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Wooden owls and dolls of Burdwan’s Natungram – Bengal’s craftsmen at their best

9 September, 2020 16:32:34
Wooden owls and dolls of Burdwan’s Natungram – Bengal’s craftsmen at their best

Burdwan district is rich with historical legacies. Natungram is an hour’s drive from Burdwan station. This small village, or more specifically, Agradwip region near Katwa railway station is the hub of wooden doll makers also known as ‘Sutradhars’ (narrator or storyteller). Carved out of a single piece of wood, these dolls from ancient folklore and mythology are characterized by their vibrant colors and distinctive ethnic style. 

Skilled hands

The doll making tradition has been in vogue for centuries and even to this day, most craftsmen are involved in this craft as their primary source of livelihood. Around 51 families living in the village are involved in doll making. All the members of the family are involved in the doll making process. Separate sets of work are earmarked for the artisan. The males are skilled in wood carving and women do the colouring. The surnames of the doll makers are either Bhaskar, meaning sculptor or Sutradhar, meaning story-teller. 

The brightly coloured wooden dolls

The artisans of Natungram have been able to retain their traditional style for centuries. Dolls are mainly made out of ‘gamar’ wood, mango wood, shimul wood, ata wood, chatim wood. Men generally complete the cutting and carving the wood as per the requirement and women then step in to paint the products with various colours. Colouring has to be done by the female members of the family. Here one can see sudden bursts of creativity as the women let off their imagination and there is a riot of colors. Myriad intricate motifs and designs in multi colours are painted to adorn the creations. Bright basic colours like red, yellow, green are used liberally to decorate the dolls. They use fabric colours and oil paints for decorating the dolls. There are three to four distinct varieties of dolls found at Natungram.

 The dolls are first chiseled from a piece of seasoned wood cut to the required length. Then the face and attire are painted. But with changing times, the influx of metal and plastic, and machine-made goods, have doomed their traditional woodcraft. Previously, the art of making wooden dolls and toys was prevalent over many districts in West Bengal but now the craft has been kept alive in only in a few places.

The wave of Bhakti movement in Bengal in the 15th and 16th centuries 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.

The famous wooden owls of Burdwan

Perhaps it was the royal influence (Burdwan is a former royal kingdom of Bengal) that introduced the making of soldier dolls. The most popular among all the creations is a pair of owlets, with its origin rooted in religion. There are many traditional 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 with red, green and yellow on a white base, with black color used to paint the eyes and other features. But now varied colours are used as a base and its worth as artistic room décor has replaced its religious appeal.

The final touch

State government’s Department of Micro Small and Medium Enterprises & Textiles, in association with UNESCO, has developed Natungram as one of the Rural Craft Hubs of the state. WBKVIB has developed a Folk Art Centre with lodging facilities equipped with all basic amenities. Visitors at Natungram can witness the artists at work, explore the Folk Art Centre to learn about the craft and its technique and learn the stories behind it.

Story Tag:
  • Craft, Wooden owls, Burdwan

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