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Doll’s house crumbles, artisans lose hope

Kamal Krishna Pal yells at yet another journalist stepping into his doll-making workshop at Ghurni in Krishnagar. “All you people do is talk. Nothing happens after the talking. Please go, don’t waste my time!”

His anger may be misdirected, but is not misplaced. The 60-year-old is among the few custodians of the dying art of doll-making in Krishnagar who continue despite little or no recognition and profit.

A spurt in cheap “fakes”, poor quality of soil and lack of government aid have spelt doom for the doll-makers. “My family has been making dolls for 175 years. My father Karuna Prasad Paul was a famous artist and so is my brother Amal Kumar Paul. We have seen glorious days in Ghurni,” says Kamal Krishna. The British period was good.

The decline of this art of strikingly life-like earthen dolls, miniature and life-size, which displayed rural Bengal in its many professions and facets, began sometime between the late 1960s and early 1970s. Before that, Krishnagar dolls would be exported in bulk to international fairs and museums.

“I have heard octogenarians say a huge overseas order was rejected in the late 1960s because the cotton clothes the dolls were dressed in were found to be full of germs. That year the industry faced huge losses as most international shipments were sent back. The market never recovered and there has been a steady slide since,” says Kaushik Biswas, a sculptor from Krishnagar who worked in designing the Vedic Village on the outskirts of Calcutta. The last 15-20 years have been the worst.

“Today we cannot afford three meals with a day’s earnings. We used to sell dolls for Rs 100 each seven years ago and we are selling them at the same price today. During the British period, our forefathers earned around Rs 2,000 a month and so many years later our monthly income has gone up by a meagre 20 per cent,” he said. “We have received no assistance from the government and nobody has bothered to find out what happened to the industry that was once the pride of Bengal.”

Biplab Paul, 60, agrees. “I have been making dolls since I was 12. My father was a poor man and couldn’t afford my school fees. So I began to work with him on dolls. As an artist I don’t like giving away my creation in exchange for money. It pains me deeply to see my hard work being bargained for. But I cannot help it. How else will I survive?”

He, too, has seen the rise and fall of the doll-making industry.

“Earlier, many tourists came down to Krishnagar and bought our dolls. That doesn’t happen any more. No tourists come here during the summer holidays because of the weather or even the Puja vacations.”

Biplab’s nephew, Tarit Paul, is among the few from the younger generation who are making dolls. He points at the demands of the changing market. “Traditional craftsmen want to hold on to the 100-year-old techniques. Neither do they want to learn new techniques nor do they have adequate scope for exposure on a global platform. An artist should be able to adapt himself to things around him,” he says.

Tarit says his art is not compromised despite the use of moulds, not used in the traditional art. “Mine is one of the few families that work with innovations. It is true that we work with fibre moulds but that does not mean we compromise on quality. Fibreglass has been in vogue for the last 15 years or so. It became popular because a certain kind of monotony had set into the market,” says the winner of the national award for master craftspersons last year.

“If I am asked to make a terracotta piece, I make it clear to the customer that it will take at least eight months to finish the project. But most do not want to wait that long. They want something that looks aristocratic, yet will not take long to complete. That is when we ask them to opt for fibre models instead,” Tarit said.

Purists say moulded dolls lack the kind of detailing that Krishnagar dolls are famous for and call them “fakes”. “Most buyers don’t know the difference between an original and a fake doll. If I price a tribal musician doll at Rs 50, a craftsman using a mould will price it at Rs 25,” Kamal Krishna rued.

Facial lines, folds of the fingers are more intricate, the nose and ears more life-like and postures more perfect in handmade dolls, explained the veteran doll-maker. “The posture of a 30-year-old will be different from that of a 60-year-old. Such differences are not distinctive in a fake doll.”

Kaushik Biswas, who shows his works at Chitrakoot, Birla and ICCR art galleries, attributes the changes in craftsmanship to the deteriorating quality of soil because of the construction of a dam on Jalangi river.

