Kolkata-born fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee captured the essence of Bengal’s craftsmanship by creating Elephant Shola Masks for the royal couple. The masks were worn by King Charles III and Queen Camilla at the Animal Ball 2023 in London on June 28. This marks a milestone for West Bengal, as its traditional artistry gains global recognition.
The shola masks, handcrafted using ancient artisanal techniques and materials, emerged from a collaboration between artists from the Sabyasachi Art Foundation and the craftspeople of Bengal. These masks pay tribute to one of Bengal’s most cherished heritage crafts, practiced by about 5,000 artisans.
What is Shola?
Shola craft is an art form that involves the delicate carving of sholapith, a spongy cork sourced from aquatic plants. The plant grows wildly in marshy areas of Bengal, Assam, Odisha and the Deccan and shaping its wood into finely detailed designs requires great skill. During the celebration of Durga Puja, when the Goddess is adorned in the white of shola, her appearance is referred to as “sholar saaj”. Durga Puja made its place in UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2021. Shola serves as more than just decorative elements for deities; it holds deep significance in Hindu rituals within Bengal. Notably, the mukut (crown) and topor (headgear) worn by Bengali brides and grooms are crafted from shola, adding a touch of tradition to wedding attire.
The Animal Ball, hosted by the Elephant Family in partnership with the British Asian Trust, marked the 20th anniversary of the wildlife conservation charity founded by Her Majesty’s late brother, Mark Shand. In a testament to his commitment to promoting heritage crafts, Mukherjee shared on his Instagram account, “I like to tell hyper-local stories to the world in an attempt to create economic sustainability for heritage crafts and craftspeople.”
The designer also showcased the Bengal Tiger Necklace where “exceptionally curated gemstones come together with tropical flora and fauna”.
The Animal Ball 2023 saw the presence of guests like Christian Louboutin, Kristin Scott Thomas, Sir Brian May, Anita Dobson, Donna Air, Keeley Hawes, Emma Weymouth, and Gwendoline Christie. Alongside Mukherjee, designers Anita Dongre and Manish Malhotra represented India at the London event.