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A Traditional Panorama - Bengal Art

Emporias or commercial galleries, the arts and crafts scenario in Bengal is vibrant. All you have to do is find your own individual connection with links that are steeped in tradition or modern ideologies.

Bengal’s tradition of arts and crafts is deeply rooted in her people. The average Bengali, for better or worse, has been sensitive to his artistic environment. Look at the alpana design created for special occasions on the floor with just rice powder or chalk, marvel at the way a hundred different garlands are woven for a hundred different occasions, watch the Durga images created and sunk into the Ganges every autumn and you will know what I mean.

The crafts tradition in Bengal is primarily folk in character and linked to people’s everyday life and geographical location. But even mundane items of daily use like cooking pots or baskets or combs or mirrors or humble reed mats reflect great beauty along with their utility.

Bengal is immortalized all over the world through its humble terra-cotta Bankura horse but you visit any village in this state and you are bound to find the kumbhakars creating items of daily use on their basic potter’s wheel. The source of their raw material is the rich, alluvial clay found in Bengal’s rivers. These are shaped and fired in simple kilns. From pots, containers, plates for food to toys and ritual figurines, the Bengal potter moulds it all.

At Kumartuli in Kolkata some of Bengal’s most innovative clay-potters fashion the various images of popular gods and goddesses worshiped en masses. The high point comes when, every autumn, Durga idols are made. Some of them are indeed exquisite works of art. Today, some renowned sculptors are also commissioned to produce replicas of Durga by Bengali NRIs who carry the image all the way to the USA and England! If you look at the rich decorative terra-cotta panels of temples in Murshidabad, Bishnupur and Midnapore, you will realize how much a fistful of clay means to the Bengali’s artistic psyche.

Reed mats and baskets find a variety of uses and often, on a humid summer evening, you will chance upon the madur-mat seller carrying his ware through the winding lanes of lush villages. This mat is woven on a simple bamboo frame loom. The warp is cotton thread and the weft a thin, soft madur-reed but the designs are ignited by the weaver’s imagination and often become a rare marvel. The shitalpati is another kind of mat found in Bengal, Assam and Tripura. These are woven with flat strips in check, twill or zigzag designs, sometimes incorporating stylized human and animal forms. Fans are made from palmyra leaves which are dyed in different colours and beautiful geometric designs are created by deft fingers. Cane baskets have traditional shapes and are made in different sizes. Many are used by city people now as plant-holders and fashionable bric-a-brac.

The kantha embroidery of this state is famous all around the globe. In the past few years it has received rave reviews and tremendous attention from fashion designers in the Occident and the Orient. The old kantha designs are rare possessions and are now flaunted on sleek shawls and other items of costume. In the village, however, a woman may spend months and years on a single piece, covering it with intricate folk motifs via a simple running stitch.

Handloom saris come in an exotic variety and are available all over Bengal. Brass, metal and dhokra items are also part of traditional craft. Specially beautiful are dhokra measuring bowls that come in all shape and sizes. Bengal’s jewellery has an unique Mughal flavour. Even wood and stone are fashioned in this State for decorative panels or items of utility.

The Crafts Council of West Bengal has done a lot to revive dying forms. However, for a range of items you can savour or buy, look into the handicrafts shops strewn all over Kolkata. You can stroll into the state emporia or walk down Kalighat or Gariahat and the variety of goods will leave you amazed.

The fine arts scene here is just as stimulating whether you are interested in the revivalist trend pioneered by Rabanindranath Tagore or the folk idiom of Jamini Roy. Do not hesitate to walk into the Academy of Fine Arts in Calcutta. If you travel to Shantiniketan, Tagore’s hermitage, you will be able to witness the works of Nandalal Bose and the stunning sculptures of Ramkinkar Baij that form part of the landscape. The Kalabhavan there is a good haunt for art-lovers.


Cotton fabrics spun by Bengali weavers have become a legend worldwide for their fine textures and lightness. Known as muslin or mul mul the featherweight textiles were celebrated in the international market as the ‘woven wind’ and the ‘wonder gossamer’.

Under royal patronage the township of Dacca (now in Bangladesh) became the production of muslin during the Mughal rule. The fabric was so fine and transparent that, as the legend goes, once Emperor Shahjahan expressed his displeasure towards the inadequate and indecent dresses worn by Princess Jehanara even though six folds of muslin covered her! A five metre length of muslin could easily pass through a finger ring. The marvel of muslins and of the Dhakai jamdani (needle embroidery), however, ended in the 18th century with the British seizing control of Bengal under the East India Company. It is said that to protect the interests of the textile mills of Manchester, the muslin weavers of Dhaka were persecuted and coerced to stop weaving. The art-heritage of fine weaving so remained crippled for nearly 20 years.

However, with the departure of the British, many skilled weavers of Dhaka gradually settled in West Bengal around Shantipur in Nadia district and Ambika Kalna of Burdwan, both traditionally renowned centres for hand-woven fabrics. Encouraged with government aid and other incentives, these talented weavers soon revived their ancestral occupationand the art of exquisite weaving once again flourished. Today, finely woven feather-touch textiles and saris in exotic designs and colours are being produced in the vast weaving belt of Shantipur, Phulia, Samudragarh, Dhatigram and Ambika Kalna—each centre producing superb fabrics in its own unique weaving style. Dhatigram produces jacquards and jamdanis while Kalna is famous for tangails and gorgeous jamdanis. Phulia and Samudragarh specialize in a combination of jacquard and jamdani work while Shantipur is known for superfine dhotis and jacquards. The produce is marketed through co-operatives and various undertakings. The Kalna Chamber of Commerce and Industry organizes weekly sari haats (markets) offering the weaving industry as well as individual weavers opportunities to come into direct contact with customers thus avoiding middlemen and fetching better renumerative prices. Every Saturday weavers from different centres and distant villages assemble at Kalna Sari Haat. This unique market dealing exclusively in saris is worth a visit. Ambika Kalna is 82 kilometres from Kolkata and can be reached by train in three hours. The weekly bazaar sits in a large square under a roof near the town hall. Amidst saris galore are seated the tanties (weavers) surrounded by buyers. The haat is a kaleidoscopic display of the finest saris. Prices range from Rs. 200/- to Rs. 2000/- a piece and above depending upon the quality and labour involved.

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