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Artist Sharmila Sen On Reviving Traditional Bengali Art And Uplifting Rural Artisans In The Process

  • IWB Post
  •  October 4, 2019

Handicrafts have a great potential to provide employment opportunities to millions of artisans, as most of them have inherent skills that can be converted into an occupation. However, these rural artisans working with exquisite handcrafted products have been ignored for far too long in our country, which results in traditional artwork getting lost in the process.

Artist Sharmila Sen

To promote craftsmanship and restore the cultural ethos of our country, artist Sharmila Sen from Kolkata promotes the work of rural artisans from West Bengal in the best way she can. “I like to tell people what they are buying, that’s how more people will become aware. These are heritage.”

From an early age, Sen has been fascinated with traditional Bengali handicrafts and art, and it has been over a decade since she has been working towards helping artisans by providing them employment and restoring niche crafts in the process. “Over the years, traditional art forms have not been getting due recognition and in the process, we are also losing artisans who are capable of doing this artwork. So, to bring these niche crafts in the limelight and promote the work done by traditional artisans, I started working with them. My exhibitions showcase handicrafts done by these artisans and the paintings on them portray the rich Indian culture and heritage.”

In her recent exhibition, Sen has used many objects to display the traditional artwork and the theme running through them is inspired from Indian mythology. Talking about it, she says, “I have been working with traditional artisans on dhokra products. As of now, I have worked with handicrafts from five districts of Bengal by using objects like conch shells, tribal masks, metal plates, bamboo, and lamps, although I look forward to working on many more art forms from other areas of Bengal. In my exhibition, my focus has been on teak wood masks from Dinajpur district that depict the images of numerous deities from our mythologies, which include Ganesha, Shiva, and Durga, to name a few, along with some images of tribal warriors and dancer.”

Artist Sharmila Sen

For Sen, the only platform that she uses to display and sell these unique handicrafts has been through exhibitions, and despite being approached by many people asking her to sell these products online, she has declined the offer because “it’s disheartening to watch the exclusivity and fine craftsmanship by traditional artisans being copied in a compromised way.”

Artist Sharmila Sen

Sen has employed a few artisans who work along the lines directed by her at her residence and in order to promote these handicrafts, she even organizes workshops to create awareness amongst people about the laborious process that goes into the making of these crafts.

While Sen has displayed many products from dhokra, dominating the display are colourful masks which are priced between Rs. 1,200 to Rs 27,000. “The work on the masks conveys the message of various human qualities that help us become a good person. For example, I have portrayed the story of Hanuman building the Rama setu in Rameshwaram that depicts the quality of commitment, trust, and faithfulness.

In the other masks, I have created images of goddess Durga and Kali. Since Durga is considered to be the purest root of creation, maintenance, and destruction, it conveys the message that women are capable of doing anything that they like and it also depicts the different roles that a woman plays in her lifetime, of a girl, a wife, and a mother.”

For Sen, masks have been her favourite objects to depict the artwork on and, explaining the element that inspired her to work on them, she says, “Everybody has two facets of their personalities, one that is shown to the world and the other that remains hidden. This duality of nature inspired me to choose masks as an object. This handicraft comes from the Dinajpur district of West Bengal, which was used by the tribal community while performing the Gambhira dance form during festivities. In these masks, I have portrayed the images of Durga with Shiva and their children, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesha and Kartikeya, and their vahanas.”

Along with masks, Sen has also worked on Kalighat and Bangla pattachitra from the District of Midnapore, which are made on handmade paper, and what makes this artwork special are the colours used in the paintings that are derived from vegetable dyes.

“The traditional Patua Paintings of West Bengal present a narrative type of folk paintings that are made in a unique contemporary style on moderate to long scrolls. Patua Paintings are mostly made by using vegetable and herbal colours, like gum/adhesive is made out of marmelos, saffron is used for red colour, turmeric for yellow, aparajita flower for blue, Teak Wood for brown, rice for white, and burnt rice for black. In this segment, I have also included “Chakkudan Pata Paintings” that deals with eschatology, which originated from the Santhal Community and they were painted for a family that has recently suffered bereavement.”

The handicraft artisans suffer a lot due to a lack of education, low capital, poor exposure to new technologies, the absence of market intelligence, and a poor institutional framework. Adding to it, another barrier that stands in their way is the commercialisation of these crafts that aim for a quick, standardised, and low-cost replication.

Due to these factors, the strength of these handicrafts that involves artistic vision makes the quality suffer and now most of the artisans do not wish their children to be involved in this work. Sen shared, “The current generations of artisans are now busy with education, which is amazing; however all the traditional handwork is getting lost because there is no one to carry forward the legacy. This is why I want to promote these crafts and create awareness through my exhibitions in the hope that the artisans get their due recognition and the lost craft gets restored.”

According to current trends in contemporary art, the portrayal of female sexuality and female form has taken centre stage, which helps in breaking the stigma associated with it. Talking about it, Sen opines, “It is wonderful to see that these things are being depicted in art. When it comes to sexuality, I don’t agree with differences being made by the society between men and women. If men can openly come out with their desires then women should also not shy away from expressing themselves. In fact, people shouldn’t find a fault in it at all. I understand that it has a lot to do with societal stigmas, due to which women don’t come out openly about their desires, but it is important that they stand up for what they want. To break the existing stigmas, people need to be open-minded and education plays an important role in it. In the future, I would love to work on this theme as well.”

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