Sholapith art: A traditional Bengal craft

An eco-friendly craft with mythical origin

Culture

March 8, 2020

/ By / Kolkata

Sholapith art

A sholapith palaquin (credit: swadeshi.com)

One of the traditional crafts of Bengal, sholapith art has been in practice for long and is used in various religious and social customs. It is also an eco-friendly craft which found its origin in the myths.

If you have attended any Bengali wedding then you might have noticed the white crown-shaped headgear (mukut) of the bride and the conical white headgear (topor) of the bridegroom. While these elegant and beautiful accessories are a mandatory part of the rituals as they signify good luck, they also represent one of the artforms of West Bengal, the sholapith art.

“With changing times, the wedding attires are also changing. But even when the couples are opting for more modern get up for their receptions, for weddings they still go for the traditional mukut-topor,” says Tapashi, a beautician in Kolkata, specialised in Bridal makeup. She feels that it is the tradition and culture that keeps it still in demand.

What is sholapith art?

It is one of the traditional crafts of Bengal which has been in practice since long. Sholapith also known as shola or Indian cork (Aeschynomene aspera) is a white soft core extracted from the stem of the spongy plant and then used in the art to make beautiful things. Traditionally the artform has been said to have a divine and mythical origin and as it is white in colour, it is considered to be pure and auspicious and thus used in various religious and social customs.

Headgear (topor)

The sholapith works, commonly known as sholar kaaj, have a dedicated community of artisans engaged in the work known as Malakar (maker of garland). According to the folklores associated to their origin, when Lord Shiva was on his way to marry Himalaya’s daughter, Goddess Parvati, he requested Lord Vishwakarma, the god of creative powers to make him a white crown for his wedding. But Lord Vishwakarma failed to deliver the crown and then Lord Shiva created a man named Malakar, who created the headgear, garland and other accessories from the soft core of the plant. And since then the Malakars worship Lord Shiva as they believe that their existence is his blessing.

On another note, British ethnographer Herbert Hope Risley, in his book wrote about the Malakar that, “in Bengal the caste is included among the Nava Sakha and its members profess to trace their descent from the garland maker attached to the household of Raja Kansa of Mathura, who, when met by Krishna, was asked for a chaplet of flowers and at once gave it. On being told to fasten it with a string, he, for want of any other, took off his sacred thread and tied it, on which Krishna most ungenerously rebuked him for his simplicity in parting with his paita, and announced that for the future his caste would be ranked among the Sudras. Like others of the higher castes, the Malakars claim to have originally come from Mathura in the reign of Jahangir.”

Peacock-shaped boat

The shola art is also popularly seen during Durga Puja as many traditional pandals still opt for the daaker saaj or sholar saaj. During earlier days the adornments for Goddess Durga and her children were crafted out of beaten silver foils which came from Germany through post (daak), thus giving it the name Daaker saaj. But around the time of World War II, this practice came to a halt and the sholar saaj came in to take the place. Even now people flock at the pandals to enjoy these beautiful decorations.

The craft is mainly practiced in some districts of Bengal like Bardhaman, Murshidabad, Nadia, Birbhum, Malda and Hooghly. And one of the main positive point of the art form is that it is eco-friendly. As it is biodegradable, so it is more effective to use items made of shola rather than plastic or thermocol.

The shola also replaced ivory in ivory carving, common during Nawab rule in Murshidabad district. The most common crafts are elephant, peacock-shaped boat, palanquin, flowers and other decorative items. They are also used in making puppets, toys and miniature statues.

While their works are even exported to other countries, a survey of sholapith workers conducted under an initiative of the ministry of micro, small & medium enterprises (MSMEs), government of India, Bengal Women Welfare Association and National Institute of Design, showed that some of the craftsmen and artisans earn low as INR 30 per day. With the increase in price of commodities, many of the younger generation are migrating to other sectors for better employment opportunities. The loss of marshy wetlands where the plant grows is another problem affecting the art-form.

In order to save another traditional art from being lost, immediate steps need to be taken like conservation of wetlands, creating support system for the craftsmen, educating people about the eco-friendly nature of the art-form and how they can use it for decoration instead.

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