Sourav Roy: We are here to speak with Jayanta Das, who is an artisan of moulds and dice for sweets (mishti). I want to ask you about the current situation of the industry of wooden moulds for sweets.
Jayanta Kumar Das: The way I see it, given the current perspective, the future is very bleak. Because nobody from the new generation is getting involved in this craft, no new blood. We are the only ones who are left, we are keeping it going. That’s all I can say.
S.R.: You are saying that the future is not promising but the demand for sweets (mishti) are still very high. Then how is it possible that there are no demands for moulds and dice for sweets. Please explain.
J.D.: It is the same old reason, lack of skilled people. If a new set of skilled people don’t join us, then, the sweet makers will eventually have to compromise. And in this era of internet, there are different kind of machines (plastic moulds, dice etc.) Just like in sweet shops, there is a crisis of skilled labourers in mould making. But the demand for moulds to make sweets is very much there but we are unable to meet it with our production. So there is a lack.
S.R.: When you say, there are not enough people do you mean that existing artisans are shifting to other kinds of work?
J.D.: No, I mean not enough people to make the moulds. As there is no sustenance and elderly artisans are passing away, and the new ones are not joining.
S.R.: But if you are following your father’s profession of dice-making. Why others are not following the course?
J.D.: First, this needs a lot of patience, a lot of time, and a lot of physical labour which often leads to spondylitis even. The present generation is not cut out for this. It takes a lot of mental investment to keep this work going. And then there is not enough prestige or income involved in this, I mean not enough to earn a livelihood. These days there are easier ways to earn a living. That’s the gist.
S.R.: How did you start to make moulds and dice; how did you learn?
J.D.: I learnt it from my father. Not that my father ever wanted me to join this work. I was a science student, I ended up in this field for several reasons. My father never sat down and taught me, the work was always going on at my home, you can say I picked up the work through observation. Whatever I have been able to achieve, or will achieve in the future, is due to my own efforts. I was also a student of drawing. Now because of my background in science and drawing, I had a sense of art and could apply it to my own work. Even though my father never really taught me, but he did correct when I made mistakes. My father has passed away; my elder brother is there. So if I have to call someone a mentor, it has to be my elder brother. He taught me in great detail with proper instructions and has been more hands-on about teaching the craft. He has taught me what tools to use if I have any design in my mind.
S.R.: Since every teacher has his own way of teaching, did you find any mismatch between the way your father taught and the way your brother did?
J.D.: Yes, that happens often at times when two teachers teach you differently. I learnt from my father and my elder brother, but also blended them with my thinking. So the way I work, is entirely of my own. I mean the way I plan and do the work. My father, for example, was a man of his time, of the old times. My work process has to be much more modified than my father’s.
S.R.: You have been working for the last twenty-two years, with your father, with your elder brother and now on your own. Tell us how has things changed.
J.D.: My father used to work with chisel on wood, he used to make blocks – printing blocks. He has been doing that for very long but then came offset printing and after that DTP printing technology so the use of wooden blocks became defunct. After that, my elder brother, converted that work, he put in the effort, started working on making wooden moulds and dice for sweets. The technical process is the same, but my concepts are different. For example, children of this age, they like cartoons – Mickey Mouse or Penguins or Doremon, you name it. I try to reflect these changes in my work. Or say in case of biyer tawtto (dice for large sandesh sent traditionally as gifts from the bride’s household to the groom’s) the usual fish, butterfly, conch – people have seen enough of it – but still they want it. These designs are immortal. But people also want variety, we want to welcome new things. So I like to keep that impression even in my dice-making. For example, this one, this is very modern. This shows a Bengali wedding as well. Traditionally, Bengali weddings are celebrated in the household, groom wearing topor (a decorated white conical headdress) under chhadnatala (makeshift gazebo for the wedding rituals), we still have tawtto dies showing such scenes, we still make them. But what I have tried to show here with the Howrah Bridge, City Streets of Kolkata, the bride and groom sitting inside a Taxi is to create a chalchitro (a tableau). This is something new, one of the things that I created. This gives me, what can I say, this makes me feel very good. Making new things, then showing these to people…
S.R.: Drawing always helps to conceptualise and as you said you learned drawing…
J.D.: I can’t claim that I know to draw very well. I used to learn drawing when I was very young. Whatever I learnt then, helped me in my thinking, and conceptualising my work. I regret that I don’t know drawing that well. For example, see this work, if only I knew drawing better, I could have done the preliminary drawing even better. This has been and I think will remain a regret for me throughout my life.
S.R.: Please tell us about the kind of tools and materials that you use for making these moulds and dices.
