The norwesters in the potters’ village of Panchmura is magnificent in ways more than one. The extremely dry atmosphere during the summer months of April-May makes one compare the place to a hot desert with red dust smeared all over your clothes. This period is marked by the holy time of Baisakh when the potter’s wheel is stopped as it is believed that during this time Lord Shiva appears from the wheel. Many justify it with a scientific reason that the terrible heat exhausts the artisans easily and develop cracks in the pottery items. After a heavy rainfall, the sweet petrichor is one of the strongest in this part of the town owing to the large amounts of terracotta clay all over the place. The potters are relatively free during these months and are very welcoming to have a chat with you over tea in their workshops.
Mahadeb Kumbhakar, 56, proudly exclaims, “The trademark Bankura horse (uniquely styled terracotta horse made in Bankura) came into existence because people would offer them as a mark of devotion to different deities and even on the tombs of Muslim saints. It is used as the official crest motif of the All India Handicrafts Board.” He woefully adds that a large number of youngsters in the area, including his own son, have moved to Kolkata not only because of the money but also their inability to commit to the labour required for this kind of artistry. Mahadeb justifies that there is no harm in working in an office, while at the same time being a marginal potter. In that way, the skill is never wiped out from the family.
Panchmura village near Bishnupur, Bankura District is one of the main hubs of terracotta in West Bengal. Historically, the politically stable Malla Kingdom indulged in a lot of cultural activity and invited high caste Brahmins, expert craftsmen and masons to Bishnupur, who through the amalgamation of religion and culture, contributed largely to the trade and commerce of the region. The Bankura artisans gradually scattered to different parts of the country, but only the remaining few of Panchmura are still struggling to keep this art form alive.
The origin of terracotta in India can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilisation. Terracotta came into existence in Bengal due to the unavailability of stones and large endowments of alluvial soil left by the main rivers in the Bankura district: Damodar, Dwarakeshwar and the Kangsabati. Thus the soil gets a perfect blend and high density for it to be crafted intricately and fired in order to produce the required terracotta products. A Panchmura artisan says that a Durga idol made in Bankura is at least thrice as heavy as an idol of the same size made in Kolkata because the soil found in Bankura is much denser and mineral-rich, making the crafting process extremely laborious.
The cultural transformation in the society is well captured through the terracotta craft embossed on the walls of various temples, towers and smaller objects in the region. Many scholars have interpreted this as a translation of the primitive Sanskrit literature into mainstream Bengali narratives that allowed the emergence of popular cults in Hinduism like Durga, Krishna and Kali. The terracotta temples in Bankura are mostly Radha-Krishna temples which drew inspiration from Vaishnavism.
The Munshiganj District in Bangladesh which is close to the confluence of the Padma and Brahmaputra Rivers is a storehouse of terracotta work on the other side of Bengal. Almost all the temples are dedicated to Shiva and the temple roofs are distinctly different from the ones found in Bankura, as the ones in Munshiganj are more longitudinally conical.
Narratives on terracotta were both sources of information and entertainment for the people, depicting stories from the mythological texts of Ramayana, Mahabharata, Hitopodesha, Jataka and Panchatantra. There has been an emphasis on scenes indicating rural life, farming techniques, male and female dancers, musicians and village gardens. Bengal architecture is uniquely different from the architecture that coincided with the Muslim rule in India and by the end of the 16th century CE, a new Bengali style of temple art became prominent that established itself as an artistic Hindu expression.
Unlike most of the other art forms that came up with the purpose of aesthetic value in creativity, terracotta came up with necessary purposes such as food and water storage, weapons and utensils. From being necessary commodities of daily use, these artifacts evolved into something more creative with a high level of craft embossed on it making terracotta a cultural commodity with high marketing potential.
Bankura District is known for its popular handicrafts in the form of terracotta, Dokra handicrafts of Bigna, the stone craft of Susunia and Baluchari silk of Bishnupur. The global interest in Indian terracotta can be also found in a letter by Swami Vivekananda indicating the time when Okakura, the famous Japanese scholar visited India in 1901-1902. Okakura was extremely impressed by the craftsmanship of a common terracotta vessel used by the servants and owing to the fragility of such handicrafts he requested Swami Vivekananda to replicate the piece on brass for him to carry it back to Japan.
Terracotta is still of high interest in the global market where Panchmura, Surul, Chaltaberia and Shetpur-Palpara are the major villages in West Bengal that exports terracotta to international markets. However, the artisans face some key problems that are crippling the market for this kind of artwork: the issues of equipment, transportation and other logistical problems; the lack of interaction between the artisans and the urban consumers in Kolkata; the terracotta artisans are mostly dependent on local patronage; the inadequate capital, sluggish marketing and falling demand are causing these marginalized artisans to become extinct; the lack of interest from the new generation along with insufficient Government schemes further add to the woes.
Toton Kumbhakar, 30, says, “We get some idea of consumer preferences in the handicrafts fair in Kolkata every year where people mostly demand the Bankura Horse since it has a certain traditional value as a regular showpiece in the Kolkata households.” The potters admit that they charge much more for the handicrafts in Kolkata and are also financially dependent on the various regional festivals when they make large idols for relatively hefty charges.
The terracotta temples in Bishnupur show a much better quality and precision than the artifacts being produced today. For example, the details on the terracotta tiles used in the temples are much more intricate and portray a more complex network of lines, curves and dots. With betterment in technology and instruments, how is this possible? Extinction of skill-specific labour is the answer to this. According to the locals, previously, the process of terracotta production in Bankura included three major classes of workers: the clay collectors and seivers, who would give a fine texture to the clay; the artisans who would add the intricate details, and finally the market traders. There is no specific class of labour anymore for each of these three roles.
“Bankura is my native place and so terracotta has a special place in the lives of my family members. Apart from items to decorate the house, we use terracotta items for daily use. For example, in summers we do not drink cold water from the refrigerator but instead, use an earthen terracotta vessel. My mother makes it a point to make a certain fish preparation in spite of it being time-consuming so that she can use the particular terracotta utensil,” says an urban consumer in Kolkata. In the urban milieu, the demand for terracotta goods in Kolkata households has reached a saturation point. As the Central Government actively pushes for the promotion of various handicrafts from different states, art forms of other regions particularly Madhubani paintings and Rajasthani handicrafts are certainly very popular. Bankura’s terracotta seems to be lagging behind in this regard.
Bankura’s terracotta is a classic case of dying cultural heritage. The sustainability of the art is a social responsibility. Unlike the rest of West Bengal, the parliamentary constituency of Bankura has voted against incumbent leaders and political parties twice in the last decade which is a major indication of people’s awareness and urgency of development in the region.
Culture is a matter of recognition and aesthetics is more about perception than materiality. Very recently, the West Bengal state government has reportedly nominated Bishnupur’s terracotta temples to the UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This should be considered as one of the massive steps towards drawing attention on this part of Bengal’s history and culture. However, time will say how efficiently such measures could facilitate the socio-economic advancement of the potters’ community in Bankura.
Soumya Bhowmick is a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata Chapter. His research focuses on the Indian economy & governance, sustainability and energy.
All the pictures and interviews used in this article are taken in Bankura by the author during the JU-SYLFF research programme.
Updated Date: Jul 19, 2019 10:45:14 IST