“The Jalangi river flows past Krishnagar and every year during monsoon, optimum quality silt would be deposited on its banks. The composition of the silt (sand-clay ratio) was just perfect for terracotta work as it burnt well when placed on fire. This was duansh mati, a mixture of bele mati and entel mati, the latter being glue-like cannot be mixed with bele mati which is high in sand content,” says Kaushik.

“After the construction of the dam, the quality of silt has deteriorated. The river is hardly ever flooded. Fertilisers also worsen the quality of the soil,” he adds. Now the soil has to be bought from remote villages.

Doll-making is a tedious process. Since the quality of the soil has gone down, many craftsmen have shifted to sculpting. “You will hardly find a piece of art that boasts of intricate craftsmanship as people now choose to work with fibre moulds and stone dust,” Biswas says.

Babai Paul also rues the increased use of stone dust, popular because it quickens the process. Some artisans had also taken to using cement and plaster but they were found unsuitable for rough weather. “My grandfather won the national award for master craftspersons in 1982. Those were the days when we enjoyed the patronage of people in and outside the country. But now we only have businessmen from south India buying our stocks. One reason could be that unlike patachitra, which has experimented with a number of themes, we only work with human figures. Also Chinese goods and ceramic figures that have flooded the market have spelt doom for us.”

Some have taken to making models of famous personalities like Netaji and Tagore as it involves less detailing and pays more. Some demand the status of sculptors.

Kondapalli near Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh and Channapatna in Karnataka are other doll-making hubs in the country. Both the southern states have nurtured the centuries-old arts into industries. The brightly coloured wooden Kondapalli toys are popular among tourists, thanks to the Andhra government’s efforts at marketing the 300-year-old cottage industry. The even older Channapatna toys of Karnataka, on the other hand, have earned a Geographical Indication tag.

Closer home, the story is different. “Some time back, the local administration announced an aid of Rs 25,000 for each artisan. We have been running from pillar to post for the last one month and haven’t received the money yet. Each time we go to the office of the district industries centre, we are told either some official is on leave or that our file is being worked on,” says Kamal Krishna.

District industrial officer Krishnagar Saikat Chakraborty denied the charge. “As many as 122 artisans have been granted loans in the last two-three years. The money is being given on credit to only those artisans who have no record of default,” he said. “The district industrial centre in collaboration with the state government is planning to set up an institute to train craftsmen and help them showcase their works on a global platform. The courses will include soil testing, basic computer training and innovative design courses. The state has also issued artisan credit cards to many artisans and granted them loans starting from Rs 25,000 up to Rs 2 lakh.”

But the artisans complain they are being charged a higher rate of interest compared with borrowers under the Kisan Credit Card (KCC) scheme.

Kamal Krishna’s son Subhrangshu, who by his own admission “took up doll-making because I didn’t get any other job”, says he will not encourage his children to take up this profession. “We had a lot of faith in our MP Tapas Pal. He promised us a museum but I don’t know when it will be made,” says Biplab.

The MP was unavailable for comment.

“The tourism department has sanctioned Rs 32 lakh for the project but the district administration says it hasn’t got the money yet. We have also allotted the land for the museum in Ghurni. There is an old building on the selected plot. A tender has to be floated to demolish the structure and only then can the work begin,” the official said.

Not many artisans are keen to showcase their work in the city.

Travelling to Calcutta is costly. Delay in payment is another deterrent. “There is a Manjusha godown on Beleghata Canal East Road. Hundreds of dolls are rotting there. I have seen them myself. Nobody knows what to do with them. It pains us to see all our hard work go down the drain,” says Kamal Krishna.

Private help, such as interior designer Urvashi Basu, has been effective at times. “When I first went to Ghurni I was shocked. There is hardly any infrastructure and marketing revenue. My worst fear is that 10 years from now this art will totally disappear,” says Urvashi, who recently organised an exhibition at Design Studio in Ballygunge to promote folk arts of Bengal.