White magic

White magic

Sholapith work

Sholapith work on Durga idol decor

Indigenous artists often surprise us with their skill by using locally available materials to good effects. Bengal’s craftsmen display the expertise to turn beautiful objects out of sholapith or the Indian cork that grows in water bodies abundant in this region. Shola is a wild aquatic plant that grows in marshy waterlogged areas in West Bengal, Assam and in the Gangetic plains of the east. In Assam, it is called Kuhila, in Bangladesh Bhat shoal.

While some of these objects have been in use in the Bengali society for ages, with time, innovations have been added to astounding effect. For instance, during the Durga Puja celebration, when thousands of visitors go around the decorated pandals, two prominent puja pandals in South Kolkata showcased their ‘themes’ in finely executed sholapith work.

You cannot but salute the expertise of these craftsmen who come from the hinterland of Kolkata. With such exposure, traditional sholapith work is also getting a boost.

The Ballygunge Cultural Association engaged 40 sholapith artisans from a remote village in South 24 Parganas district. Along with 200 assistants, they worked tirelessly almost for eight months to create intricate objects to adorn the deities and the pandal premises.

Elephants, peacocks, ornaments of gods and goddesses, even the replica of a banana plant were fashioned out of this material.

Not far from here is another famous Kolkata pandal — the Ekdalia Evergreen Club. This time, the organisers put up a 32-feet Chandmala.

In its usual form, these garlands (malas), consisting of three sets of round discs, hang from the hands of the goddess. Chandmala has been used in religious functions of Bengal for ages now. Door hangings of the plant are also seen as auspicious. People engaged in sholapith craft are known as malakars or garland- makers.

Many uses

During pujas, the finest craftsmanship can be seen on the statues of gods and goddesses, especially the massive decorative backdrop used for the Durga idol known as daak-er saaj. 

Odissi dancers also wear a flower crown made of sholapith.

In Bengali weddings, the groom wears a sholapith topor (crown), and the bride, a mukut (tiara). The white colour signifies purity. The topor is shaped like a temple of the Sun God with seven rings; the groom is conceived as his son. A bird is placed on top of the crown, an allegory. It signifies the man’s free spirit, now ‘homed’ after marriage.

In colonial times, the shola topi or sun hat was commonly used to keep the head cool in summers. However, during the Swadeshi movement, it was seen as a symbol of the colonisers and hence abandoned.

The shola plant can grow up to 7 or 8 feet in length and 2 to 3 inch in diameter. It has to be collected from shallow water and then dried. They are sold as two-to-three-inch sticks. Good-quality shola does not have nodes.

The pith is the cortex or core of the plant. Milky-white in colour, the spongy material can be confused with thermocol, which is artificially produced in laboratories.

In comparison

Sholapith work at the entrance of a Durga Puja mandal. Photo by author

However, compared to thermocol, sholapith is softer in texture and thus more malleable and lustrous. Hence the artisans prefer it. For its pure white colour and smooth bark, many call it ‘herbal ivory’, an eco-friendly option to artificially produced products. The best time to collect sholapith is between December and February.

Sholapith craft is mainly practised in the districts of Burdwan, Murshidabad, Birbhum, Nadia and Hooghly in West Bengal. About 5,000 artisans are engaged in the craft today. Many poor families make shola flowers, birds etc to sell in the market. Murshidabad is more known for decorative headgear for the gods and goddesses, peacock boats, palanquins etc as gift items.

As they are lightweight, they are ideal for exporting. Countries like the US, UK, Canada, Japan, Thailand and Australia import them. Many Bengali expats in these countries who celebrate Durga Puja use shola works.

However, the artisans often receive less than what they deserve as middlemen and exporters siphon off a major chunk of the profits.

However, its revival in cities through patronage has kept the handicraft alive. Environmentalists point out that with urbanisation, marshy lands have been disappearing at an alarming pace, which affects the harvest of shola plants. This is something that has to be kept in mind if the centuries-old craft has to survive.

Legends galore

The beloved sholapith has its own legends in Bengal. One of these says that when Lord Shiva was getting married to Gauri, Viswakarma, the god of architecture and craftsmanship, was in a quandary when Shiva asked for something in white as ornaments for her. Exasperated, Shiva threw a lock of his hair into the pond nearby, from where grew the shola plant.

Viswakarma did not know how to make ornaments from the pliant material. Then Shiva threw a strand of hair from his arm into the pond and from there emerged a young man. He was called malakar — maker of garlands. Most of the sholapith workers have malakar as surname.

Another folk tale revolves round Lord Krishna. It says that when a descendant of the Lord was visiting a Brahmin, he was caught off-guard as he did not have flowers to greet him. So he quickly made flowers using the pith in the shola plant in his pond, and made a garland to greet him.

All these tales reflect the beloved place sholapith holds in the heart of its craftsmen.