Bengal is known all over the world for its expertise in art and craft. Its skill in architectural splendors to its excellent works on woodwork, terracotta, paintings, textile run unparallel and serves as home to many talented artisans in India.
The unique rustic and mystic charm of Bengal crafts is admired by art-lovers the world over. From embroidery to sculpture and sketching to metal crafts, the state has a unique specialization in many forms of craft and has the en backbone of the rural economy of the State.
The age-old traditional crafts of West Bengal have been so well molded according to the present day demands that it seems that these artisans, apart from their traditional skills, have an expertise in the art of survival as well. Even if you have little understanding of arts and crafts, you will certainly be captivated by the unique handicrafts of West Bengal.
Today, it looks to revive some lost forms of art that once brought fame and recognition to Bengal. To get a glimpse of authentic handicraft works, one should visit the rural areas of West Bengal which are still not influenced by the western ways.
Let’s Explore and Learn more about them.
Dhokra of Dariyapur And Bikna :
The craft is characterized by its primitive simplicity, charming folk motifs, rustic beauty and imaginative designs and patterns. Today the rural artisans make jewelry with dokra craft which effectively woos the urban populace. Dokra products involve a tedious process of designing and metal casting and finishing touches are given on them with immense love, care, and creativity. With time, the process got improvised by the craftsmen and gradually evolved as a fine form of designer art. Each piece of the artwork is unique as only one mould can be used for one product.
Dhokra Metal Casting is a technique used by a tribe called Dhokra Kamar Tribe. and are known to be the original metalsmiths of Bengal. The tribe is not confined to West Bengal only, and are now found in the western part of the state, mainly in four districts Bankura, Midnapore, Purulia, and Burdwan. Thus making this art common in those regions as well.
In this type of metal casting, a lost wax technique is used which is also called as hollow casting. The method is employed to produce figures of gods and goddesses, different types of lamps and jewelry. This long tradition coupled with the intrinsic starkness and vitality makes Dokra a coveted collector’s item.
Kantha stitch Embroidery Of Nanoor :
Kantha is a very beautiful form of embroidery that originated in West Bengal. It is basically the art of outlining decorative images with running stitch, on clothes, with colorful threads.Kantha embroidery is running stitches used for making floral motifs, images of birds, animals, and geometrical figures.
It is also used for making blankets and quilts by stitching five or six layers of cloth together. For this, the tread used is taken from the edges of used clothes.The embroidered clothes are not only used for blankets and garments, they are also used on clothes used as bed sheets, pillow covers, and cover for tables and boxes.
The Kantha tradition was widespread in undivided Bengal, cutting across social, economic and religious norms and the technique, process and aesthetics of this ‘utilitarian’ textile have ancient roots. Kantha is one of the oldest forms of embroidery that has kept the women of Bengal busy. Kantha embroidery is generally done on cotton and silk fabrics.
The Baul singers refer to Kanthas in their mystical music as a metaphor for their spiritual wanderings free from material ties. Replete with such spiritual undertones the Kantha was naturally seen as a symbol of an ascetic’s surrender of material ties. Other early references in folk songs and verses indicate that the Kanthas reworking of old fabrics into a new object was viewed as a symbolic enactment of the cycle of life and its affirmation of rebirth and revival. (Rehman 1988:23)
Madur / Mat Making Of Bhagabanpur :
In Bengal, the word Madur is a generic for floor mats. Mats are an integral part of Bengal’s lifestyle. Madur is a tradition and pride of Medinipur. Women of the households are involved in weaving this beautiful craft.The land and climate of Purba and Paschim Medinipur districts is suitable for cultivating Madurkathi.
Since the floors were cool in summers but cold and uncomfortable in winter, mats and pallets or straw mattresses made from grass, leaf and reed, etc. were used to keep out the cold. The sticks can be reaped for a period of 3-4 years once the rhizomes are sown. Records of the medieval period provide the first information of mat weaving in the region of Bengal. Few of the traditional mat making families still retain the knowledge of weaving a fine variety of exclusive mats locally known as Masland or Mataranchi.
