By Aditi Chakraborty
Batik, the ancient wax-dyeing handloom art form, is native to Indonesia and was promoted in Bengal by Rabindranath Tagore. Batik print units were set up in Viswabharati University where local village folks, artistes were trained. The batik print of Bengal, particularly of Shantiniketan, Bolpur has been used in all kinds fabric; such as a Batik printed silk/cotton saree, handkerchiefs, blouse pieces, home furnishing or leather handcrafts. ‘Shantiniketani Batik’ is now a household name .
The fabric is waxed before being dyed in rich colours from vegetable dyes. Molten wax filled in a bowl is pressed on the fabric with a Tjanting or Kalamkari pen. Designs etched on wooden blocks, are mounted on a screen, and then pressed on the fabric. This technique is popularly known as screen printing. Batik designs are creative and inspired by nature and motifs. After the designs are waxed, the coloration process begins. Colours seep through cracks in the wax and create designs which are unique to batik. In the final stage, the fabric is carefully de-waxed using boiling water. Batik printing in Bengal is continually evolving and experimented with.
Beaten Silver Work, Kolkata
Beaten silver work in Bengal is used to create silver cutlery sets, bowls, silver containers, vermillion cases and many other item. Silver sheets are beaten with hammers, chisels and files are used to produce fine detailing and intricate curvature. The material used is silver and brass in a ratio of 16:7. After completion they are hand polished.
Beaten Silver, Darjeeling
Beaten silver objects of Darjeeling, Sikkim and Kalimpong are way different from their Kolkata counterparts. The artefacts here are made of wood. Then silver embossed sheets are fitted onto them to give a luxurious finishing. Also, these objects show a deep veneration for traditional Tibetan religious symbols, designs and motifs such as ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’, Tashi Takgye, the lotus and the wheel of life. Be it the very famous Nepalese ‘kukris’ (knives), bells, flutes, butter lamps or utensils for religious usage; it is religion which is the abiding theme in this beaten silver craft.
The craftsmen mostly reside in clusters in and around Kalimpong and also in Tibetan Refugee Centres. They beat the silver with skilful hands into thin fine sheets and then fine engraving is worked into the silver which include religious motifs. Tools like hammers, chisels and files are used in the process. The knowledge and craftsmanship re passed on from generation to generation by the craftsmen. Bronze is also used with the silver mix to make containers and tea kettles with beautiful long necks.
Ganjifa Cards: The Medieval Game of Pleasure
Many Indian art patrons have heard about Ganjappa cards from Odisha. Ganjifa card, its counterpart, was born in the workshops in Bishnupur, Bankura district of West Bengal thousands of years ago. The Malla rulers of Bishnupur played card games with these painted roundels. Composed in eight or twelve suits, these antique round shaped cards of handmade paper depict ten avatars of Lord Vishnu. The ten rupas of Sati (The mother goddess) are painted on them. Cotton rags are soaked in water and then pasted with tamarind glue on 4-5 inches wide roundels made of cloth. The rags are pasted in layered formats, are then dried and painted against white backdrop. In earlier times only vegetable colours were used. Today water colours are used to reduce the cost of production
Konglan boots can be seen in the markets of the hilly areas of Darjeeling and Kalimpong. These are knee-length high flanked boots, colourfully stitched with semi-precious pieces of fabrics/leather. The boots are made of mostly sheep and yak leather, precious local silken material ‘khochen’ and sometimes heavy woollen cloth. Tibetans and the Bhutias wore these boots while taking out their animals for grazing and walking miles in the cold over rugged mountainous terrains. The shoemakers are mostly from Bhutia community concentrated around the Kalimpong hills. They craft these boots both for regular use and for the Bhutanese and Tibetan people who wear Konglan knee boots during special religious occasions. On the upper side of these boots is intricate silk thread work on fine brocade pieces brought from China. Hand braided belts tie the boots on the upper portion which is usually left open. The inner side has fur lining. The women wear somba boots, which are much more elaborate and ornate. The same boot can be worn on either feet.
Patachitra: Pata Tradition of Bengal
In the remote villages of Midnapur and Purulia the Chitrakaras, alias Patuas, alias Pata shilpis narrate tales from folklores and popular mythical traditions with paint brushes dipped in natural dyes on vertical, single quadrangular and horizontal sheets of paper; commonly known as scrolls. The patuas carry these scrolls to nearby villages, local fairs and sing from the stories depicted on these scrolls. Old clothes and chart papers are used as scrolls. History, myths and contemporary sagas are brought alive with paint brushes dyed in vegetable/water colors. Patas have beautiful stylistic elements and cover a range from Santhal tradition to mythical narratives and popular folk arts. These can be 2-3 feet wide and long - multiple chitras painted in a serial with the story unfolding in the scroll, one chitra after another.
Terracotta, Silliguri, Dinajpur
Terracotta as a craft is spread across regions in West Bengal. Siliguri and Dinajpur in the north-eastern side of the state are well known for the large terracotta pots and art objects. Matigara in Siliguri abounds in this craft which involves the making of decorative household items on a large scale and mainly caters to the urban markets.
