Dolls of Bengal: Some stories from obscurity
Updated: Jul 17, 2022
‘পুতুল নেবে গো, পুতুল…।
আমার এই ছোট্ট ঝুড়ি, এতে রাম রাবণ আছে
দেখে যা নিজের চোখে হনুমান কেমন নাচে।
এ সুযোগ পাবেনা আর, বল ভাই কি দাম দেবে-
পুতুল নেবে গো, পুতুল…।’
'This little basket of mine contains Rama Ravana,
See how Hanuman dances with your own eyes.
You won't get this opportunity anymore, tell me, brother, what price will you pay?
Will you buy my dolls....the dolls….!' [Translated by Google]
I guess most of us Bengalis must have heard this song sung by Shyamal Mitra mimed by actor Bhanu Bandopadhyay in the film 'Bhanu Pelo Lottery' (Bhanu gets the Lottery) released in 1958. In the film, the protagonist Bhanu sells dolls while singing this song.
Doll making in Bengal has been an age-old tradition that reflects exquisite creativity, dedication, and love for the art.
I remember my grandmother making clay dolls for me when I was 4-5 years old. It would always be a pair - a man and a woman.
We did not own a gas oven back then; an earthen oven/chulha/unun (which used wood, coal, cow dung cakes, or briquette balls (Gul in Bengali) made of coal-dust, sawdust, wood chips, and cow dung pieces to burn) was used for cooking purposes. This earthen oven needed a frequent layering of liquid clay which was prepared by adding adequate water to the clay. This was basically a preservation and cleansing practice for the earthen oven. So clay would always be stocked in our house for the same.
My grandmother would mould clay dolls for me using this clay. Though I used to break them very often, she was never tired of making them. First, she would make the models with wet clay, let them dry out in the sun, and then bake them in the oven. This would harden the dolls and also give them a reddish tinge. She would always make a pair of them and adorn them with clothes (sari for the woman and dhoti for the man) torn from her worn-out saris. I regret not keeping those priceless pieces whose worth I couldn't have understood at that time but I do now...
My mother fondly remembers her father (my grandfather) making clay huts and palanquins for her during her childhood days.
Probably every other child or every child in Bengal had his or her share of clay dolls (homemade and/or purchased) as toys in their childhood.
Archaeological excavations in different parts of Bengal provide evidence of the ancient craft of doll making in Bengal. These dolls, made by the potter communities of various regions of Bengal, have been used through centuries for various religious practices and as toys for children; and have often been made to depict mundane household activities or day-to-day life activities through them. Each regional doll type displays a distinct local identity; also, their role in society and the stories weaved around them make them cultural indicators.
Besides fired clay or baked clay, the Bengal artisans also create colorful dolls made of jute, metal, sponge wood (shola), wood, bamboo, palm leaves, rice powder, shellac, etc.
However, at present, with the changing perspectives, and changing socio-economical scenarios, this ancient craft is losing some of its finesse and is on the path of decay. While clay dolls and figurines are still used in various religious rituals and practices, their use as toys for children has become very limited to almost nil. Nowadays, these clay crafts are majorly used as objects of home decor.
The artisans who were known for their finesse in doll-making crafts have either died without any successor to carry on the craft or are the last ones to keep the craft alive. Most of the successors or youngsters of the present generation are often not interested in the age-old craft and are moving away to follow different passions. Also, the entry of middlemen in between the doll-maker and points of sale has complicated the sales equation and created irrational price escalation of these dolls, which act as a dampener in the purchase of these dolls, thus leading to further losses and decline in the art of doll making. Furthermore, despite the high price fetched for these dolls, the middlemen do not pay the deserved amount to the doll-makers further discouraging them from continuing with their profession.
To honour the crafts of these craftsmen and the existing traditions, the Museum and Art Gallery of the Ramkrishna Mission Institute of Culture have been showcasing the 'Dolls of Bengal', from collections of various collectors, in their Annual Exhibition 2022 for the past month since the 17th June 2022. The dolls are being displayed district-wise and some are more than a century old and may not be available anymore.
While organizations like Biswabangla and the Bengal store are making efforts to revive these age-old crafts by showcasing them to wider audiences, some unique pieces may already be a thing of the past. Also, since many day-to-day life activities were used to be depicted in these dolls and figurines, some of these dolls are becoming increasingly rare and probably non-existent due to the disappearing old ways of life. It is through these passionate collectors that we are able to get a glimpse of the finer craftsmanship and rare dolls of the past.
Here's a look at some of the dolls in the exhibition which stand out because of varied reasons - rarity, finesse, looks, oddity, naming, background stories, etc.
The Circus Doll
A circus artist on the back of a tiger
Pic courtesy: Mr. Souvik Roy (Collector)
Take, for example, the Circus Doll from Howrah (seen in the picture above), which will probably become non-existent over time as the circus itself is becoming a dying art.
