Crafting beautiful wonders from a herb

Crafting beautiful wonders from a herb

pretty in white

Crafting beautiful wonders from a herb

Visiting Kolkata during Durga Puja is an experience that’s unparalleled. The festive fervour in the air, festoons everywhere, grand pandals at every step... I was transported to a different world altogether.

Amidst all these celebratory decorations was sola craft, a craft so unique that it caught my attention instantly. Be it garlands or ornaments for the Durga idol, or as embellishments for the pandals, they were all made of sola.

Sola looks just like thermocol. I had, in fact, mistaken it for thermocol initially. Only later did I learn that sola is nothing but the milky white sponge wood of an annual aquatic herb named sola that grows wildly in marshy waterlogged areas. Extracting the spongy wood required for various crafts is, in itself, an art, wherein a sharp knife is used with expertise to scrape off the brown skin of the marshy reed. This spongy wood, carved into beautiful objects, makes for sola craft.

This delicate art, in pure white, demands intricate workmanship and is believed to be practised by the Malakar community of West Bengal, who specialise in making garlands. The craft owes its origins to Mughals who patronised art and architecture, it is learnt. Formerly, the craftsmen used only natural colours and thread for their craft. However, of late, they have started using synthetic colours too, owing to the shortage and non-availability of natural materials.

This craft is not just in great demand during festivals, but otherwise too. Dolls, wall hangings, torans and materials used in marriage ceremonies, like topor and mukut, are also quite popular sola craft items.

Unfortunately, as with most Indian indigenous crafts, sola craft is also facing the threat of losing out to cheaper alternatives in the market owing to the lack of support from powers-that-be. “People no longer value the craftsmanship that’s involved in the craft. The cheaper the material, the popular it becomes. No wonder, the younger generation does not want to practise this craft,” says Paromit Barua, an artisan.

“Presently, a very small number of artisans belonging to the Malakar community of Golakganj, Gauripur, Agomani, Baterhat, Matherjhar and Dhepdhepi are practising this craft. Though we do not earn much, we make sola items as that’s the only craft we know. Moreover, we derive some kind of happiness out of designing items for the annual Durga Puja,” he adds.

Sola craft has indeed become an intrinsic part of Bengali culture, I realised, going by the sheer number of sola craft items I chanced upon on my walks around the city of Kolkata. Watching the artisans at work also proved to be very interesting, as they seem to be lost in concentration carving out the desired shapes and designs.

“Festive times are great for us. Christmas, Janmashtami, Navratri... it is fun to be a part of every festival through our craft,” adds Barua, visibly beaming with pride.I pick up a few torans to adorn my doors back home, hoping the craft will see better days in future.


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