Panchmura (West Bengal), May 9 : Popular Bankura horse that evolved as the symbol of West Bengal over a period of time besides gaining a special place in the national crafts museum, is dying a slow death at the very place it derived its name from.
Bankura horses are terracotta horses that were once used more often for religious purposes, now they are used as decorative item here. This art originated in Bankura district of West Bengal.
These horses are known for their symmetric shape and rounded curves given to their body.
The Bankura or Panchmura horse gained popularity among the art lovers since it acquired a place in the works of renowned painter M. F. Hussein.
However, Bankura horse has been part of a 300-year old tradition of Panchmura Village and has gained entry into drawing rooms across the country and various parts of the world.
Though Bankura horse has travelled to far off places, the artisans who have been making it for generations are struggling to survive.
A visit to the Bankura's Panchmura Village narrates the saddening story of Bankura artisans.
It is unusually quiet for an artisan village. And, the premises of most the dwellings draw attention to terracotta horse figurines staring out. There is hardly any activity here these days except a few artisans dusting their stock.
The gloomy picture of artisans' condition bespeaks a dying cottage industry and sounds the death knell for a once thriving art form here.
Time changed but the process to make these pottery pieces remained traditional. The tools used for shaping it are made from bamboo and stones.
However, now this cottage industry is mired in problems. For almost two months during summer there no work. Over 300 individuals from 100 families involved in this business are finding the whole situation going from bad to worse every year.
"The work is labour-intensive. Firing, moving the heavy horses and elephants, lacquering the items in direct sunlight, it is difficult. But we have no choice. Children also help as much as they can. It's family-oriented source of income. The sale and profits are very little,"says China Kumbhakar, a woman artisan.
The potters' wheel has stopped. The artisans only worship it in the hope that work would resume soon.
Be it fairs, exhibitions or markets are held in winter. With no tourists around, the local markets at Bishnupur and Bankura are left with a few takers for the terracotta artefacts. The old stock has piled up considerably.
The problem looks grave when one finds almost everyone in Panchmura is employed with this cottage industry. Be it women or children besides men folk, everyone is participate in the work process.
There is no alternative source of income for these villagers.
The Panchmura Terracotta Artisans' Cooperative is also at its wits ends trying to find clay, as the clay used has to be collected from paddy fields from a depth of 5 feet.
"The clay available in and around the village has exhausted. Now it is be bought from others' fields. There is no electricity so the fire to prepare the object has to be done with firewood that has already scarce. Hence, no firing is taking place. We tried negotiating with the forest department but to no avail. We don't know if we can even fire anything in future," says Taraknath Kumbhakar, the secretary of the Panchmura Terracotta Artisans' Cooperative.
Artisans are compelled to prepare miniatures, which can dry in sunlight and don't require fire process. After lacquering, they are to be fired but miniatures require much less firewood.
The Cooperative members hope for a marketing miracle. They are happy that individuals like acclaimed painter M.F Hussein adopted the Bankura horse and made it world famous.
But there is wistfulness too. They desire some recognition and money coming their way too. They want to channelise their goods directly to the stately homes where the Bankura Horse reigns in supremacy.
The poor villagers say they have toiled for generations. Earlier, the market was the village itself. Now it stands diminished.
Various artisans had to switch over from making horses and elephants to utility items like conches, flower vases, ashtrays to find a larger market.
A touch of abstract, some tribal etchings - everything was tried. For some time the novelty factor played well. However, now, with no sustaining plan at work, the market has dwindled.
Middlemen walk away with a large chunk of money. But the artisans ultimately find themselves left with nothing but their huge pile of unsold Bankura horse.
"The distinctive look and style of the horse, its long neck, stout, small legs, pointed ears, small tail and the intricate decorations, were highlighted with my father Rashbehari Kumbhakar getting the President's Award in 1968-69 for it. Subsequently, the Bankura Horse evolved as a symbol of West Bengal, adopted by the State Tourism Board. It also found pride of place at the National Crafts Museum", says Pashupathi Kumbhakar, himself a veteran artisan.
Making terracotta figurines is quite interesting. The terracotta horses and elephants are turned out in separate parts, on the potters' wheel.
The four legs, the full neck in two parts and the face (seven pieces in all) are turned out separately on the wheel for the horse and later joined by hand. Similar process is applied to the elephant.
Once the parts are joined, the figures of horses and elephants take shape. The figures are scraped and made even. Additional clay is used to make up for any defects right shape. The figures are then required to dry. By Ajitha Menon