Madur (mat) weaving is an age-old cottage industry of Paschim Medinipur district. Madur artisans weave this on a simple bamboo frame. Warp is of cotton thread and weft is a thin soft reed of Madurkathi, a grass weed. To enhance the quality, cotton and silk threads are also used. Diamond or spread patterns are weaved in the mats.The superfine Masland mats, historically produced under royal patronage, are hand-woven with silk yarn in weft. Madur craftspersons these days make various diversified products which include table runners and mats, curtains, hats, purses, sun-guards etc.
Patachitra Of Majramura and Pingla:
Pata’ means cloth and ‘Chitra’ means painting. Patachitra is a tradition of scroll painting and storytelling in West Bengal. The artists, called Patuas,paint stories in long scrolls and sing songs known as Pater Gaan as they unfurl the scrolls. The songs are of wide variety ranging from traditional mythological tales and tribal rituals to stories based on modern Indian history and contemporary issues.
Patachitra and pat-er gaan are the two aspects of a unique cultural tradition of Bengal that draws inspiration from the mythological tales of India.Patua artists use natural vegetable colours made from vegetables, fruits and flowers.
Patvariestra vary in length and height.,however an average scroll painting is about 15 ft long. It is divided into a number of compartments, with each compartment carrying an episode of the story being narrated through Pat Chitra.
They sing the story while unfurling the scroll. Their repertoire has widened, and the patuas now paint on contemporary themes ranging from human trafficking, protection of biodiversity, life stories of eminent persons to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York or the Taj Hotel in Mumbai. They also decorate apparel, stationery items, and home décor products with patachitra.
Pottery Of Uttar Dinajpur & North 24 Parganas :
Pottery is the art of making pots and other utility products by using clay. The craft is one of the most ancient forms of human inventions and is a living example of cultural expression with an ageless technology. One of the oldest crafts of Bengal is pottery. It is practiced in the state with beautiful variations, in exquisite styles.
At Kunoor of Uttar Dinajpur and Chaltaberia of North 24-Parganas nearly every household, almost every member of the family is involved in this craft at different levels and has ran through generations.
The potters make the best use of the clay that is found on the banks of rivers that cut through the state. The clay is then molded into different shapes and sizes for items used for various purposes. Images of gods and goddesses, clay pots and plates are the main items made. All of them have their own significance and distinctive style. Apart from being practiced for individual purposes, it is also designed and sold on a commercial scale.
Sholapith Of Bardhaman:
Sholapith is a milky-white sponge-wood, used for crafting beautiful decorative pieces. It is also known as ‘herbal ivory’, as it seems to look like the milky-white items made from ivory.Shola pith (Indian cork) is a delicate, ivory-coloured reed that grows on moist and marshy land in Bengal.
The Shola artists, known as Malakars, meaning garland makers. do some exquisite, intricate work by cutting and carving the reed to make decorative items of varied kinds, including masks. In the early 20th century, before the first Partition of Bengal in 1905, a group of Shola craftsmen from Chittagong (now in Bangladesh) migrated to Bankapasi of Bardhaman district with their families and started making ornaments and other decorative items from Shola pith. Their main market at the time was the clay idol-makers’ cluster in Kolkata’s Kumartuli. It was from here that Shola craft started gaining popularity and gradually paved the way for large-scale use of Shola, including the widely popular Daker Saaj for the idols of Hindu gods and goddesses, across Bengal and beyond.
The finest of this craftsmanship can be seen on the statues of gods and goddesses during festivals, especially the massive decorative backdrop used for the Durga Puja.
Nature has always been one better on man. Compare “Sholapith” the core of a plant (Aeschyromene Aspere) that grows wild in wet marshlands of Bengal and Assam, Orissa and Deccan and the artificial “thermocole” produced in a laboratory. In fact, in malleability, in texture, in its luster and sponginess, in its ability to turn into “light as air” beautiful ornamentation – thermocole just does not come close to “Sholapith”. “Sholapith” work is every uniquely of Bengal.
