Go to any village fair in southern part of West Bengal and you are likely to come across a seller or two sitting with baskets of colourful wooden dolls, especially pairs of owlets. Wth the increasing change in lifestyle, however, there are few takers of these wooden dolls.
Nutangram, a village in Burdwan, about four hours’ drive from Kolkata, is one such place, where the traditional style has been retained to a large extent. The dolls are first chiselled from a piece of seasoned wood cut to the required length. Then the face and attire is painted on them. The dolls lack modern sophistication but preserve in themselves a rustic beauty, the hallmark of ethnic crafts. There are three to four distinct varieties of dolls. The sari of bride dolls are painted with such skills that you will not find anything amiss even though the dolls have no limbs.
“Along with a change in lifestyle, the influx of metal and plastic, and machine-made goods, have doomed our traditional woodcraft,” said Makhan Sutradhar, a seller of wooden dolls at the village fair. Once prevalent over many districts in West Bengal, making of wooden toys and dolls, is now found only in a few places.The wave of Bhakti movement in Bengal in the 15 and 16th century introduced the Gour-Nitai dolls, a pair of male figures with hands outstretched over their heads. They represent Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (Gour) and his close disciple Nityananda. Lord Krishna in his many forms also became popular. Another divine doll is that of Gopinath, the guardian deity of Agradwip, a town on the Burdwan-Nadia border.
Perhaps it was the royal influence (Burdwan is a former royal kingdom of Bengal) that introduced the making of soldier dolls.
But the most popular is the pair of owlets, with its origin rooted in religion. There are many old Hindu families in Bengal who still worship a pair of painted wooden owls to seek the blessings of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. They are believed to represent the pair of owlets, according to mythology, who had helped a poor mother and son earn fortunes by recommending them to the goddess of wealth. Despite being poor and managing with frugal meals, the little boy never failed to share his food with the birds, which later stood him in good stead.
Earlier, the owls would be painted with red, green and yellow on a white base, with black used to paint the eyes and other features. But now varied colours are used as a base and its worth as artistic room décor has replaced its religious appeal.
Incidentally, wooden doll makers of Nutangram got a fresh lease of life under the aegis of a collaboration between Banglanatak (a social enterprise), Government of West Bengal and UNESCO, New Delhi. Apart from making traditional dolls as standalone pieces, the craftsmen are now incorporating these dolls into furniture. Small stools, laptop tables and larger tables have owls or soldier dolls for stands. The dolls are also being incorporated into designer cupboards and boxes.
For the past few years, Nutangram, under the aegis of Bangalnatak, has been holding an annual fair in winter (Jan 18-20, 2019) where you can watch the craftspeople at work, participate in workshops, and buy directly from the craftspeople.
Getting there: Nutangram in Burdwan district is about 145km from Kolkata and takes around four hours by road. You may also travel by local train to Agradwip or Katwa and then travel onwards by road. You may also visit Nutangram while on a trip to Shantiniketan, from where it is about 1.5 hours’ journey by road. Since the homes of the artists also serve as their workshop, you may visit anytime during the year, but winter is more comfortable. Some of the artists offer accommodation and meals with prior arrangements and separate payment. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.