Being a Bengalee, I am no stranger to ‘Katwa’ doll-making, a colourful wooden doll-art of Bengal, specifically Burdwan (or ‘Borddhomaan’, as we call it). These dolls, vibrant but unique, have adorned our homes and workplaces for as long as we can remember. On a shelf, inside a showcase, beside a flower-vase or simply perched on the center table – take a good look at any Bengali household and you are sure to find a pair or two of ‘kaather putul‘ (literally wooden dolls), just there to accentuate the decor of the room.
In fact, these dolls have become a part of Bengali craft and decor in such a way, it is not uncommon to find craftsmen selling these at fairs and functions, in cities or by village roads and people buying them like hotcakes despite already having many at home.
Nutangram: the remote hamlet of doll-makers:
Today, in this digital era, when fast-paced lifestyle is the norm and social media validation seems indispensable, this art form, like all things simple, is faced with declining popularity. Yet, very few places in Bengal are still trying to keep the tradition of doll-making alive. Nutangram, a village in Burdwan, about four hours’ drive from Kolkata, is one.
Every household in this village, boasts of at least one person who excels at this particular craft. The shapes are first chiseled from a variety of woods, including Gamar, Mango, Shimul, Ata, Chatim wood, and then polished to achieve a smoother texture. Thereafter, the dolls are painted in dazzling hues, bright enough to make each one a signature piece of an entire décor!
The woodwork is remarkable to begin with, but the paintwork is no less impressive. Each brushstroke speaks of absolute precision. The detailing on the ‘sarees’ of the bride dolls is so intricate that you almost miss that the dolls have no limbs! Available in various shapes and sizes, these dolls are most popular in Gour-Nitai, Radha-Krishna, divine deities, owl and royal couple forms. The skilled craftsmen also fashion stools, lampshades, bookcases and more, from the Katwa doll art.
But how did this art form come to be, and when?
It is believed that the artisans of Nutangram were stone-carvers first, working under the patronage of the Burdwan royal family. However, after the downfall of the royal dynasty, the stone-carving industry faced decline and the artisans gradually took up wood-carving. During the Bhakti Movement, this art form reached its zenith and the wooden dolls of deities became of utmost importance. In fact, the owl figurines, believed to be the companions of Devi Lakshmi, Goddess of prosperity, are worshipped alongside the Gour-Nitai and Radha-Krishna idols to this day. Most of the artisans of Nutangram have the last name Bhaskar, meaning sculptor, or Sutradhar, meaning story-teller.
Forever fascinated with this craft, I decided to give it a try! All I can say is that from picking up the paint-brush to putting the finishing touches on the figurine, it was an enriching experience indeed. Its aesthetic value is for you to decide.