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Dolls of Bengal – GetBengal story

8 June, 2024 10:20:43
Dolls of Bengal – GetBengal story

Bengal has never ascribed to the idea of dolls being nothing but playthings for children. Dolls have always been culturally and traditionally important to the people of this land. In every district of Bengal, there is a tradition of making dolls that has been passed down from generation to generation. So long and rich is the history that it can no longer be accurately traced, especially with the sheer number and variety of dolls that are made here.

But let us talk about a few iconic dolls that have survived the clutches of modernization and have been preserved by passionate craftsmen who refuse to let their art die. 

Clay Dolls
There is a vast array of clay dolls that are easily accessible throughout the state of Bengal. From soft clay to burnt clay dolls, these handcrafted dolls are either baked or sun-dried, then painted a variety of colours. Herbal colours have been replaced with azo dyes, but the folk aesthetic is still present. Traditionally, potters in Panchmura (Bankura), Kunoor (North Dinajpur), and Kanthalia (Murshidabad) have made dolls using the wheel and the kiln oven. But with the development of technology and shifting lifestyles, changes have been introduced in the doll-making industry. The potter's wheel has been superseded by moulds as they expedite the process. The hands and legs are later attached to the body.

Terracotta Dolls
Terracotta dolls are the oldest craft in the world, with relics found in ancient ruins like the Indus Valley and Mesopotamian civilization. Unique terracotta creations from the town of Bishnupur in Bengal are pioneers in terracotta handicrafts. The Bankura horses have a long history and tradition and are used during religious ceremonies. Nowadays, it has become a popular item for decor with its rustic charm and unique look. 

Mojilpur Dolls
The Mojilpur clay dolls, from the district of South 24 Parganas in rural Bengal, are presently manufactured single-handedly by Sambhu Das, the grandson of legendary doll-making artist Manmatha Das, who was the original creator of these dolls. The ancestors of the Das family had migrated to Bengal from Jessore (a district in the south-west region of Bangladesh) several years ago. Shambhu Das is struggling to keep this traditional art form from going extinct. Manmatha Das was honoured with the prestigious President’s Award in the year 1986 for his magnificent creations, namely Jagannath, Balaram, and Subhadra

Rani Putul
The Queen doll, or ‘Rani Putul’ of Howrah, is a beautiful reflection of one of the most popular handicrafts of Bengal. It has a very simple and rustic folklore appeal. Made by using two-faced wooden dice, the dolls are moulded from mud and then put in kilns for drying. Some collectors are of the opinion that this doll is a representation of Queen Victoria of England. A dying art, however, not all is lost due to the passionate effort of a few artisan families, of whom Dibakar Pal of Howrah district is one of the most prominent artisans. He still diligently continues the legacy of his forefathers. These dolls are sold at various rural fairs in Howrah, Hooghly, and a few other surrounding districts, where they are quite popular.


Krishnanagar Dolls
Krishnanagar is renowned for its craftsmanship, use of vibrant colours, unique construction methods, and rich history. The artisans of the Ghurni region in Nadia's Krishnanagar are renowned for creating these lifelike dolls. Originally makers of traditional dolls, they shifted to crafting these dolls due to royal patronage, making them more expensive than ordinary clay dolls. This art form in Bengal dates back 200–250 years and is known for its intricate detailing. Recently, the artisan community here has started to experiment with their art form. Their fancy home décor items best exemplify this. 

Wooden dolls
The Burdwan district's Natungram is well-known for its wooden dolls made by the community of local carpenters. The owl, bride, king and queen, Gaur-Nitai, Shiva, Kali, and Durga are the most well-known figures; they are all carved from white teak wood. A unique feature of Natungram is the charming wooden owl. Originally used for the worship of Goddess Lakshmi, it is today a well-known artefact worldwide. 

Jute Dolls
Jute, a natural fibre, is primarily grown in warm, humid regions like Bengal. After harvest, jute bundles are left to dry, then retted in water to separate fibres. After stripping and sun-drying, fibres are spun into yarn, which is woven into fabric. The fabric is used for bags, rugs, and clothing.

Jute dolls are whimsical creations that have been around for a while. But for the last 56 years, there has been a noticeable shift in the manufacturing process. Jute fibre that cannot be used for other products is used to make attractively dyed dolls. Murshidabad's rural ladies are skilled practitioners of this technique. These days, commonplace goods like key rings, bags, rags, and home décor products are also receiving a touch of the golden fibre.

Shellac Dolls
Shellac dolls, or ‘Gaalar Putul', used to be a very popular craft from Bengal's Purba Midnapore District for decades. Brightly coloured and beautifully textured, these miniature dolls come in various forms of deities, animals, and humans. Brindaban Chanda, a sixty-two-year-old man, is one of the very few artisans in Bengal who has still kept this age-old tradition alive. The primary structure is made with hand-pressed soil gathered from white ant hills. It is then soaked in water and left to ferment for three days straight, after which it is sun-dried and baked. What makes these dolls so unique is the rather interesting process thereafter. Held with a pair of tongs over red hot coal, an array of colourful ‘Lac’ is applied all over the dolls. With nimble hands and crafty skills, the artisans then create magnificent designs and patterns on the dolls with the thread of the lac. 

With a variety of techniques and materials, Bengal produces a myriad of fascinating dolls. Preserving these dolls and, hence, the cultural essence of Bengal is imperative. As such, ‘The Bengal Store’ is helping preserve the art of these talented craftsmen. Making sure people remain connected to their roots.

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