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Book Review


Title: In the Shadow: Unknown craftsmen of Bengal
Author: Payal Mohanka
Publisher: Niyogi books
Year: 2007
Reviewed by Mrinal Kulkarni

Through this book ‘In the Shadow – Unknown craftsmen of Bengal’ Payal Mohanka brings out a pictorial narration of six villages that produce rather unusual crafts objects like wig, decorative lights, polo balls, boats, shuttlecocks and jeans.

As a journalist when Payal was filing four-minute capsules on each of these activities for the India Business Repot on BBC World Service television she made a decision to capture these activities in more detail. After a decade Payal Mohanka returned to these six villages; Baniban Jagdishpur, Chandernagor, Deulpur, Balagarh, Jadurberia and Chatta Kalikapur and the result is this book. It takes a detailed look into the lives, craft and future of the people from these villages. As there was negligible published material on these subjects the whole book is mainly based on the real life stories and personalised research.

Each of the six chapters is dedicated to each village and its craft. Each one narrates a detailed information regarding the village, its craft, its origin, who was the first one to start it, its economic effect and in what condition it is existing in present time. Baniban Jagdishpur is a village in Howra district 40 kilometers away from Calcutta and is famous for its wig makers. These wigs are created in three days from the procurement of wooden block in the shape of head then nailing nylon net and weaving of each strand of human hair. Later on edges are clipped and then with the help of hair spray and red-hot tongs the ordered curls are created.

The village churns out around 500 wigs in each month. They are sent all over the country. An average worker earns Rs. 60 a day, while a skilled craftsman makes twice the amount. But like various other small-scale industries this is also under the tight hold of middlemen. This reason and the lack of demand are forcing many of the youngsters to look for other professions. 

Chandernagor a former French colony, on the banks of Hooghly is known for light-makers. One man’s passion has created this 50-year-old cottage industry. Sridhar Das who was interested in working of electric objects develops a unique art of illumination. These exquisite illuminations are based on primitive equipments. It includes a fan roller, which moves, and the wooden cylinder with its copper strips light up and switch off thousands of little light bulbs on the bamboo trellis frame.

Today this craft supports close to 12,000 artisans in the village. As this crafts include, light-makers, raw material suppliers, artists (who make design) carpenters (who make the wooden frame for the bamboo structure) and the entire team that makes the circuits. But the escalating cost of power has affected this cottage industry.

Deulpur is the only place in the world to supply wooden polo balls to far-flung nations. It created handcrafted polo balls out of its dense bamboo groves. This region has the bamboo roots of right weight for polo balls ( i.e. between 100 and 150 gms). The original process is still followed to make these polo balls. The bamboo root is cut to specific measurement and then chiseled into a ball. It is filed and then smoothened with sandpaper. The minute gaps are filled with very fine wooden shavings and wax. Then a home made white chalk paint is painted over the ball, which will be kept in sunlight to dry for two days. And then the finishing touch is done by enamel paint.

Earlier they used to produce around 300,000 polo balls in a year and two third of its production was exported but now the new plastic polo balls have affected its business so the international market has shrunk to the local one.

Balagarh is a town inhabited by 400-year-old community of boat makers, whose references can be found even in mughal annals. One of the countries largest boatmaking centers, produces around 3000 boats in a year. They still use their old traditional boat making technique.  The process begins with measuring and fixing long strips of wood with four joints. For this they use special two-way nails. Once they get basic structure they fit the sides with the help of large nails. The holes and crevices get filled with cotton and mixture of tar and cow dung. Then the boat is left to dry and then submerged in water. After wards the finishing touch done the boat is ready.

Balagarh’s boat industry depends mainly on government orders. But now the process of modernisation and stiff competition has affected the former glory of Balagarh’s boat makers.

Jadurberia and its near villages have been producing handmade shuttlecocks for almost a century.  Jyanendra Bose set up the first unit in 1921. This region’s greatest strength is the availability of skilled labour and its proximity to Bangladesh. As Bangladesh provides 70% of the duck feathers required for this industry. The natural cork is imported from Spain and Portugal. The process begins with the washing and cleaning of feathers. Then they are clipped into proper shape and later on with the help of machine fixed on the cork.

The last rural cottage industry is discussed in this book is an about jeans makers from Chatta Kalikapur Village. Traditionally a village of tailors now the village has 200 workshops, which collectively create 20,000 pairs of jeans per day. 25 years back they modified their tailoring activity and began manufacturing jeans. This trade supports 5000 families. The growing demand for jeans has helped the village to carve a niche.

These craftsmen are trying to keep alive the old family tradition passed down from generation to generation by following the original process. In some cases they are even trying to use the new mechanical and computer facilities to enhance the quality of their products. Without any formal business or management training they are able to survive and develop their enterprise with their grit and native intelligence. As they are not working in an organised sector so even if they are creating these wonderful objects but a death of one craftsman means a step close to extinction. But these products give identity to otherwise obscure villages. This book aptly portrays that.


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