The clay used is from the riverbeds of Uttar Dinajpur and the artisans are mostly Bangladeshi immigrants. Parts of the pots are thrown on the wheels and are joined with thin clay strips right at the end, before the firing process. Palm tree motifs, tribal mother and child motifs, paisley motifs (mango kalka) motifs depicting flowers and blooming creepers are engraved on the pots and other objects with fine detailing. Wall tiles/panels, tree tubs and pots, figures, statues, lampshades are some of the terracotta items most in demand besides large clay pots. For decoration, clay from the tea estates is used. The lamp shades are adorned with beautiful lattice works; whereas, moulded clay statues and figures are often pasted on large pots or vessels as part of decoration.
The engraving is a speciality of Bankura terracotta art of temple reliefs. Terracotta art of Matigara in Siliguri is more recent phenomenon which nonetheless has existed as an art form in this part of Bengal through generations. The artisans used to be potters (Kumbhakars) in Bangladesh before migrating to India. With time, they adapted their basic utensil making skill to crafting fine decorative and art objects. Traditional Bengali motifs and design patterns have inspired these craftsmen in their detailing and decoration of this creative terracotta art.
Thangka Paintings, Darjeeling
Thangka painting in both Darjeeling and Sikkim, originated in Nepal in the 11th century and was assimilated by the Tibetans before it evolved in a significant way. These paintings are central to the worship and meditation in Buddhism. Historically, practising Lamas were Thangka painters who were rigorously trained and had a deep understanding of Buddhist religion and scriptures. Today any artist who has been trained under strict guidance of the monasteries can paint thangkas, provided they adhere to the strict guidelines and values of Buddhism.
The wide canvas strung to wooden frame used for Thangka painting is prepared by applying glue and distemper solution and is rubbed multiple times with porcelain to bring about a uniform texture. The painter then draws the central god figure (eg. Bodhisattwa, Rin-Po-Che) on iconographic grids with other components with a pencil. He outlines the characters with fine brushes before filing in bright vivid colours. The colour of the deity has great importance in Buddhist religion and earlier only natural pigments were used. Acrylic paint has replaced natural colours now. Red, Blue and bright yellow intricately designed rich brocade silks are used for framing the paintings which stay covered with yellow silk curtains before they are mounted on the wall for worshipping or meditational purposes.
Though an art form, Thangka paintings are venerated religious symbols across Sikkimese and Tibetan Buddhism.
Bankura in West Bengal is famous for its terracotta temples, but it is also known for its wood carving. One can witness the craftsman’s tools carving out the famous Bankura horses in pieces of woods and lacing them with fine wooden ornamentation with deft hands. Go to any workshop in Rampur, Bankura; you will find the artist in their workshops carving horses, figurines, in fine details in wooden. Terracotta designs are engraved in the wooden doors, windows and pieces of furniture as well. The wooden horses and figurines in the last stage of production are given a fine polish that brings out their intricate details.
Comfortable, easy to manage, ideal for sitting both on the floor or used as covers over bed spreads- sheetalpati has carved its own niche in traditional Bengal handicrafts. The word ‘sheetal’ means cool and it is this mat’s unique characteristic. Sleeping on them, even sitting on them brings out a cooling, soothing effect. In the hot and humid climate prevalent in West Bengal, sheetalpati relaxes and provides a cool surface to rest on. Not just mats, the reeds are widely used in making bags, hand fans, decorative items, kitchen mats and baskets using small knives and bonti (popular Bengali cutting tool).
The reed used in sheetalpati grows abundantly in Cooch Behar, in the north-eastern district of West Bengal. The reed strips, dyed or natural, are plaited into desired objects such as mats or bags. Coloured reeds woven in between the natural ones create wave-like patterns in the weave. Reeds are normally overlapped while weaving as single reeds are not too long. The glossy texture of the reeds, fine weaving techniques makes this product attractive.
A daily household object, sheetalpati is adored, treasured in the urban households with same passion even today.
Wood Craft, Darjeeling
The wood carving craft in West Bengal’s Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts is different from the work done in Dinajpur, Maldaha and Bankura districts. Skilled craftsmen from the Bhutia community create amazing works of art on Sapwood planks, the wood that is mostly used for crafting items such as folding tables, tablets, panels and door/window frames. These intricate wood carvings are displayed in monasteries, altars, pillars across religious shrines in Tibet, Sikkim, Dharamshala and Ladakh. Traditional Tibetan motifs, scores of auspicious symbols like Tashi Takgye, dragons come alive in relief carvings done in skilful hands that effortlessly combine deep relief carving and fretwork using day-to-day carving tools like chisels and hammers. The wooden artefacts are coloured in bold and bright hues. Once an important part of the rituals, the use of wood carving has been diversified, though the age old motifs and design tradition remain. Tibetan refugee centres across Darjeeling have kept this craft alive. Intricately designed wooden book covers are carved out of wooden planks by skilled artisans and are in demand by monasteries around the world for their holy scriptures.