Have you been fascinated by the stately white attire and ornaments seen on many Durga idols worshipped during the autumn festival in Bengal and elsewhere? Or, you may have seen the ornamental white conical headgear of a Hindu Bengali bridegroom. But did you know that these are but reminders of a specialised craft of West Bengal, which like other traditional crafts, is on the wane?
Shola, the white soft core obtained from the stem of the eponymous plant (also known as Indian Cork; scientific name Aeschynomene aspera), has been in use in Bengal since time immemorial. Traditionally, owing to its divine origin and white colour, the substance is considered auspicious, pure, and hence used during religious and social functions.
There are many folklores associated with the origin of the shola plant and the community of artists who use it to make the products. According to one folklore, the plant originated from the whims of Lord Shiva. He requested Vishwakarma, the god of creative power, to bring him a pure white crown and garland to be worn during his wedding with Goddess Parvati. But when Vishwakarma failed to deliver, Shiva plucked a lock of his own hair and flung it in a pond, which immediately sprung a special reed. And when Vishwakarma failed to understand what to do with the reeds, Shiva flung a hair off his arm into the pond from whence emerged a young man. This young man used the pure white core of the plant to make Shiva’s crown, garland and other ornaments. Shiva named the youth ‘malakar’ or the garland maker, a name that the traditional shola craftsmen are still known by.
And even today, in traditional Hindu Bengali wedding, the bride and the groom wear special headgears made of shola. The groom wears the conical shola ‘topor’ while the bride wears an ornamental crown or ‘mukut’.
Being soft and light-weight, shola is often used for making the attire, ornaments and other decorations of idols. It is also used by many indigenous communities of Bengal as part of their sacred rituals. For example, in north Bengal, shola is used to make the ‘manasar chali’ or the cluster of serpents that serve as the representative of Manasa, the snake goddess.
Probably influenced by the Mughal court, craftsmen in Murshidabad (capital of the independent Bengal province prior to the decisive Battle of Plassey) had mastered the fine art of ivory carving. But the lack of patronage after the capital’s fall from grace and later the ban on ivory trade may have led to the end of this craftsmanship if the artisans had not chanced upon a substitute, the shola. Owing to the whiteness of the material and the fine craftsmanship, you may mistake the shola handicraft for ivory. Some of the typical products made here that hark back to the ivory carving days are decorated elephants, ‘mayurpankhi’ or the peacock shaped boat, palanquins, flowers, etc.
Shola is also used by the puppeteers of Muragachha Colony and Borboria village in Nadia district to make the traditional string puppets. They use the light-weight shola to make the head and the torso of the puppets, layering it with clay and colour later on.
Besides, craftsmen from various districts in the southern part of West Bengal, make toys, decorative items, including flower bouquets, greeting cards, portraits of idols, finely crafted miniature statues, etc.
Shola is also used in Odisha as a craft material. From the headgear worn by Lord Jagannath and his siblings during the Rathayatra to making of boats for the Boita Bandana or the Bali Yatra festival held during Kartik Purnima are some of the popular usages of the shola.
But with the passage of time, like many other traditional handicrafts, the shola craft is also on the wane. The shola plant grows in marshy waterbodies. With the decline in the number of wetlands in the rural areas, the supply of the plant has reduced to a large extent. With competition from machine-made mass produced goods and the substitution of shola with thermocol (polystyrene), handcrafted shola products are fighting a losing battle. Besides, the younger generation does not find the occupation lucrative.
“Human skill is the most important aspect of making shola handicrafts,” said Kamal Malakar, a shola craftsman from Shantiniketan. “The tools are very simple, essentially knives of different shapes and size. For example, the ‘kath’ is used to peel the outer covering of the stem to reveal the white core.” Besides, a pair of scissors, glue, coloured paper or tinsel, strings, etc. are used, depending on the product.
What most people do not realise is that shola being a natural product is easy to dispose as it is biodegradable. Therefore, even if local customs require you to throw shola products in the water, for example during the Durga puja immersion in the rivers, it will not pollute the water.
To ensure that the shola craft is not lost forever, with support from the German Consulate General Kolkata under the ‘Cultural Preservation Programme’ of the German government, a Kolkata-based social enterprise Banglanatak dot com is working with the craftspeople in various districts of West Bengal. Besides documenting the craft techniques, they are also empowering the community to improve, innovate and diversify the range of shola products to make it suitable for the global market. At a city exhibition organised as part of the project, the craftsmen also revealed that shola can be used for interior decoration, including designing entrances, etc. for social or public functions.