Terracotta Of Panchmura:
The terracotta craft of West Bengal is famous throughout the world, for its pastoral and rustic charm. The clay-modeled items that form a part of this craft, made with natural colors, are a viewer’s delight. They were a craze in Bengal during the reign of Malla rulers, in the 16th-17th century. The temple of Vishnupur stands as marvelous example of the terracotta craft of Bengal.
The well-ornamented terracotta art of the earlier period still prettifies several temples and adjacent structures in India. The art of making terracotta clay tiles was known to the clay workers even during the period of Indus valley civilization.
The artists of Bengal used these terracotta works for the architectural purpose. Stones are not readily available in Bengal. These artists challenged this limitation and turned the alluvial soil of the lower Bengal basin into an object of art for the architectural decoration of the temples. Though the tradition started from Panchmura of Bankura, the Malla kings made the terracotta art of Bishnupur popular by building terracotta temples all over the place. The temples served a dual purpose for them by being a place of worship on one hand and that of shelter for warriors on the other. During the war-ridden Middle Age, the kings fortified their kingdom in Bishnupur without making it obvious for the enemies. The ubiquitous terracotta structures with their apparent subtle and artistic façade were rock solid inside. The kings brought the craftsmen from Panchmura for building these temples and that marked the beginning of Bishnupur terracotta tradition which eventually outdid the prosperity of the tradition of Panchmura.
From archaeological excavations, at Paharpur, Mahasthangarh and other places it is obvious that terracotta tiles were in use to embellish temple facades in Bengal long before the Sultans came. The makers of these exceptional terracotta tiles were probably cottage architect and were proficient in wood carving and in constructing temples. They copied the peculiar curved shape of the cottages in building these temples. They introduced various designs in terracotta tiles for decorative purposes.
Terracota art work is getting growing recognition for interior and exterior decoration of buildings, shops, pavilions etc. The Bengal terracotta worker shows the true artistic feeling and skill through his handwork
.Sitalpati Of Ghughumari:
Sheetal means cool in Bengali while paati means mat. These mats are made from the soft green cane slips of Maranta dichotoma, split lengthwise into fine strands.Pharsingpara and Goalpara are the two famous villages where this art is practiced. Women are expert in weaving while men collect green patidai or mohtra reeds, from which the mats are made. The raw material required for mat is made with long-stemmed knotless reeds that grow profusely in marshy areas.
Shital pati production is a household industry, wherein men traditionally collect the reeds and prepare them, while women are into weaving. It is quite laborious and it involves several steps for the preparation of the weaving material. After cleaning and splitting the stem of the reeds into desired size, the slips are soaked or boiled into water for several hours and then dried. The coloring of the slips is obtained mainly through natural methods, using ingredients such as boiled rice juice, hibiscus, tamarind leaves and mango barks. Whereas for red color, a chemical dye is generally used. Once ready, the thin slips are finely woven incorporating designs made using the dyed slips.
Sheetalpaati is integrally linked with the Bengali lifestyle. Craftspersons today have diversified their products from mat weaving to products like multi-use baskets, showpieces, wall hangings and various other products which give a unique touch to home décor and lifestyle.
Wooden Doll Of Natungram:
Natungram of Burdwan district is a very famous destination in the map of Bengal for making wooden crafts. The craft gained immense popularity under the Bardhaman Maharaja. The traditional designs based on culture and mythology, the richness of ideas, the brilliant combination of pure simplicity and glamour combined with the master craftsmanship of the artisans, resulting in an amazing work of art.
The artisans of Natungram started their wood crafting 200 years ago.Since then the artisans making various types of wooden dolls for their livelihood. Nowadays a change of color, texture, and design can be seen. Colors are more vibrant like yellow, red, blue and bold black border of each part to define. Various complex and intricate wood carving techniques have been introduced.
