India, a mosaic of diverse cultures and traditions, is a treasure trove of unique art forms. Each art form narrates a tale of the region's history, culture, and way of life.
Rang De has been enabling artisans across India with access to affordable credit, creating thousands of days of livelihood for them. Social investors have invested and raised dedicated funds to support languishing artforms.
We are delighted to spotlight one of our impact partners - banglanatak.org - an organisation that has harnessed culture as a means to safeguard artforms and the livelihoods of artisans.
In this blog, we’ll explore the specific legacy artforms they have championed, their unique characteristics, the obstacles they encounter, and how you can contribute to the preservation of these heritage art forms.
Dhokra Metal Craft
Dhokra, a unique form of metalwork, is the handicraft tradition of a community of artisans known as Dokra Kamars. Originating from the Indian state of West Bengal, these skilled metalsmiths have mastered the ancient lost wax, or hollow casting, technique, defining their distinct craft style.
Despite the indisputable artistry of their work, the Dokras occupy a low rung in the societal ladder, often being scorned upon as the underprivileged — a social stigma echoed in the regional term "Dokra," which implies a person of lower social stature.
The Dokra Kamars are predominantly spread across the western districts of West Bengal — this community is particularly renowned for crafting various exquisite sculptures of deities, animal figures, and avatars, such as Lakshmi, Lakshmi-Narayan, Siva-Parvati surrounded by Ganesh and Kartik, along with other tangible renditions of wildlife like elephants, horses, owls, and peacocks.
The creation process of Dhokra art involves diligence and spiritual consciousness. The craftsman moulds the wax into the desired object, encapsulates it within a clay mould, pours molten metal into the mould, and after the metal solidifies, the clay is broken to reveal the finished product, which is then polished to perfection.
While the Dokras continue to produce deities and animal figures under both governmental and independent patronage, there's a general consensus that the quality and craftsmanship of these contemporary pieces lack the finesse and the charm of their older counterparts.
Despite this, the story of the Dokras and their persistent dedication to their craft in the face of adversity is a testament to their indomitable spirit and the enduring allure of Dhokra art.
Kantha, a popular style of embroidery from West Bengal, is unique for its traditional appeal and contemporary allure. Traditionally, the craft was practised by rural women of all classes, with the rich landlord's wife making her own elaborate embroidered quilt in her leisure time, and the farmer's wife making her own thrifty comforter. Regardless of the maker's social status, all Kantha works were equal in beauty and skill.
The entire cloth is covered with running stitches, employing beautiful motifs of flowers, animals, birds, and geometrical shapes, as well as themes from everyday activities. Kantha is a form of personal expression, an art-craft that was made spontaneously or even whimsically at times. The embroidery sessions become an opportunity to socialise and a welcome break from the drudgery of monotonous chores. Extremely intricate work produces marvellous end products.
One such example is Tajrika Begum of Ronoor village, who has stood out through her exquisite Kantha embroidery work and has evolved as a confident entrepreneur from a shy young village bride. Being involved with this craft for the past two decades, she has travelled across India and in countries like Lithuania, France, Sweden, and China. Presently, there are more than 200 women working under her.
Traditionally, Kantha used to be used by the rich as well as the poor. It also used to be an integral part of everyday living. A girl never got married without a Kantha in her trousseau and every new birth in the household meant making a new Kantha for the newborn child. With the changing market demands, the artisans are now making jewelry, table linen, throws, scarves, stoles, bags, and many more products to fit in as home décor and lifestyle items.
The tradition of Kantha stitch has come a long way today when the artistic brilliance of the women artists have found expressions in lifestyle products like saree, dress materials, bed and cushion covers etc. The art is now applied to a wide variety of products which are in high demand in the urban market. The artisans today make a diverse range of products which includes sarees, shawls, stole, bed cover, cushion cover, bags etc.
Vibrant colour, intricate design, and ethnic style are the characteristic features of the wooden dolls made by the artisans of Natungram, a small village in the Bardhaman district of West Bengal. The traditional designs are based on culture and mythology, and the richness of ideas combined with the master craftsmanship of the artisans results in an amazing work of art.
The dolls are carved from a single piece of wood, primarily Gamhar wood, which is preferred due to its strength and quality. Other woods used include mango wood, neem wood, and Akashmoni. The dolls are traditionally made in the forms of owls, figures of Radha-Krishna on a single block of wood (Rashiputul), Durga, Gour Nitai, and Raja Rani dolls. The owl is considered auspicious for homes as it is the escort of Goddess Lakshmi, and the owl sculptures from Natungram have an iconic status in representing Bengal's handicraft.
The artisans have improvised their craft into different utility items to reach out to the market. They make furniture, clocks, wall racks, and other decorative and utility items using the traditional owl, Gour-Nitai, and Raja Rani dolls in these products. Besides doll making, the artisans also undertake commissioned work of making idols of deities and carving installations.
Madhur Kati, also known as Madurkathi, is a traditional mat weaving craft practised in the Medinipur district of West Bengal. The mats are woven from a special kind of reed known as 'Madurkathi', which grows abundantly in the marshy areas of this region. The craft is known for its intricate designs and patterns, which often depict stories from the local culture and folklore.
The craft of Madhur Kati is primarily practised by women, who have passed down their skills from generation to generation. These mats are not just functional items, but also a form of artistic expression. They are used in daily life for sitting or sleeping, and also play a significant role in religious and social ceremonies
However, like many traditional crafts, Madhur Kati is facing numerous challenges. The younger generation is moving towards more lucrative professions, and the demand for these mats in the urban market is dwindling. Moreover, the availability of the raw material, the Madurkathi reed, is also decreasing due to changes in agricultural practices and climate change.
Despite these challenges, the craft of Madhur Kati is showing signs of resilience. There are efforts to revive and promote this craft, both at the governmental and community level. Artisans are being trained to create a wider range of products, such as bags and home decor items, to cater to the urban market. There are also initiatives to promote Madhur Kati products as eco-friendly alternatives to synthetic products.
The preservation of Madhur Kati is not just about preserving a craft, but also about preserving a way of life, a piece of history, and a form of artistic expression. It is about acknowledging the skill and creativity of the artisans, and ensuring that their craft continues to thrive in the modern world.
In conclusion, each of these art forms is a unique expression of India's rich cultural heritage. They are a testament to the skill, creativity, and resilience of the artisans. It is crucial to preserve these art forms, not just for their aesthetic value, but also for their social, economic, and cultural significance.
These art forms have evolved over time, adapting to the changing tastes and demands of the market, yet they have managed to retain their unique identity and cultural significance. They are not just crafts, but a reflection of the community's spirit, its history, and its way of life. The potential loss of these art forms would not only be a loss of artistic expression, but also a loss of cultural identity and heritage.
Rang De, in partnership with banglanatak.org set up the West Bengal Handicraft Artisans Fund to make sure artisans involved in these artforms get access to affordable credit. Loans through this fund will enable artisans to purchase the necessary input materials required to create their artforms, especially for the upcoming festival season. This initiative not only aids in the preservation of these unique art forms but also empowers the artisans economically, allowing them to continue their craft and pass it on to future generations.
In the end, it is about creating a future where tradition and modernity coexist, where the old and the new blend seamlessly, and where the beauty of our heritage continues to inspire and enchant us.
You can invest in artisans and their artforms at rangde.in or by visiting the West Bengal Handicraft Artisans Fund