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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.

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