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The Clay Dolls of Krishnanagar

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on January 4, 2009 3 Comments

The Khadi Handicrafts Fair sign was only barely visible through the fogged up car windows as we arrived there around dusk yesterday. Four or five middle aged men in thick woolen caps and dark shawls gathered around a small bonfire, their palms spread out, the flames nearly licking their fingertips. A young man stood forlornly by a cart overflowing with unshelled peanuts warmed by hot coals from a small clay oven. A balloon seller optimistically stood by, the multicolored balloons twisted into unidentifiable shapes. Ah, winter time in Delhi. As we entered the gates, we went through the motions of security checks…my purse was rifled through, my parents and I were patted down, and then we were forced to go through the metal detectors. We go through these motions at malls, at cinemas, at restaurants, even at my gym, so I’ve almost internalized this routine as a part of going out. Anyway, having satisfied the security personnel that we were not security threats, we went inside, determined not to let the biting cold drag us away too soon.

After about a half hour of browsing through different stalls selling khadi vests, shirts, and sarees, we saw a stall with exquisite, tiny clay dolls. The seller motioned us over and began speaking to us in Bengali: I imagine the shankha (conch shell) and pala (lacquer) bangles on my mother’s wrists-which every Bengali married woman wears-were a dead giveaway. We stood there mesmerized in reverenced silence, until Ma started up a conversation with the shopkeeper. I busied myself with the camera.

The Bengali clay dolls are a specialty of Krishnanagar, in the Nadia District of West Bengal, India. These dolls are tiny-between two and three inches in height-and generally capture ordinary Bengali men and women at work. In the gallery, for example, you can see basketweavers working with bamboo bark; a Brahmin priest doing puja in front of a Shiv Ling; umbrella repairmen fixing broken handles; Santhal tribal men dancing with the dhols; rural Bengali men and women carrying firewood home; an iron welder working his craft; a man making rope out of cotton; and male and female devotees with manjiras and dhols participating in kirtan. The dolls are made with soil from the river Ganga (recently declared the National River), called “etail,” left over once the tide recedes. It is incredibly soft, and can be moulded easily. The doll makers use tiny iron rods to provide the skeletal structure for the dolls, then work with delicate tools to craft the clay. When they are nearly done, the dolls are baked in a kiln, given a final coat of varnish, painted, and then costumed with miniature clothing.

The dolls were being sold for around INR 100 (approx. $2)…almost a joke, given the hours of labor that each piece must take, and the fact that the seller had lugged the wares all the way from Kolkata. Despite their cheapness, there is a dwindeling market for such ethnic dolls, and hence fewer and fewer such doll makers in Bengal today. This exquisite craftsmanship is increasingly threatened by mechanized manufacturing plants, Mattel (ha!), and other marks of modernity. In addition, the Bengal that the doll makers of Krishnanagar capture with such beauty and dexterity is changing, and the “ordinary” scenes that the dolls capture are now intricate windows into a rapidly disappearing past. As the the past recedes, will also its images-its symbols-molded in clay?

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3 Responses to “The Clay Dolls of Krishnanagar”

  1. Youki on: 4 January 2009 at 7:44 am

    beautiful pictures!

    That’s Ganesha in the bottom left picture? Why is he (right one) dressed so modernly? a doctor?

  2. Usree Bhattacharya on: 4 January 2009 at 8:07 am

    Yes, those dolls are incredibly photogenic!

    It’s Ganesha, yes, but he’s actually in traditional garb…that’s a cone hat with a sherwani-like suit and dark dhoti. It’s a new twist on Ganesha, though. Indian artisans have taken to making some very experimental and unique Ganesha murtis nowadays. We saw another one which had the trunk of Ganesha twisted so that the Ganesha murti was in the form of an ॐ. I’ll be going back and will take pictures of that.

    jen Reply:

    Can these dolls be found all over Krishnanagar/west Bengal or are they hard to find?(tribal men, occupation people)

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