Panchmura terracotta tales

Distance from Kolkata: 205 km Driving Time: 5 Hours Road Trip: 2 days

The elegant terracotta horse has been an icon of Bengal’s traditional handicraft industry. But very few people are aware that this terracotta horse - more popularly referred as “Bankura-r ghora”- are handcrafted by artisans of a particular village – Panchmura where almost all families are involved in making such terracotta idols. In this issue, Team WHEELS explores the potters’ village of Panchmura in a trendy Fiat Avventura – a compact SUV Route Panchmura village is located 22 km ahead of Bishnupur town in Bankura district. Although the most common route to Bankura from Kolkata is via Tarakeswar and Arambagh, Team WHEELS chose to drive through NH-6 and NH-60 via Chowrighee Morh at Kharagpur because of better road conditions. Enter Kona Expressway through Vidyasagar Setu. At the end of Kona Expressway turn left into NH-6. Follow NH-6 and go over Dhulaghori Toll Tax Plaza, Uluberia, Kolaghat and drive towards Kharagpur. At trip 111 km where NH-6 bifurcates into NH-60- turn left towards Kharagpur and Mumbai and go onto the flyover, follow NH-6 and drive towards Chowringhee Morh at Kharagpur. At the huge traffic roundabout called Chowringhee Morh in Kharagpur- enter NH-60 (also called Bankura Chandrakona Road) which is on the extreme right and drive towards Chandrakona after which come Bankura. After Kharagpur, the highway, NH-60 narrows down to a 2-lane road, yet the surface condition remains equally good, barring the first 12 km. NH-60 leads straight to Bankura from Kharagpur. The best part of this route is that the road passes through 3 sparse forests – including Arabari forest range in Paschim Medinipur. Take a small detour inside Arabari forest to enjoy the wildness for a while. Its entrance is on the right side of the highway and a forest bungalow lies deep inside. From the Chaubeta Morh on NH-60 in Bankura (trip 182.3 km) take an insignificant left turn towards Panchmura village, leaving behind NH-60. Drive straight through this beautiful village road, dotted by mild vegetation on both sides - for 22 km to reach Panchmura village. The Fiat Avventura driven by Team WHEELS in this drive was quite impressive. Though it has a 1.3 litre diesel engine, its pick-up is fast and quite refined. The new generation Avventura with a starting price of `6.4 lakhs, a high ground clearance of 205 mm, was fun to drive. It cruised smoothly over all kinds of terrain and delivered a performance, powerful enough to impress Team WHEELS. History Terracotta is a type of fired clay, a brownish-red colour which is used for modelling different idols, figurines or ornamental building material and tiles. It is believed that the tradition of making terracotta idols started in Panchmura region under the Mallya dynasty at the end of 7th Century AD. The artisans in those days used to inscribe the temple walls with terracotta tiles and artwork which gradually spread to other parts of Bengal. At the beginning, the potters called the ‘Kumbhakar’, used to make earthenware. Terracotta images of Ma Manasa (Snake Goddess), elephants and horses were placed at the site of worship by villagers who are primarily tribal folk. Later on, these gained use as decorative pieces. Finally, the government took notice of this unique art form. Rashbehari Kumbhakar of Panchmura received President’s Award as an acknowledgement for his extraordinary terracotta craftsmanship in 1968. Since then, terracotta craftsmen in the village of Panchmura came under arc lights and this art form gradually gained prominence. Panchmura Village Panchmura is located deep inside Bankura. Initially, there were only eight families belonging to Kumbhakar community in the village who indulged in terracotta works but now 66 out of the total 83 families are engaged in the art. Though houses are pucca and roads have been concretised, thanks to the magic wand of development, the terracotta artifacts kept in the sun, outside the houses of Kumbhakars, holds certain charm for urban tourists. One can also see before his own eyes how readily deft fingers shape the clay into unique pieces of terracotta art. Some time back, Government of West Bengal along with UNESCO had taken up the initiative to develop a hub for rural craft at Panchmura but it is yet to make any progress. Formed in 1959, Panchmura Mrit Shilpi Samabay Samity is a cluster of artisans which provides a platform for suitable marketing opportunities to the craftsmen. The society has taken up the task of buying land to provide artisans with modelling clay required to pursue their vocation. For the first time ever, a 3-day village fair along with a folk festival ‘Panchmura Terracotta Mela’ was successfully held last year by – an NGO, between October 31 and November 2 to promote the art and artisans. Brajanath Kumbhakar (34), President of the Samity lamented: “Although terracotta art of Panchmura is famous world wide, people in our own state are not even aware of it”. Economy Contrary to popular perception, the terracotta art form has survived because of religious practices and rituals followed by tribal people and not as decorative pieces. During our visit we discovered that the clay models of horses, elephants and so are offered as mannat- a sacramental promise to gods and goddesses. During Salui Puja, terracotta horses are kept under trees as offering to the god while Manasa Puja requires the Manasa-chali to be offered to the goddess. In fact only 15-20 per cent of the total sale comprises decorative items. A veteran artist Brajanath Kumbhakar pointed out that terracotta art form would have disappeared long ago without its religious connect. The prices also vary accordingly as the same items are sold to the locals at half the price for religious rites while outsiders who want to buy this unique handicraft are required to pay