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In Naples, Baluchari breathes life into a bygone bond

A slice of forgotten history that binds Calcutta with, er, Naples has been resurrected recently to give Mamata Banerjee’s Biswa Bangla a boost and visibility.

The two cities have had a formal “twinship” for more than a decade — an agreement for social, cultural and economic co-operation that Subrata Mukherjee, the then mayor of Calcutta, had signed when he visited Naples in 2003 for the naming of a square after Mother Teresa.

Not much is known afterwards.

Ten years later, the textiles and tourism departments have joined forces with the NGO, Freed (The Force for Rural Empowerment and Economic Development), to revive the agreement and, with help from a group of Neapolitans, train the spotlight on Bishnupur’s beauties: terracotta and Baluchari sari.

The dormant “friendship” got energised at a two-day event in Naples last month, titled Beautiful Bengal, which highlighted “human beauties” and “eco-touristic beauties” of the state.

“Around 400 people attended the programme and Italian women turned up in Balucharis. Fashion designers at the function said the ancient art of weaving (Baluchari) could be used in western wear,” said Somnath Pyne of Freed, which has been helping artisans in the Bishnupur belt.

He said Baluchari saris, Dokra figurines and terracotta items of Bishnupur and Bankura “conquered Italian hearts” at the event.

The event was organised following an invitation from Ama Sempre Onlus, an NGO that has been partnering with organisations in the “ancient Eastern zone” of Calcutta, after Italian artiste Alberto de Rosa, filmmaker Sergio Scapagnini and actress Cristina Donadio informed them of the art and traditions of Bengal.

“De Rosa on his visit to Bishnupur toured with us and made a film on the terracotta temples and activities of the Baluchari sari weaver and handicraft artisans. He was keen that we showcase the works at an exhibition-cum-sale in Italy. Cristina, after returning from a theatre festival in Calcutta, informed the organisation and eminent people in Naples about us,” said Pyne.

“It was important for us to participate because Italy is the fashion capital of the world and experts from both places must exchange views. Also, Mamata Banerjee’s concept of Biswa Bangla should get momentum. It was with her consent that we decided to go ahead,” said Gouri Sankar Dutta, chairman of the khadi board that along with the tourism department had partnered with Freed in organising the show.

“We plan to send Bishnupuri muslin in the second phase of the Bengal-Naples exchange because our muslin is the ultimate answer to European linen. If Italians take a liking for Baluchari and muslin, it would boost heritage and handicraft tourism,” he said.

Mamata had recently laid the foundation of Maslin Tirtha in Krishnagar, “an institution that will train muslin artisans and try to develop it in accordance with the needs of the 21st century”.

The much-needed restoration of Bishnupur’s past could take a giant leap forward as Suor Orsola Benincasa University of Naples, which works closely with Unesco, has expressed interest in partnering with Jadavpur University, Freed and the state government to restore the town’s varied cultural heritage.

“The objective is cultural tourism. We are hopeful that the Naples-based university, a centre of excellence for restoration and conservation of heritage, will promote Bengal’s culture at an international level,” Dutta said.