Shola cottage industry in West Bengal: Local history and future prospects

The following article provides a look at shola artists and shola industry in general. The orginal Bengali articles were written by Sanjay Ghosh for Manthan Samayiki, and has been translated by Koel Das, Sanhati. Shola is a naturally occurring substance which has been used traditionally by people for making flowers and other artworks. Unlike petroleum-based thermocol which degrades in water thus polluting marine-life, shola products are less polluting and environmentally stable. There is a rising demand for shola artwork, and more and more villages are engaging in this cottage industry, which is in danger of being lost partly due to Government inaction.

Part 1

Pukuria village is in the Mandribazar police district of South 24 Parganas, West Bengal. Right next to the pitch road through which several bus routes run, there are some small brick buildings with tiled roofs. One of these is the workplace of the shola artist Kamal Bairagi (42). When I met him, he was working with the front door closed. The back door was open and looked over a rivulet that flowed behind the building. There was a small boat anchored in the water. He mentioned that he would need the boat to go the fields to answer nature’s call. Talking with him, I was able to learn some things about shola and the shola industry.

Mr. Bairagi had been a van rickshaw driver since the age of 15. Afterwards, he left that profession, and for the next 20-25 years was able to make a living by making artworks out of shola. His house, in the Bazarberia village, is a short distance away. That village lacks electricity, and has poorly maintained roads. This is why he has rented a PWD owned house in the Pukuria village. This house is on a bus route, and also electricity is available as power lines run by the road. This helps the artist to easily communicate with the buyers. However, it is PWD property, hence the government can make him move any day.

His wife Ratna (39), and two sons Deepak (25) and Dilip (18) all work in the Shola workshop with him. His two daughters Shikha (24) and Rekha(18), both of whom are married, continue the work in their married homes in Chitraganj and Bazarberia respectively. The daughters of the shola artists in this region enter their married homes with the tradition of the artwork. I asked Mr. Bairagi some questions about his profits and losses. The replies that came through reflected despair and dejection from the systematic deprivation that he has been subjected to in his career as an artist.
 
With an investment of Rs 500 for the raw materials, the resultant products can be sold for Rs 700 to Rs 900. This means there is a profit of Rs. 200-400 net profit with this investment. As a result, with all four people working, the profit is around Rs 3000 from a monthly investment of Rs 5000.

On the other hand, Shyamal Gayen and Bimal Gayen of the same village have become extremely wealthy by being able to invest heavily with their capital. Larger corporations based out of Dharmatolla, Kolkata, order artworks with specific designs meant for export to foreign countries like USA, France, England, Russia, Japan and Singapore, with resulting profits in tens of millions of Rupees. The artists themselves get very little of the profits, and are barely able to survive. The local businessmen buy their art works for 40-50 paise (100 paise = 1 Rupee) and sell it to firms based in Dharmatolla for a much larger profit who in turn export these products abroad at a higher rate.

If the government would invest 100,000-200,000 Rupees or would take direct responsibility of purchasing and marketing the artworks, then the middlemen who do not do any of the work would not be able to make these huge profit margins. On picking up one of the design catalogs that he was working off, I noticed the word “Espana”. This indicated to me that a Spanish firm had possibly ordered these goods.
           
Mr. Bairagi showed me the awards he had received over the years. These included the first prize in the district level and the second prize overall in the state level in a statewide cottage industries and craft competition in 2001-02. He had also received a similar award in 1999-2000 for his creations. The government (DIC) employed him as a trainer for shola artists. He gave extensive training to the apprentices in the Mandirabazar, Jayanagar and the Nimpith areas.

However, even in this field, he complained of being deprived. NGO’s often use people like him to train artists. The government allots Rs. 2000 per person for training 20 people. Rs. 4000 was stipulated for the expenses of raw materials, tools, and for the lunch meals of the trainers. The Sunderbans development center, which is base in Lakshmikantapur – Dayaranpur area was given money by the government, and they had previously employed Mr. Bairagi as a trainer. But this time, they are having the training completed by a person who is not an artist. Mr. Bairagi feels exploited.
           
On the invitation of different state run organizations, Mr. Bairagi has participated in different state fairs and continues to do so. He has been attending the cottage industry fair organized by the DRC for the past five years. This year (2009), he will be going to the fair in Kolkata which will be starting on 13th January and will continue for 22-23 days. He has already created shola flowers enough to which fill a sack for this event. He was also present in the “Milan Mela” cottage fair which began last March.

Part 2

Shola industry is spreading to South 24 Parganas households by self-initiatives

The future of the shola industry looks promising due to self-initiatives and rising demands. This cottage industry is gradually making inroads into many homes in many villages. According to Mr. Bairagi, one positive aspect of this promising low-capital industry is its pollution-free nature.

