Sauntering into India’s only boat museum, you will be struck by several things at once. No entry fee, no guide, no photography allowed, and a display of models of miniature boats that once plied along the rivers of Bengal. Located in Kankurgachhi, a busy neighbourhood on the eastern fringe of Kolkata, is the Institute of Cultural Research with four one-roomed galleries on the ground floor, of which the Boat Museum is one.
Conceptualised by former CBI joint director Upen Biswas when he was a West Bengal government Minister in Charge of Backward Classes Welfare Department, the Boat Museum displays 46 scaled models of various kinds of indigenous boats. Even without a guide, you will soon realise that each boat is unique and was made for a particular purpose, though what the purpose was is only left to imagination unless you happen to meet the person, Swarup Bhattacharyya (now Curator at Maulana Azad Museum, MAKAIAS, Kolkata), who had researched it all and guided the Rajbangshi craftspeople from Dakshin Dinajpur district of the state in constructing these models.
For boats, it is not one size fits all, says Bhattacharyya. The design, shape and the material used is determined by the river that the boat will have to sail on and the purpose. A boat that plies along the slow moving rivers of south Bengal will not be the same as the boats that have to negotiate the swift rivers of the hilly north. A luxury boat will not be the same as a local ferry. A passenger boat will not be the same as a cargo boat. And both will be different from a fishing boat. Even if the purpose is the same, the boatsmay differ. For example, both dholai and khorokishti are cargo boats. But dholai, mostly seen in the Sunderban region, initially used to carry wood, now also carry bricks, tiles, etc. It has a deep v-shaped hull. But the khorokishti, which carries hay, has a wide flat bottom. Paukhia, another type of cargo boat, is meant to navigate shallow creeks. Maintaining the centre of gravity and buoyancy are two of the many things that a boat-maker has to keep in mind.
Fishermen use the salti to catch fish in shallow waters but the talai is used by those who go for hook and line fishing. Patia is used for coastal fishing.
Boats are such an integral part of people’s lives that the start of boat building, handing over the boat to the buyer or even launching the boat in the river or the sea at the start of the season, will happen only on chosen auspicious days.
The boat-makers of Bengal may not have had formal training in engineering but they had mastered the craft through common sense and practice. According to Bhattacharyya, traditional boat building is a knowledge that has been passed from one generation to another in the style of ‘guru-shishya parampara’. Unfortunately, many of the lessons are now on the verge of getting lost just like the traditional boats, under pressure from other faster modes of travel. One of the replicas, the pinnace, had to be constructed from an 18th century sketch. In West Bengal, Balagarh in Hooghly district, is still one of the existing boat building centres of West Bengal.
There are also a few boats that were seen in former eastern Bengal (now Bangladesh), such as Kosa and Balam. There is also a rice boat from Kerala. Nobel laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore was fond of travelling by boats. Sailing for days together, he would use the tranquil atmosphere to pen poems and plays. Sometimes, he even hosted guests on these boats. A replica of one such boat, the Padma, is also displayed here. The replica of a Harappan Boat Amulet found in Mohenjodaro is also on display.
While you are there, do not forget to take a look at the adjoining Ethnographic Museum, Puppet Museum and Kantha Museum.
Getting there: The Institute of Cultural Research, which includes the Boat Museum, is located on the ground floor of Ambedkar Bhavan (P-1/4, CIT Scheme, VII-M, VIP Road, Kanurgachhi, Kolkata 700054; tel: 033-23207623.
It is open 10am to 5pm, Monday to Friday but closed on government holidays. Photography is not allowed but sometimes prior application to the Director may work. For further knowledge, they also have a book on sale titled Heritage Boats of Bengal, priced ₹ 500