Sholapith, also referred to as shola or Indian cork, is a plant which grows wild in marshy waterlogged areas of Bengal, Assam, Orissa and the Deccan. The biological name of shola is Aeschynomeneaspera. From the planta dried milky-white spongy plant matter is extracted which in Bengal is used to make beautiful objects of art. The white colour of the shola is suggestive of purity and sacredness, shola handicrafts are therefore used on religious occasions for instance, at the time of Durga Puja, the biggest annual religious festival of Bengal. The Goddess Durga is generally attired in shola. Decorative hangings made out of shola are also used outside the rooms for worship (thakurghar). Objects made of shola are also used in marriage rituals of Bengal. For instance the bridal headgear (mukut) and the groom’s triangular hat (topor) are necessarily made out of shola. Shola, therefore, from a very early period, has been intimately connected to the socio-cultural as well as the religious life of Bengalis.
The people engaged as sholapith craftsmen are known as Malakar, meaning 'maker of garlands', probably because these artisans made garlands made of shola for idols and for the noble class. The Malakars belong to the Nabasakha group of artisan class (or nine branches of artisans namely Kumbhakar, Karmakar, Malakar, Kangsakar, Sankhakar, Swarnakar, Sutradhar, Chitrakarand Tantubay) and they are involved in this craft from generation to generation (Ghosh 2015:54-62). In West Bengal this craft is mainly practiced in the districts of Bardhaman, Murshidabad, Birbhum, Nadia, Hooghly, Malda, South 24 Parganas district and some other parts of the state. The implements used by the craftsmen are very simple consisting of a knives, needles, scissors, strings and measuring tapes.
Shola is eco-friendly, because it is biodegradable and therefore does not cause pollution even when the items are discarded once the rituals are over. In terms of its colour and texture shola is somewhat similar to thermocol, which is artificially produced but in terms of malleability, texture and sponginess shola is much superior to thermocol.
About 5,000 artisans are involved in this craft in Bengal. These craftsmen spend several months on a piece to meticulously carve out the details. In Murshidabad the shola crafts include flowery designs, decorative headwear of gods and goddesses, garlands,peacock boats, palanquins etc. In South 24 Parganas many poor families earn their livelihood from making flowers, birds, etc. from shola. Shola products are exported to different countries in the world such as USA, UK, Australia, Canada, Japan, Thailand, Korea and China but the artisans rarely benefit from the export of their work since the middlemen and the export companies by and large appropriate most of the profits from the export.
A survey of sholapith workers conducted in one Mandirbazar block under the initiative of the Ministry of Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), Government of India, Bengal Women Welfare Association& National Institute of Design, has shown that some of the shola craftsmen or craftswomen earn as low as Rs. 30 per day (Kumar 2012 :41).Most these craftsmen also do not possess farmlands and depend upon their expertise as craftsmen to earn their daily bread. As prices of essential commodities continue to rise the sholapith workers face the threat of extreme poverty. Moreover the younger generation among these workers often migrate to the towns or take up some other remunerative employment abandoning their traditional vocation which seems to be fetching them very little economic benefit. As a result, a majority of the craftspeople now consist of women and old men.
If the profits of the shola workers do not increase there remains the possibility that this age-old art may face extinction. For the shola craft to thrive it is essential that profits earned by the middlemen be cut and that local banks and other financial institutions come forward to furnish the craftsmen with loans and some infrastructural development be carried out in the rural sector such as the improvement of village roads and pathways, in order to facilitate the trade of the malakars.
In rural areas the shola raw materials as well as the end-products are sold in weekly markets or haats. Urban households of Kolkata also flaunt shola handicrafts. A shola boat, a palanquin or bullock cart could be bought from art stores like Dolls of India. These are high-priced items that are probably meant for urban household decoration or for export. For instance a shola palanquin is priced roughly at 2500 rupees. All these items can be freely purchased over the Internet. Big puja pandals of Kolkata are also decorated by shola works beautifully. Hence the market for shola artifacts, both urban as well as rural, is still very buoyant. The idol makers of Kumortuli who traditionally produced clay idols have taken to making idols of sholapith and fibreglass. While the fibreglass ones can cost around Rs 110,000-120,000, those prepared from sholapith cost Rs 90,000.
Inspite of the continued relevance of sholapith in Bengali life and culture and its increasing global demand as an exquisite artifact this craft sector continues to face a large number of problems. The poverty of the craftsmen and the lack of infrastructural development in the villages in the form of health, education good road connectivity and so on which could sustain and bolster the trade in shola handicrafts has already been alluded to.
In addition to this there is also another pressing problem. The shola plant generally grows in marshy areas and hence the destruction of wetlands and deforestation is adversely affecting the growth of the plant by destroying its natural habitat. The conservation of wetlands therefore, is of primary importance, if the shola craft industry is to thrive. After all, the beautiful handmade crafts of shola represent Bengal’s heritage and culture and it is time that steps were taken to preserve this endangered heritage.
Ghosh, Kundan. 2015. ‘Sholapith Craft of West Bengal: An Overview’, International Journal of Interdisciplinary and Multidisciplinary Studies (IJIMS), 3.1:54-62.