The Shiva Head/Mask or Shiber Mukhosh (in Bengali), Nabadwip (Nadia)
The colourful Shiva Head or the Shiva Masks are made by the local potters on the occasion of the ritualistic wedding of Shiva-Parvati that takes place during Basanti Puja, in the Bengali month of Chaitra (March-April). The moulded clay face with the crown is sun-dried before painting. The golden crown is adorned with hooded snake heads. In Nabadwip, the children carry this Shiva's head and go door-to-door to collect funds for Shiva-Parvati's marriage ceremony.
Mr. Roy expressed concern about the loss of finesse in many dolls over the years. Take for example these Shiva Heads from Nabadwip (Nadia) shown in the photos above. As is evident in the pictures, the Shiva Head containing six snake heads (more detailed in the middle picture) and is more than 50 years old, has much finer craftsmanship (lines on the face, the crown, and even the snakes) than the ones on the left and right of it, which were crafted in recent years.
The Palm Leaf Sepoy/ Taal Patar Sepai, Burdwan
The phrase 'Taal Patar Sepai' is often used in Bengali to define a person with a weak and lanky physique. It probably comes from the fragile structure of the Palm leaf dolls.
These dolls are made using dried hardened palm leaves (cut in the shape of various human body parts), bamboo sticks, and coloured threads. When the bamboo stick fixed at the back is rotated, the doll tosses its hands and legs in the air.
This craft is a dying one with very few buyers and makers.
It is believed that this craft started in Bengal during the time of Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 and hence the name.
The idea was to represent British soldiers dancing on our fingers (and on our whims).
Oh, the varied ways one can start a revolution, no matter how small it may be!
Shellac Sashthi Doll/Galar Sashthi Putul, Midnapore
Panchrol, Pashchimsai, and Pratapdighi of East Midnapore were, at a point of time, renowned centres for shellac dolls. At present, Brindaban Chanda of Pashchimsai village is the only one making these dolls. The primary structure is made with hand-pressed soil gathered from white ant hills. This is then sundried and baked. This fired clay doll is layered with shellac colour. The formula for making this colour is a complicated one. To begin with, shellac is mixed with paint. This mixture is then heated to make thin shellac sticks. The clay dolls are then warmed up in charcoal fire and shellac is applied. Animals, pendants, Goddess Manasa, and Shasthi dolls are some of the popular shellac items - https://lifeofameanderer.files.wordpress.com/2018/10/7dd31-dollsofbengal.pdf
Sashthi (the goddess who blesses motherhood) dolls are worshipped in different parts of Bengal since times immemorial. These Sasthi dolls/idols are brought into the house and worshipped by women during Sashthi Pujo performed in the Bengali month of Jaistha (May-June). The women pray for a child in the family (if there's none) or for the welfare of a child during Sashthi Pujo.
This Shellac Sashthi Doll carrying four children made by Brindaban Chandra is 20 years old and is the only piece that is existing today.
Raghunath (Rama) Doll, Santipur (Nadia)
Both the dolls in the pictures above depict Raghunath or Lord Rama. According to Mr. Roy, the left Raghunath doll is more than 125 years old while the right one is a relatively current version. As is evident from the photos, the colours on both the dolls are identical (twinning can we say?). However, the older doll displays finer craftsmanship than the current version. Also, their attire, more specifically the headgear or the head-dress - a tilted turban (on the left photo) and crown (on the right photo) - is different.
As we've previously read that the dolls created often emulated contemporary societal characteristics or day-to-day lifestyles. The tilted turbans (also creatively termed a Saturn ring turban by a 19th-century writer) were often seen in Bengal portraits for a major part of the 19th century. In this context, it is fair to say that this 19th-century turban found its way into the contemporary clay crafts of Bengal as in the above-mentioned doll.
Wooden Owl, Jalpaiguri
This wooden owl was collected by Mr. Roy from a tribal community in Jalpaiguri after much persuasion. This is used for various Tantric rituals by the tribal people.
On hearing this, I immediately recollected a Bengali short (ghost) story that we had read in our tenth standard titled 'Bhooter Raja' (King of Ghosts) by Hemendra Kumar Roy. In this story, the Santhal tribes used to worship a ghastly wooden doll/idol as their god named 'Bhooter Raja' who used to come to the nearby Hunting Bungalow with his priest to sleep. An Englishman tried in vain to displace this god from his place of worship and died as consequence.
'Logoburu dhirko sinin ghantabari ma kawar'... sung the priest in Santhali every night as he accompanied 'Bhooter Raja' to the hunting bungalow.
