Meticulously realistic

Meticulously realistic

world of clay

Meticulously realistic

I remember, when I was a child, the drawing rooms of nearly every house I visited sported a glass-fronted showcase considered an integral part of the room. Inevitably, one of the shelves would contain clay toys from Krishnanagar. The most popular ones comprised a dish containing fruits — banana, apple, custard apple, a slice of melon and a bunch of grapes — that looked so real that I wondered why people chose to put them in a glass case instead of eating them!

The toys also included fish, insects, animals, birds and the entire pantheon of gods and goddesses. There were human figures as well — a bride and groom, a woman carrying a pitcher, a tailor, an umbrella seller, a carpenter, a cobbler and many others. The perfect detailing of form, feature and posture; the meticulous reality of clothes up to the last fold and tuck, and the expression on their faces made each one of them a collector’s item. I still remember how thrilled I felt with my Krishnanagar kitchen set — a complete one that included tiny pots and pans, handis, thalis, tumblers, dishes, ladles — everything one could possibly require for cooking and serving food, neatly packed in a covered cane basket. In those days, it was every little girl’s dream to own one.

Tracing the history of the Krishnanagar clay figures, it was Maharaja Krishnachandra (1710-1783) of Bengal who first patronised the art and supported the artisans. Interested in all forms of fine art, it was he who brought families of potters from Dhaka and Natore and settled them in a small village named Ghurni in the neighbourhood of Krishnanagar. Ghurni has been the centre for producing clay figures and toys ever since.

The process

One special feature of these toys is that they are made only with clay from the river bed of Ganga which has some exclusive properties particularly suited to creating figures. After the clay is collected, it is cleaned, sieved and partially dried. The mixture is then placed on tiny iron rods — one for each individual toy. The potter then gives form to the lumps of clay, carving out the figure and facial features with tiny tools meant for the purpose.
When the toy is nearly done, it is baked over a brick fire (bhatti). After cooling it, oil containing glue is spread all over the toys. Then comes the painting, both face and the costume, before putting the final touches. It takes nearly 8-10 hours to complete a toy.

Every Krishnanagar doll (normally sized between 2 and 3 inches) is meticulously dressed in clothes specially meant for it. A Maharshtrian doll would be dressed in a typical nine-yard sari. A Bengali doll doing the puja would be wearing a red-bordered white sari.

A pujari would wear the special dhoti, don the sacred thread and the raksha thread on his forearm. A bridal couple would not only wear special clothes, but would also have the typical mukut (head gear) and garlands of white flowers. The clothes worn by the dolls are specially made on a miniature scale, down to the last detail. The artisans particularly keep in mind the kind of dress worn by each community, the way they do their hair, and the typical ornaments worn by them. A doll depicting a South Indian lady would always have flowers in her hair and a diamond nose ring. The hair of the dolls is usually made with wood dust. When people ask how they manage to be so realistic, the artisans usually answer, “By observing everything carefully”.

The dolls represent everyday life most realistically. So we have farmers, weavers, pujaris, rag pickers, basket weavers and umbrella makers, among others. They are not just static figures. Many of them are at work. We see the cobbler adding a sole to a shoe; the tailor measuring a customer; the umbrella maker repairing a broken handle, a cook stoking the fire or a pujari performing a ritual, bell in hand. And everywhere we come across the same scrupulous detailing and finesse. The expression of these models is yet another thing to be noted. It is amazing to see a horse rearing to gallop and a dog licking its lips contentedly after a hearty meal.

Apart from being authentic, many of these toys also capture a slice from the past. There are period toys such as the water-carrier or bhishti of the colonial era, the English gentleman complete with hat and stick, the khansamah in the colonial uniform and so on, which are now a part of history. We come across iconic figures like Rabindranath Tagore, Subhash Chandra Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru and others along with popular heroes of today such as Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Dravid and Dhoni. Exhibitions of the Krishnanagar dolls have been held in London, Paris, Boston and other places. Although they may not be a part of the drawing room any more, many of these toys have found their way to museums, both here and abroad.