The design of the products are also varied from the older piece of products.They are more attractive than earlier. Also, various new products have been introduced in around 5 years ago like the owl lamp shades, owl sofa set, owl chairs and other similar products. The wooden textured owl are also a new product in Natungram. The domestic market for Wooden dolls are also changing. The consumers are becoming more discerning and would like to purchase handicrafts on value and merit, and not solely on empathy.
Bamboo Works Of Bardhaman:
Bamboo works and basket weaving is a very old traditional craft in India. Indigenous communities developed special shapes and patterns of baskets based on their local traditions, needs and techniques.
Bamboo craft is quite popular and is more or less profitable. Approximate income is around Rs 3000/month. More exhibitions should be organized to showcase the talent of artisans working with bamboo handicraft items.
The glorious cultural heritage which the people of Bankura inherit has bestowed them with a keen aesthetic sense. Nowadays, craftspersons are producing various diversified products like lamp-shades, coasters etc.In spite of all these, the district is still economically underdeveloped. Strategic planning of resources and mass consciousness at the national and international levels are required for a happy socio-economic life and a cultural globalization of Bankura.
Folk Music Instruments Of Bankura :
Folk musical instruments are mostly hand-crafted in India. West Bengal has a good number of skilled artists who craft instruments meticulously. The tradition is mainly popular in districts like Nadia, Purulia and Bankura. Considering music and dance is an integral part of the rural tradition, the crafting of the instruments play a pertinent role.
Traditionally, musical instruments in Bengal are categorised into four types, based partly on the material of which they are made and partly in the manner in which they are played. Thus they may be classified as string, wind, metal and hide instruments.
Folk plays a very vital role in the music of Bengal and the instruments used, complement the music so well. Whether it is Baul music, Nazrul Geeti, Rabindra Sangeet or the Adhunik Songs and Film music, the Bengali instruments have a place in such genres of music.
The Ektara, Do Tara, khol, Dhak, Dhol are some of the well-recognized instruments that are used in the Bengali songs and music. The Baul is a very popular folk music genre of Bengal that has got global recognition. It is usually sung with the help of the Ektara or Do Tara (instruments with a single string and double strings) and often accompanied by dhols.
Wooden Mask Of Kushmandi:
Kushmandi block of South Dinajpur is the home of the wooden mask makers better known as Kushmandi masks or in colloquial terms “Mukha”. The makers are mainly concentrated in the village of Mahisbathan where a handicraft hub has been developed as a part of rural craft hub initiative under the MSME department of Government of West Bengal and in collaboration with UNESCO.
Mask or mukhosh as it is known in Bengal has a mysterious history, too vague to be chronicled in perfect sequence, both in terms of advent and influence. Rumour has it that in ancient times, witches started the practice of wearing masks. To camouflage themselves, the witches built a sublime weapon, a facial veil that prevented them from being exposed.
The Kushmandi masks are generally objects of devotion very devoutly crafted by the villagers. Thus these masks also called the Gomira masks catered to the needs of the Gomira dancers and to the villagers who gives these masks as offerings to the local deities with must piousness.
The Kushmandi masks or Gomira masks are usually made of light wood preferably the ‘Gamhar’ wood. Alternatively, wood from mahogany and mango are also used. The wood is first soaked and dried alternatively. This seasoning makes the wood crack resistant and reduces the chance of infestation. Later the wood is chemically treated by soaking the wood in a solution of boric acid, borax and copper sulphate mixed with water in the proportion of 3:4:5. This makes the wood termite and bug resistant. After seasoning and chemical treatment, the wood is cut in cross-section. The designs are then drawn on the wooden block and then the craftsmen carve out the motifs and designs on the block.
Originally the masks were painted with natural dyes. Red dyes were obtained from segun, green from seem, violet from jamun and black from jia tree. Nowadays, chemical dyes and paints have gained credence among the crafters.
