The terracotta temples of Bishnupur are known in Bengal and may be a bit outside Bengal but what most people may not know about are various other art forms that it nurtures in its folds. I was amazed to see so many different forms of traditional art forms that the people of this town are keeping alive.
Chhinmasta is a small lane, like many other lanes of this small town, but this is where you can buy the Dokra aka Dhokra art. This is a type of tribal art with brass metal and normally crafted by the nomadic tribes, which are now more or less settled in certain areas of Bengal and MP. The difference between the brass from other art centers like Moradabad in UP is that the art pieces are ornamented with thin brass wires, which are twisted and turned to curve out various shapes that you recognize giving a very rustic look and feel to the artifacts. The casting though is done using the lost wax method, which is the oldest way of metal casting. The actual center of making this is located 25 kms from Bishnupur, but you can buy most of what is made there in Bishnupur. Most Popular themes for this art form are Durga, obviously the most revered deity in Bengal, followed by Ganesha playing various musical instruments and sometimes Krishna. Then there are various animals that are carved out. If you have the patience to sit and pick through the heaps of pieces in these shops, you can create your own small zoo with these animals. Jewellery items like pendants, bangles and earrings are also crafted out of brass using the same style. Then there are utility items like pen stands and various boxes that are crafted. There are depictions of the daily life of a common tribal household. You can get a set depicting the various things that women do everyday, from combing their hair to cutting vegetables to reading and playing. Some idols would make you think that the artists create a world from their vision and these remains would some day become the basis of establishing this era by some future generations.
The Bankura horse is the most famous art piece of this region. With its sharp long ears, it stands out and is almost like the signature of this region and its art. You would see this horse not only in brass but also in miniature to giant sizes in terracotta in almost every street in the town. These horses are always there in pairs; made in pairs and sold in pairs. You can get this horse pair in brass, in terracotta and on conch shell.
Conch shell, the thought of it always reminds one of the morning Puja at temples that begins my blowing the conch and then the ancient battles that also were announced using it. But in Bishnupur, artists do much more than that with conch shells. They carve them carefully, giving their plain shiny surfaces, the designs that make them look precious, literally. A well-carved conch shell can cost you a lot. Then, there are conch shell bangles that are made by cutting the conch shell and then doing the carvings on them. Sometimes the carvings are done using machines, which make fine designs using clean lines. Sometimes, the artists sit with the bangles and carve them with hand and like every piece made by hand, there are imperfections, but then like all living things are imperfect but beautiful, these bangles also look enchanting. Bengali women wear them as a sign of being married along with a red bangle. The specialty of bangles carved at Bishnupur by hand is that you would find the famous Bankura horses on all of them. The narrow Sahkari bazaar has many tiny shops that sell conch shell merchandise. You would be able to see the artists carefully chiseling the conch shells to create various items. Some of them are national award winners and hence come to places like Dilli Haat or trade fair at Pragati Maidan on invitation. While they are thrilled about visiting Delhi, they were not particularly happy with the sales.
City of terracotta has to have souvenirs that you can carry back as memory with you. While I would have liked a miniature temple to carry back with me, the artists do not seem to be thinking in that direction. But you can buy a lot of terracotta jewellery that includes neckpieces, earrings and chains with terracotta beads. You can buy other things like small statues of deities and of common people performing regular day-to-day activities. Every terracotta region has a distinct color and style associated with it. The color of Bishnupur terracotta is orange red and it has a bright shiny surface. Items made of coconut shell and palm wood are also popular.
You might have heard of Baluchari Saris, where the stories of Ramayan and Mahabharata are woven into the silk. This is the one of the centers for this art form. The designs they say are inspired by the designs on the walls of terracotta temples. The whole process is still manual and is done at small units that produce about 2-3 Saris a week. Now I always knew about Baluchari, but the boards on the streets said Baluchari and Swarnachari and I was curious to find out about this new version of the better-known Baluchari. After talking to a couple of artisans I figured out that if the weave is done using silk thread it is called Baluchari and if it is done using gold thread, it is called Swarnachari. Going with the trend, they have started weaving similar motifs for salwar- kameez as well on an experimental basis. The fabric remains silk or tussar silk. I wish they could weave the same stuff in cotton, which would make it wearable on a more regular basis.
There is a school of Hindustani music born here and hence called Bishnupur Gharana. It is known for the Dhrupad tradition of Hindustani music. Some records say that the origins of this gharana lie somewhere in 13th centur. Bahadur Khan, a direct descendent of Tansen is said to have fled to Bishnupur to start this gharana. This style is said to have influenced the Rabindra Nath Tagore’s singing. Bishnupur museum has a complete section on the well-known members of this gharana who were popular during last two centuries. I could not listen to any performances as they are said to have them occasionally, but a huge new auditorium in the town is evidence of the musical orientation of this town. It is also evident in its Dokra and Terracotta arts where deities and common people are often depicted playing musical instruments.
So they have metal craft, terracotta art, conch shell carvings, story weaving in textile and a musical gharana. Can you ask for more in a small town like this? Or how many other places do you know who nurture so much art and art forms?
I wish there were more such towns in the world.