If you are visiting any handicrafts fair in West Bengal, you are likely to come across brightly coloured wooden dolls, usually pairs of owls, statues of Radha-Krishna, figures of soldiers, etc. Reminiscent of Bengal’s wooden architecture, these dolls were an integral part of people’s lives, from rituals to historical associations.
Although the craft has disappeared from most places across the state, a small village in the Purba Bardhhaman district is trying hard to continue with the tradition.
Natungram is about four hour's drive from Kolkata, where the handicraft still survives, and the craftspeople follow the traditional style. The dolls are first chiselled from a piece of seasoned wood cut to the required length. Then the face and attire are 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 is painted with such skills that you will not find anything amiss even though the dolls have no limbs.
The wave of the Bhakti movement in Bengal in the 15/16th 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. Probably 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 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. Its worth as artistic room décor has replaced its religious appeal.
But like most traditional handicrafts, the wooden dolls of Bengal too fell on bad days. “Along with the change in lifestyle, an influx of metal and plastic and machine-made goods have doomed our traditional woodcraft,” said Makhan Sutradhar, a seller of wooden dolls at a fair in Kolkata. The younger generation is not interested in this trade anymore, he said.
Thankfully, a few years back, wooden doll makers of Natungram got a fresh lease of life under the aegis of a collaboration between banglanatak dot com (a social enterprise), the Government of West Bengal and UNESCO, New Delhi.
The craftspeople were trained on how to adapt their skills to making modern lifestyle products. Apart from making traditional dolls as standalone pieces, which make for quaint souvenirs, the craftsmen are now incorporating these dolls into furniture making. Small stools, laptop tables and larger tables have owls or soldier dolls for stands, using them to make designer cupboards and boxes, etc. According to Sutradhar, if people or business enterprises, especially hotels, showed an interest in using designer furniture, there is a chance that the younger generation will be interested in carrying on the tradition.
Getting there: Natungram 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 Natungram 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 workshops, you may visit anytime during the year. But winter is more comfortable.