Though there is considerable ambiguity about the origin of masks in Bengal, it is evident that masks were of great religious importance owing to the belief in spells. Tribal priests would wear these masks and exhibit various magic skills.Thus masks became a popular prop in Bengali culture, many of them being used in various dance forms performed to appease the demon gods and to usher in peace as well as prosperity.
Clay Doll Of Ghurni:
Ghurni is a humble neighbourhood of Krishnanagar West Bengal’s Nadia district. What makes it remarkable is that it is a centre of production for stunningly beautiful and lifelike clay dolls While clay artefacts are created in many parts of India, few can compare with the intricate detailing and finesse that define the clay dolls of Krishnanagar.
Krishnanagar clay dolls are truly unique in their realism and the supreme quality of their finish. They truly represent a remarkable breakaway from traditional clay work. Yet some aspects are rooted in age-old techniques.The dolls are made with clay deposits from the banks of the holy River Ganges. This soil is incredibly soft, and can be moulded easily into any intricate shape. The doll makers use tiny iron rods to provide the skeletal structure for the dolls, then work with delicate tools to craft the clay. When they are nearly done, the dolls are baked in a kiln, given a final coat of varnish, painted, and then costumed with authentic miniature clothing.
The clay dolls of Ghurni are famous and known to all for their beautiful, lively structures and vibrant colours. Like everything else in Krishnanagar, the clay dolls too are associated with Maharaja Krishna Chandra under whose patronage the art received international recognition and saw its golden days , when the figures were exported and the artisans were even sent abroad to promote and teach the art. But after his death, royal patronage came to a standstill. Now, exports have completely stopped.
Unfortunately, despite the occasional accolades, doll making is a dying art form though it has been a part of the legacy of the local potters for over five generations. Currently, the artisans are in dire financial straits primarily due to a lack of patrons and proper promotions. There is no support from the government either. No one wants to invest in them. This naturally reflects in the quality of their workmanship. Nowadays, the figures lack that characteristic intricacy and attention to detail for which the dolls were renowned.
Add to that a slew of inexpensive copies cast in plaster-of-Paris and other cheap raw materials. People buy these rip-offs, not knowing how much more beautiful and refined the real dolls are.
Disillusionment is a natural outcome of this among the craftspeople and the younger generation is looking for alternative employment. Yet, some artisans, anonymous geniuses that they are, continue to toil, painstakingly crafting detail upon detail to the diminutive clay forms.
It is time we step in where Raja Krishna Chandra Ray left off to preserve this grand artistic treasure. If we can generate public awareness through national and international exhibitions, social media initiatives, dedicated blogging etc, it might inspire the Krishnanagar clay doll makers to infuse new life in their beautiful heritage.
We also need the drive to educate and empower these artisans with the knowledge and skills that allow them to harness the power of technology. How much more they could do if they had access to knowledge about sales, digital marketing techniques and the power of the internet to promote and sell their work. It is then and only then that this age-old craft will continue to survive in this century.
Chau Mask Of Charida:
Chau, the acrobatic martial dance is a popular art form of Purulia. Chau is inscribed in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The masks and dazzling costumes of the dancers make Chau performances a delightful spectre, riotous and revealing. Generally craftspersons make masks of deities, epic and also of tribal characters.
The masks are of different sizes starting from small to large ones.The tradition of making Chau masks started in Charida around 150 years back during the rule of King Madan Mohan Singh Deo of Baghmundi.
Today Crafts of Bengal faces the aggressive competition from factory-made products and Chinese artefacts. Handcrafting each item to perfection is a time-consuming job and the increased labour cost, in turn, raises the selling price. Moreover, the younger generation is not attracted to work these dying arts and crafts and senior craftspeople fear their skills will die with them.
Sadly, while we talk about using eco-friendly products to rid Mother Earth of plastic, these rural crafts, which could have reduced the use of non-biodegradable products in our daily lives, languish in anonymity.