karigars that means craftsmen. In earlier days only silver and golden wire were used, but now it is replaced with duplicate. Bold and complicated floral and foliage patterns are also made with the use of Kalga, Bel, Butis, designs. Banarsi sarees are world famous for this reproduction, Banarsi Zari work comes mainly in pure silk (Katan), organza (Kora), georgette and Shattir. Various types of silk, and other materials are used in contemporary times. This paper tried to explored the main problems of the craftsmen and throw light on an individual capacity and learnt about weaving process of brocade produced by artisans with the help of hand, tools, and machines. The chief features of artefacts are utilitarian, aesthetic, creative, cultural, decorative, functional, traditional, religious and socially symbolic and significant.

Keywords: Varanasi Silk, Brocade, Saree, Craft, Varanasi, Zari.

[1] Sana Faisal is a Research Scholar at Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh, India. Email: sanafaisal29@yahoo.com

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

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.

Ingredient-innovation-production

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.

Name

Age (appro.)

Year of award

Award level

Pashupati Kumbhakar

70/72

1982,1983

State

Dhirendranath Kumbhakar

60/65

1991-1992

1986-1987

District

State

Jayanti Kumbhakar

75/78

1997,1998

District and State

Taraknath Kumbhakar

52/53

1994,1995

State

Buddhadeb Kumbhakar

50

1985-86

District and State

Baidyanath Kumbhakar

48/50

1996-97,2001-02

District and State

Bauldas Kumbhakar

48

1997-98, 1999-2000

District and State level, Chhattisgarh, Moscow, Honolulu

Biswanath Kumbhakar

45/46

1999-2000

District and State

Chandidas Kumbhakar

46

1995,1996

District

Narugopal Kumbhakar

42

2010-2011

State

Kanchan Kumbhakar

36

1997-98, 2001-02, 2010-11

District, State, State

Brajanath Kumbhakar

35/36

2003-04

District

Kartik Kumbhakar

32

2005

District

Bhutnath Kumbhakar

32

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.

 

Possibilities

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.

 

 

 

Acknowledgements:

  • 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.

Conch Shell Craft of Bankura

Subhomay Dutta

Freelancer

 

Conch shell craft is neither unique, nor a new practice in India for creating marvels in decorative yet artistic pieces of utility items. The affinity for conch has been eternally in craze since the remote Vedic age when human psyche realized an utter zeal for a philosophical and psychological uplift. The Conch shell is regarded as an inevitable instrument for performing the religious rites in many of the countries and occasionally it is blown to drive away evil spirits ensuing many of the religions.

In West Bengal, the conch shell is mainly used for two functions. The conch itself is to be blown for driving away evil spirits, to commence something new and auspicious, to accomplish  an entire puja process or ritual, and sometimes celebrating victories by blowing it. Secondly ‘sankha’ or the conch bangles are the must-adorable for the married Bengali Hindu ladies. But the conch craft of Bengal is not only confined to these quintessential purposes to be carried out, rather there lies a greater variety of articles derived from this mere marine organism.

Bankura, with a treasure of an extreme passion for beauty and elegance, holds a distinct position in conch shell craft among all the conch carver communities all over India. These conch carving devotees have spent the whole of their lives creating astonishing designs on the shells. Either they have played up fabulous images of deities like Durga, Laxmi, Sri Krisna on each and every shell or they have put down an entire episode from an epic or a mythological story instead of a single motif. They also introduce floral or ornamental patterns for ornamentation with same dexterity. Besides working with the entire piece of a conch  they also bring forth artistic specimens of hair clips, bangles, brooches, earrings, necklaces, pendants, paperweights, boxes, agarbati stand, buttons, vermillion container, cup, spoon, fork, door hangings etc.

The conch shells are generally purchased from Chennai, which are collected from the beach of Tuticorin. The empty and dry shells are sent to Kolkata and the conch carvers buy them in bulk as their main ingredient or raw material.

The conch shells are divided into groups according to their thickness. The thinner shells are generally used to be blown and the thickers are chosen to carve out.

After acquiring the crude shells from market the craftsmen wash them thoroughly to wipe out all the dirt and debris brought from the sea. Then they are put to a grinding machine to remove remaining impurities of the shell surface. Then it is again washed with hydrochloric acid which leaves it fairer and whitish and leaves ready to be carved.  Filing and polishing impose an ultimate lustre which makes it ready to be sold out to the customer.

The equipments used for conch carvings are very simple like file, chisels, hammer, grinder etc. The chisels are used in different sizes depending on the detailing and intricacies of the pattern.

These conch carvers of Bankura belong to Saankhari community and mostly reside in Bishnupur, Saaspur, Hatgram and Rampur.

This craft is undeniably a precious one and conveys Bengal’s eternal uniqueness for its perception of beauty. Many of these craftsmen have enriched the treasure of Bengal’s craft corner by being awarded for their creative excellence. But after facing a scarcity of supply from 1980s from Chennai the production of conch craft has inevitably declined. The people with their utmost spirit for creating these opulent art pieces have chosen the coconut and wood apple shell as their raw material instead of the required conch shells. They even choose the pumpkin shell and the fish scale too to keep anyhow the tradition alive. Though the production rate of conches has decreased yet the few amounts of conch those are still being carved out arousing wonder.

 

Acknowledgements

  • Images 2, 3, 4: Courtesy and Copyright— Anupam Gangopadhyay

Subhomay Dutta is a Freelancer.

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.

Evolution

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

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