This is an agro-based industry. Thus, not only shola industry, but shola farming is also speading to some areas in the South 24 Parganas. The shola tree grows mainly in the wet regions. Shola produced in wet regions like Bonga, Habra, Boshirhat, Kalyani in Bangladesh or India-Bangadesh border is big, fat, soft and fresh and happens to be the best quality shola. Farming was done in this area while the market was in Howrah. Mr. Bairagi and others used to buy shola trees from Howrah before.

Nowadays, the shola art supplies are available for trading every Saturday from 5 a.m. to 8-9 p.m at the Pukuria market . Hindu and Muslim farmers from villages like Bankar Dar, Ishwaripur of the Joynagar and Magarhat police district bring shola trees for selling in the market.

Bundles of shola trees are referred to as ‘Tari’ in the regional language. One tari comprises of 8/10/15 shola trees. Thin shola tari may cost Rs 4 a piece while good quality shola tari may be upto Rs 20. As per Mr. Bairagi’s information, shola art accessories include white thread, Fevicol, glue, 8-10 chemical colors like yellow, red, green brown etc. Instruments needed are 1) kati- to cut two types of shola tree, 2) 6-7 types of designer knives, 3) batali (small)- three varieties. Apart from these, paper cutting scissors are required.

A bit of history

The first shola works started in this Mandirbajar police district of South 24 Parganas, in the village of Maheshpur, approximately 200 years ago. As per Mr. Bairagi’s knowledge, artists from Maheshpur probably learnt their craft from Howrah. Gradually, the shola works spread to the neighboring villages.

About 100 years ago, Mokimpur started shola art works, followed by Pukuria 40-50 years back. Currently, 100% of the population in Maheshpur and around 99% in Pukuria are involved in shola works. Apart from these place, villages like Hattalam Gokulnagar, Sundir Hat,Kalitala, Gopalnagar have also started shola works.

The shola artworks are packaged in containers and exported outside the country via ships from Tuticorin harbor in Madras (Chennai). The shola artists previously created topor (conical shola hat used for weddings), kalka ( decorations used in worship), deity ornaments, Kadam flower, chandmala (garlands for worship decorations) and others.

Mr. Bairagi said that the first flower decorations were started by Montu Gayen of Mokimpur and Bhishma Koyal of Maheshpur. Later, others joined in. The exquisite models of rose and chrysanthemum made from shola can be only found in a few villages in the Mandirbajar police district. Shirakol, Amtala, Baruipur and other areas in the South 24 Parganas have also started shola works.

The first shola works started here in the Mali neighborhood of Maheshpur village. Practically, this is a “Halder” neighborhood as all artisans here have “Halder” surnames. But since they create chandmala and other decorations for deities, they are refered as Malakar/Mali (regional name for people making garland), hence the neighborhood name, said 23 year old Radharani Halder. Veteran Sudhir Kumar Halder (69) , sitting on the area next to his stairs, told us that shola works started in the times of his great grandfather, Gorachand Halder. His grandfather, Motilal Halder, was the eldest of the four brothers and his father, Jyotish Halder, passed away in 1973 at the age of 65. Pradip Halder (45) is Sudhir’s son. Counting Sudhir’s grandson, 6 generations in his family are involved in the shola works spanning about 150-200 years. Sudhir has his own farmland of 1 acre. Sudhir told us that trading of shola art works is their profession. Kamal Bairagi has told that he does not posses any farmland.

Rising demands

Sudhir’s family makes shola crowns,topor and deity ornaments. Their garlands are sent to different regions like Barabazar, Kumartuli, Kakdwip, Diamond Harbor etc. Their shola works are sent to Delhi, Bombay from Kumartuli. Sudhir’s paternal uncle is the famed artist, Rabindranath Halder, whose creations are sent to even USA. Rabindranath is adept at creating various types of dolls. A few months back, he went to Delhi to create a wedding structure (pandal).

Pradip told us that the demand for this craft is on the rise. A lot more people are now involved in this trade. Local physiotherapist, Subrata Halder (31), informed us that many villages namely Banshberia, Moukhali, Hattala,Rangaberia, Chaitanyapur and Muldia have started shola works. Local resident, Sudhangshu Halder has employed people in Mirzapur, Rambati and Gopalpur. Kartik Halder told us that shola works are exported to USA, Hong Kong and Singapore through Madras.

Rathindranath (25), Rabindranath’s son, told us that almost 20 thousand people in the nearby 20-25 villages are involved in this trade and approximately Rs 15-20 lakhs worth goods are traded every month.

Shola works are in demand abroad for cinema decoration, interior and exterior decoration. Recently, the fake plastic flower industry has captured some of the market. Home decorations made from date leaves and palm leaves also have a market presence. These two have a market share of 5% in the Maheshpur village and in the overall Mandirabazar police district.