Handcrafted art is losing its sheen

Take a walk down the aesthetic lane of India’s ancient art heritage and we bet your eyes will be wooed with the shiny pearls of a rich cultural treasure-trove. Skim through the racks at a glance and a gallery of golden arts from the olden era will unwrap its beauty and splendour in a colourful elegance. Well, if some still continue to gain supremacy in the court of art and crafts, then others simply languish in the menace of their speedy extinction.
Standing on such a threshold of crumbling decadence, the fate of clay-modellers or doll-makers of Krishnanagar (in West Bengal) conveys a telling tale of neglection and apathy on the part of the concerning authorities. The reality is that this ethnic style of handcrafted art is seriously facing a threat of decay in due course of time. To spread the word around and achieve wide acceptance among a multitude of art enthusiasts, an exhibition was recently thrown open for all and sundry to indulge in to an encouraging dekko. Titled Forms of Clay & More, the absolutely amazing display focused on the dying art of traditionally hand-crafted Krishnanagar dolls, terracotta craft items, ceramic ware, wood craft, et al. The exquisite showcase took place at the Design Studio of south Kolkata’s posh Ballygunge Place.
Interestingly, a live, authentic demonstration of terracotta and clay works by a battery of artisans from Krishnanagar was also hosted at the venue.
History evinces that King Rudra Roy, son of King Raghab Roy, the former ruler of Nadia (now a district in West Bengal province) had christened its capital Rayui, which was originally an idyllic village surrounded by the beautiful rivers Anjana and Jalungi respectively, as Krishnanagar after the name of Lord Krishna. The nomenclature happened in around 1685 AD according to chronicled records. In fact, regaled by the natural beauty of this place, the senior king had shifted his capital from Matiari to Krishnanagar. Now it is after the succession of his son to the throne who was an avid art patron in himself that the clay art flourished in the place. And it further rose to a vigorous prominence during the reign of his dynastic descendant, Raja Krishna Chandra Roy.
“This art is centuries old and dates back to almost 250 years. Under the auspices of Raja Krishna Chandra Roy in the 18th century, a bevy of potters and craftsmen were ferried in from across-the-border areas like Natore and Dhaka, which were situated in the then East Bengal (now in Bangladesh). You see, in those days, it was a usual practice by the zamindars (landlords) and traders to predominantly promote different branches of art and learning,” shares communication consultant and researcher Arundhati Gupta. She has jointly researched on this field with Urvashi Basu, the interior designer of Design Studio, where the exhibition was put up. Dwelling on the subtle finesse of flawless artistry and an intricate craftsmanship, Gupta notes that the artisans had originally belonged to a community of idol-makers before they transformed their skills into clay-modelling. The finished products are also widely witnessed during the famous Rath Yatra Mela (chariot-festival fair) in Orissa and elsewhere in India.
“They gradually improvised their dexterity to diversify into other avenues like shaping up animals and aves, making tribal artefacts, folk art specimens and figurative compositions of humans figurines, which by and large soared to popular demand with the passage of time. Later, their products got exported to Europe and other western lands under the aegis of the East India Company merchants. Grabbing an enormous exposure, the array of handmade fare was expansively exhibited with the artisans participating in person at the showcase . Besides Europe, the goods were shipped to other foreign shores like Australia and the US. With a steady source of income flowing in from the sale proceeds of their painstaking work, the artisans and their art thrived immensely,” informs Basu. But as they say that every honeymooning phase comes to a screeching halt in mid-way, this glorifying saga of doll-makers too seems to be hurtling towards an inevitable decline, which is unambiguously distressing. With only a handful of shops lined up in the erstwhile village of Ghurni (now a municipal town in Krishnanagar), where the seed of this art form was sown, the story of clay-artistes evokes a sorry picture. “If you gaze carefully, then you’ll spot a qualitative difference between the past and present craftsmanship. The minute, hairline detailing on the statues has decreased to a great degree. It is vanishing fast with each passing year only to spell out a complete degeneration of the art form which is an alarming situation I must say,” warns Gupta.
There is another striking reason for the art to prosper in Krishnanagar in particular, feel the experts. “The answer lies in its soil, which is very soft and moist in texture. Well, the right combination of sand inside it makes it ideally suitable for such an art to blossom there,” concedes ace contemporary artist Kaushik Biswas, who thinks the need of the hour is an all-round support from the government level to recover the deteriorating health of this indigenous, desi craft. This apart, “a helping hand from a non-profit, voluntary organisation who would look into the welfare of artistes and resuscitate their vastly ignored vocational trade is also a vital requisite for this funds-starved native art. We are currently standing at a nascent stage where we are just testing the waters. And if the initial response from both the upmarket clients and mid-income group purchasers is pretty satisfactory, then our next stepping stone will be to escalate the standard of exposition to a higher scale from next edition onwards,” he sums up.
Incidentally, another potent cause being cited behind the lackadaisical approach is the dearth of any concrete association of clay-modellers which would be capacitated to fight its own battle and make the world known about its dwindling plight.

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