Exponents of Dokra Art yearn for recognition and rewards

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They boarded a bus early winter morning, braving the biting chill, from their little village Bikna Silpadanga in Bankura district of West Bengal to reach Kolkata in time to collect awards and certificates of merit for their lesser known eye-arresting art. But unable to read English, they took hours to locate the actual venue of ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relations) in the heart of the city.

They finally made it to the Rabindranath Tagore Centre to be awarded for their skilled line of art-specimens.
Dokra craftsmen Buddhadeb Karmakar and Bulu Karmakar looked dazed and wide-eyed surrounded by dignitaries, artists, critics and above all, the glaring media attention.
The husband-wife duo along with few other artists in tow, landed up at the culture-capital to be bestowed with honours at an ongoing exposition wherein their intricately designed dokra art is put on public display. Held under the prestigious banner of West Bengal State Akademi of Dance, Drama, Music and Visual Arts, the annual art exhibition of 2013 is dedicated to the renowned Bengal master Jamini Roy on his 125th birth anniversary.
Living on their meagre incomes by selling deftly crafted fare, a cluster of 70 such families of a skeletal dokra community back home, is struggling hard to sustain its art.
“Our items were selected from the stalls at the monthlong handicraft fair hosted on the Milon Mela grounds in the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass area last year. We annually take part in the fair to exhibit our dokra paraphernalia,” shares the adroit artist whose middle name is simplicity.
“We are poor and unlettered. But we want our art to thrive and continue the legacy through generations. We want to hand it down to our posterity so that it is preserved forever,” said a soft-spoken, timid Bulu sneaking through her ghunghat. “This is our family vocation and we take immense pride in it. Yet, we want our children to pursue their studies first to manage their finances and comfortably flourish with this rare art form which is a God’s blessing in our genes,” says Buddhadeb.
Lamenting over the fact that there is no provision of insurance cover for this persevering perilous craft that involves intense physical labour taxing on the eyes and the body, he rues “it is quite a tough task as for hours from day till night we are clung onto shaping up the clay casts, heating, drying and colouring them to conjure patterns, floral designs and depict scenes from age-old legends, parables, war-epics and mythology. Heads lowered and backs bent in a stooping position for long, cause neck-sprain and backache. But beyond the demerits, we look forward to our creative gratification. After all, no risk no gain, we believe.”
However, the irony lies elsewhere. When not engaged in art, the okra artists pull rickshaws or ride cycle-vans or worse still, dig earth for quarrying or road repair or just aid in construction activity as helping hands.
“We don’t mind the injuries at the altar of our artwork. What hurts me most is when I’m forced to do masonry or other labour to fend for myself and my family. Now you are talking to me because I have been introduced as a dextrous dokra artist on this forum. I feel it’s ignominious for an artist to be reduced to a contract-labourer for 90 days to feed mouths at home. I don’t despise any kind of work but then our art is also never recognised by and large. Many people are not even aware of its existence and still consider it to be a vintage, period craft, fit to be only curated into museums,” he laments.
From Krishnalila to Kargil War, from auspicious pots to paddy granaries, from bohemian bauls (folk artists) to the intrepid Jhansi Ki Rani or from the King Indra’s chariot to idyllic rural landscapes — often it takes two-and-a-half months just to hatch the idea in head. And then the process to create begins.
The only solace is to get some government grants and incentives like a plot of land wherein they could build small huts to live and be preoccupied with their true calling. “But that’s too little to bail us out from our perennial crisis. We have to procure and purchase the raw material for our indigenous craft by taking loans at a high rate of interest from money-lenders. And sadly enough, our modest earnings hardly leave any room for a decent profit to help sail us smoothly with our business. We have willingness to emerge as self-employed craftsmen but then there is a gaping deficit of means to lend fruition to our dreams,” he says.
A pot of sand, clay, cultivable fertile soil rich with manure, sieved through a strainer to get some pure fine particles, surface of wax designs, glass, brass are all put together to an adept use to flower and foster this fine art. The mould is heated to harden the material as a solidified rock and then, the final output is chiselled out to form a human figurine or any objet d’art. The finished product is then polished.
“We are hoping against hope. We want more platforms like this to acknowledge and encourage our ignored art. Only then can an impoverished craft can survive a premature disaster,” he says earnestly.
“The district cultural office near our village serves as the information centre about fairs, contests and exhibitions round the corner. That’s how we get a wind of prospective avenues to pitchfork our craft,” he signs off with the parting shot to re-embark on his return trip to the far-flung residing village.

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