Hingul Dolls or Heemputul, Bishnupur (Bankura)
These cute tiny clay dolls are the folk version of traditional Sashthi Dolls. However, unlike the traditional Sashthi Dolls, they do not carry a child or children.
Hingul dolls are named after 'Hingul', a locally available bright red mineral containing mercury sulphide that is used in painting the dolls. One interesting fact about these dolls is that their attires have a lot of western influence and consist of frocks, hats, etc. One other peculiar characteristic of these dolls is they all look skywards.
Lokkhi Ghot, Ganesh Ghot/Lakhsmi mini crock pot, Ganesha mini crock pot Midnapore
These two earthen pots require special mention as they are very different from the regular 'ghot's (mini crock pots or brass pots) that are used in various pujas or other rituals across Bengal.
The one on the right is the Lokkhi (Lakshmi) ghot with Goddess Lakshmi's face and the one on the left is the Ganesh ghot with Lord Ganesha's face.
Another unique characteristic of the Lakhsmi Ghot, as is visible in the photo, is its three-tiered feature. During a puja, the lowest pot is filled with water, the middle pot with 'dhaan' (husked rice grain), and the topmost pot is filled with 'Dubbo ghash' (Bermuda grass).
Jagannath, Balaram, Subhadra, 24 Parganas
We all know that the deities Jagannath (aka Lord Krishna), Balaram (Lord Krishna's brother), and Subhadra (Lord Krishna's sister) have no hands, feet, eyelids, or ears.
According to legends, King Indradyumna wanted to enshrine Lord Vishnu in his temple by carving him in a log of wood he found on Seashore. However, his royal artisans found the wood too tough to carve. One day an old man appeared before the king with the claim that he would carve the wood and turn it into the desired model in a closed room, provided the king promises not to disturb him or open the room until he completes the work. For days the king impatiently waited without disturbing the old man as he heard sounds of work behind the closed door, until one day the sounds completely stopped. The king opened the door fearing the worst, only to find the old man as none other than Lord Viswakarma (the artisan of the Gods) who disappeared immediately leaving three incomplete idols of Jagannath, Balaram, and Subhadra.
These dolls (in the pictures above) of Jagannath, Balaram, and Subhadra, are unique in the sense that they have hands and feet.
Barathakur, 24 Parganas
Had to share this odd-looking head as this was my first rendezvous with this subaltern deity with a leaf-like headpiece. This folk deity is named 'Barathakur' ('Bara' means 'ghot' or pot and 'Thakur' as in God). The face is painted on the rounded body of the pot/ghot, which represents the head and the leaf-like structure represents the crown.
Only the head of this deity is worshipped every year on the first of the Bengali month of 'Magh' (i.e. mid of January as per the English calendar) in 24-Parganas, Howrah, and some other districts of Bengal. In most regions, this idol is worshipped in pairs. According to folk legend, one among the pair is the revered deity 'Dakshin Ray' (who rules over beasts and demons and is regarded as the overall ruler of Sunderbans) and carries a moustache, while the other is his mother 'Narayani'.
Manasa Ghot or Manasa Pot
Bengal is a land of rivers and wild forests where snakes are often seen in great numbers, especially during the monsoons. Manasa is considered to be the goddess of snakes and is worshipped during the monsoons for the prevention and cure of snake bites. She is also considered to be a fertility deity and her blessings are invoked (especially in lower castes) during marriage and childbirth.
Manasa Ghot or pot symbolizes a pregnant goddess. According to one folklore, the pregnant goddess Manasa is symbolic of fertility and reproduction as snakes are known to reproduce in huge numbers.
Some other dolls worth mentioning
A Kanthaliya Doll (picture on the left) from Murshibdabad showing a woman grinding pulses on a grindstone (a mundane chore in the life of a woman). The dolls stand out for their minimal colour and striped design.
Jo Dolls (picture on the right) from Midnapore. One legend has it that the facial structure of these dolls is constructed similar to that of Jatayu Bird from Ramayana and hence the name Jo.
There are many more dolls with unique names and unique stories, many of which are getting lost along with the elder and experienced artisans. One blog is not enough to write about the numerous stories that each of these dolls speak.
Even though in a very crude form, we still grew up knowing about clay dolls and how clay dolls are made. However, when I think of the next generation, it saddens me when I realize that they are completely unaware of these art forms. Hence, it is important that we pass on these stories and help them in nurturing interest in these dying art forms.
Acknowledgment: Here I would like to mention that I was lucky to meet Mr. Souvik Roy, one of the collectors, who willingly shared some intriguing details and stories about the dolls, about which I would otherwise have no knowledge of. He answered all my queries with immense patience and enthusiasm.
Mr. Sourav Bera, another collector, suggested a book where I could find more details of a doll from his collection.
Do you have any similar stories relating to this art form or any other? Kindly share with us..