Under my byline

Out of the shadows

Posted in Books, Q&A by Rrishi on 12 August 2007

An intimate portrait of six hidden crafts of Bengal

In the Shadows: Unknown Craftsmen of Bengal
Payal Mohanka
Niyogi Books
pp 107

This is a collection of photo essays on six crafts from villages around Kolkata — the skill- and labour-intensive manufacture of wigs, light displays, polo balls, boats, shuttlecocks and jeans. Author Payal Mohanka offers a glimpse of the lives of the craftsmen (in some cases the originators of the craft) and weighs the long-term prospects and adaptability of each craft and its practitioners.

Where did the idea come from?

I worked with TV18 for seven and a half years, reporting from Kolkata for India Business Report which was telecast every Sunday on BBC World. Ten years ago in Kolkata it was hard to find a dynamic corporate story every week, so I found I was looking at rural areas. I found at least 20 stories, and they were usually very attractive. The magazine started using them as an end-piece, to end on a picturesque note. But TV is fleeting images and time constraints, so I felt they could not do it justice. I told myself I would do a book on these stories one day.

The office closed in 2002 in Kolkata and I was on my own for a while, and first I started doing some documentaries [one on Chandernagor and one on Mother Teresa]. For this book I selected six of the most interesting crafts which were not well known. Other than the Chandernagore lights — people in Kolkata are aware of that — the rest, people even in Kolkata didn’t know they existed.

How did you do the research?

I went to the villages several times, speaking with several families, and later I went back with photographers. There was no data available in the Block Development Offices. I found that the only way to collect data was to talk to each family.

Each craft shows great practical creativity in translating ideas to reality — but the craft was started 80 or 100 years ago. How much innovation happens?

In the jeans village, they have constantly got an eye open for any new style that comes from Mumbai. It’s just that where others do the work by machine, these do it by hand. In the boats village, the boatmakers realise that speed is important, so they are now fitting engines to their boats. In Chandernagor, they have their ears to the ground — for any topical issue.

Who buys the light displays on social and political issues?

They get orders from local puja pandal committees in Kolkata. When Princess Diana died… whatever is important that year, they want something to remind you of it. Each pandal has a huge structure and a theme. It’s almost like a competition. [The Chandernagor lights-makers have] done it for decades now.

Most of the crafts seem to have been started by single individuals, and then other villagers took it up. Is there unhappiness about the competition?

Surprisingly, no. Of course they are aware that there are so many people, so their rates have to be competitive. But village folk have basic needs, and once they are satisfied they don’t worry too much beyond that. Jeans and shuttlecocks are doing good business, so their children are aso interested in taking it up. The polo balls are really in decline, so their kids are reluctant to take it up.

It’s touching sometimes the way they try to improve. The man who makes polo balls, he talks about how he takes them to Calcutta and delivers them personally. He sits with the players and tries to look for customer feedback.

Women are hardly mentioned in the book. Why is that?

There’s a lot of work being done in the houses. [Women] do the jobwork, in between running the house, feeding their children.

Is there child labour?

I didn’t see any child labour. The villagers are very very conscious, aware that it’s not to be done. They let the women chip in — except for the boats, because that requires a certain strength — with the light, mechanical work, not the children.

What sort of response has there been?

Union minister Chidambaram released the book in Delhi. The government may create a cluster development fund, an independent agency. The jeans village faces threats from local government about water treatment [because of effluents from chemical treatment of denim], so if they can get help with water treatment, they will be happy to continue.

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