more. But despite the popularity of the art, the artisans engaged in it have not benifitted financially. There has not been much research for new techniques and designs and hence artisans follow the same old traditional practices of their ancestors. Because of the inherent fragility of terracotta models there has not been much increase in exports either. Each artist has a unique style and hence uniformity in mass production of this handcrafted item is also not possible. But the craft is surviving rather perilously as the demand for religious purpose is even diminishing, prompting artisans to look for new avenues of marketing. The average daily income of the potter is around `80-100 and only the skillful ones can earn around `200-300 per day. The financial hardship is leading many to give up their hereditary vocation. As Gopal Kumbhakar rued, “Even that average daily income of `100 daily is irregular.” This is because the demand for puja articles is at best seasonal. The clay idols are in demand only during folk festivals such as Dasahara, Ambubachi, Daak Sangkranti, Makhan Sangkranti, Makar Sangkranti, Charak-Chaitra Sangkranti. Marketing is still a huge roadblock as only a handful artist are able to market their products in urban centres such as Kolkata and Delhi, that too because of personal endeavour while the rest are forced to sell in the local markets. Some businessmen from Kolkata also come to buy these products. No wonder, the artisans like Bauldas Kumbhakar do not want their children to take up the traditional vocation. But there are some like veteran artisan, Pasupati Kumbhakar (85), who say they will continue their traditional art as “I am an artist and will always keep this wheel of life spinning”. Process Like other rural art form, terracotta work also involves the entire family of the potter. The potters begin modelling idols from mid-May after worshipping the wheel during Chaka Puja. Hence, their wheel remains idle on the month of Baisakh (April-May)according to Bengali calendar. Terracotta work requires ‘etel-mati’- a special kind of clay found only after digging at least 4-5 feet deep below the surface in certain areas. At present the clay is being sourced from Basgarh and Pattetul areas in Panchmura.The clay for the entire year is kept in stock by the potters. He does his own digging for seven days at a stretch and the clay is then transported by tractors. He requires about 3-5 carts comprising 200 lumps in each cart. The clay is then mixed with fine sand and water from the pond is poured and mixed to form a lump which is then kneaded with feet. The dough-like clay is then placed over the potter’s wheel which is rotated continuously with the help of a stick. On the revolving wheel the skillful and deft fingers of the Kumbhakar fashions out of the clay each part of the artifacts separately and then these are put together and joined with the clay. Finer designs and motifs are then etched upon them. Earthen pots and vessels are also made in the same way on the spinning wheel. The popular terracotta horse which is hollow inside comprises 7 parts including 4 legs, body, neck and head. They are then joined by another layer of clay and smoothened over by water and slight pressure of the finger tips. Then embellishments are done on the clay model. Then it is dried under a shed for 8 to 10 days. Meanwhile, colours are prepared by the women folk from special clay. The process takes about 15 days and then the painted models are dried once again. Next, the clay models are baked inside a huge earthen oven called the ‘bhati’. Usually, whatever the Kumbhakar creates over a period of roughly one month are put together in the 'bhati' to make it cost-effective. A 'bhati' is lit for 5-6 hours at one go and takes around 10-12 hours to cool down. Dry Eucalyptus leaves are used as fuel these days – because wood is expensive and difficult to procure. Sometimes 4-5 artisans together use the 'bhati' one after another once it is lit. The hues depend on the fuel and duration of baking. The ochre yellow turns into orange after being burnt in the furnace. The colour ‘black’ is achieved only after leaving the model for a longer period in the furnace and then smoked for carbon deposition. After baking, the models are ready to be sold. Accommodation: Hotels are yet to come up in Panchmura. The only place to stay is the office building of Panchmura Mrit Shilpi Samabay Samity. Around 10-12 male visitors can be accommodated in the big hall on its first floor. It has flat wooden cots and new mattresses with a western styled toilet. They charge `300 per person per night between June to September and `450 between October and May. Simple home cooked meals are arranged against advance orders for breakfast, lunch and dinner which will cost you `125 per head for a chicken meal. Tea and mineral water are also available. However, for an overnight tour, one should put up at the Tourist Lodge of West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation or any of the numerous hotels in Bishnupur- about 22 km and just 30 minutes away from Panchmura. Conclusion Since it is 430 km both to and fro from Kolkata, covering Panchmura on the same day could be a bit strenuous. However, the remarkable driving comfort of Fiat Avventura along with a cozy interior helped the 5-member strong Team WHEELS to have a wonderful drive out. Contacts Panchmura Mrit Shilpi Samabay Samity Brajanath Kumbhakar (President), Cell: 9732035729 Dipankar Kumbhakar (Secretary), Cell: 9547163124 Bhutnath Kumbhakar (Member), Cell: 9732187161 Prices of Terracotta handicrafts Products Size For religious us For decoration Horse or Elephant 6 inch `30 `80 12 inch `50 `140 24 inch `120 `250 36 inch `150 `325 5 feet `1400 `3000 Manasa-Chali 1 - 4 part `180 - 1200 Ash tray, flower vase, agarbatti stand `10 - 50

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