J.D.: First there is wood, these are all made of wood. But you can’t just use any wood. Of all kinds of trees God has created in this world, only four kinds of wood are fit for making these. Even a few years back, there used to be only one kind of wood to make these – teak. It is very expensive now, it has gone beyond our reach, you can say. So there had to be other options. But you can’t make it with any kind of wood, the fibres have to be smooth, then only this kind of work is possible. So one alternative was mahogany, then there is kodhui wood (raintree, Albizia saman) and one more, holdi or chakunda wood (probably Albizia lebbeck). So these four kinds of wood are mainly used (sourced mostly from Assam or Siliguri in North Bengal). Now, the next question is, how to shape this wood. First the wood is sawed into small pieces, then it is made smooth on both sides with a ryanda (plane). Then the drawing has to be done on the wood, depending on the design, the outline has to be cut accordingly. Say, this shape like a conch shell, I have to first make the outline on a piece of wood already planed and then cut off the extra part according to the outline. Now to cut away the pattern in the dice I have to use this set of tools called choresaws (a chisel with a flat tip). Different types have different names, like this is a one inch, then there is one called teenjaw (three-jawed) etc. Then we need another one for this work, which is called a flat chisel. But look carefully, it is not exactly flat, there’s a curve here. With these we cut out the required shape from the flat piece of wood. After the shape is eked out, we engrave, which means, a part has to be scooped out. After the scooping is done, the surface which appears has be to be planed and very carefully, slowly made smooth with sandpaper. So that there is not a single scratch or unevenness anywhere. Then comes the task of making the decorative patterns. Depending on the decorative pattern, one has to choose the tool. For example, see these patterns like short, thin lines. To make these you need this tool called rakey, see both sides are thin and tilted. So these marks are made with this. There are other designs, say this flower pattern. To make this we need to use this kind of tool called govey (gouges). They also have many varieties; some cut light, some cut deeper – flat gouge, core gouge etc. Depending on the shape of the tip, the cut will change.
S.R.: The tools which you showed us are they all ready-made? Or do you have to get some tools custom-made?
J.D.: No, not all the tools are ready-made. I had to sit with certain ironsmiths at their workshop, not all of them would oblige, to get some tools custom-made. See all these, all are ready-made. But in case of some govey or rakey, as there can be many kinds of those, I have to get them made. Some times I want chisel very thin or very thick grooves or a certain kind of groove, so the tip of the tool has to be made accordingly. See these chisels are made according to my own thinking; some make narrow, thin grooves, some shallow, wide grooves. This one was just a regular, flat chisel which can be bought ready-made, thinner though. I had to sit with the ironsmith and according to my measurements got the edges curved inwards and got what I wanted.
S.R.: So you add to your patterning with these tools. Now, you just told us about four kinds of wood used. Do you have examples of each kind right here, can you show us?
J.D.: I have three kinds of wood here. The fourth kind of wood I have as a sample, not as a ready dice. See, these are made of teak. Teak also has varieties: Burma, CP, Raipur etc. (depending on their place of origin or availability). Since our dice work is very fine, I mean we have to scoop deep inside to make the reverse of the pattern we want on the sweet, only Burma teak is useful for us. The other varieties – CP, Nagpur / Raipur have very dense fibre, so very hard to work with. They don’t even have, smooth layering of fibres. But Burma teak is next to impossible to source for us now. So we work with this, mahogany. This looks just as beautiful like teak, but this is very hard and the feel is nothing like working with teak. Teak is smoother, softer and a pleasure to work with. But we have no choice. To get in step with the changing times, we have to work harder with our tools to make dice from mahogany. It is cheaper after all. Then, this is made with kodhui tree wood. Because the cost of this dice would be really high with Burma teak. Sourcing it is also difficult. Finally, holdi or chakunda wood which is yellowish in colour and was used extensively for making printing blocks.
S.R.: We have seen three kinds of wood out of four. The fourth, holdi or chakunda wood remains to be shown.
J.D.: Yes, this is that wood. The tree is from Assam. I have not seen the tree myself, but my father used to say the leaves are small and hang in bunches. Printing blocks were exclusively made from this wood. Now those are defunct. There was no other suitable wood, because the fibres of this wood are very fine, so during the printing in the press, there were no unwanted lines (ink used to uniformly trap in it). In our world this wood has a nickname “deer bone”, it is that hard. Now of course, we are making dice from this even. Since the wood is very hard, we have to work harder with our tools, but since the fibres are very smooth, the results are good.
S.R.: For the last twenty-two years you’ve been working, how have you seen the size and design of dice change?
J.D.: Expectedly it has changed a lot in these years. Change is inevitable. I try to keep up and reflect the current affairs – be it in TV, radio or newspaper – through my designs. Say the ‘Swachh Bharat’ or ‘Nirmal Bangla’ (Cleanliness Drive by the Central Government and State Government respectively), I have worked with those logos in my design, so that these are embossed on the sweets. It of course feels very good when those sweets made from the dice carved by me go to the parliament or go to different foreign countries. This is our satisfaction; emotional gain you can say.
S.R.: What about some challenging projects?
J.D.: Well, satisfaction is unique for each project, which is not run of the mill. That I could accomplish it or get it introduced into the market. Or when that sweet become part of a media story on newspaper or TV or magazine. As I was talking about the kids’ cartoon characters in the dice design – Chhota Bheem, Pokemon or Doremon – when kids go to sweet shops and get attracted to those sweets and ask their fathers to buy those for them, that is also a great satisfaction.
S.R.: These demands for contemporary dice designs, are they coming from the sweet shops or are these are your own initiative?
J.D.: No the sweet shops don’t think so far ahead, they are happy enough with dishing out their usual sweets, sandesh and rasogolla. These are my initiatives. So I make them and when the sweet shop owners come, they ask, do you have something new? Show us something new you have done. So when we sell some new designs to one, the other sweet shop owners also see it with them, they come back and ask. So from one person to two to ten, that’s how it spreads.
S.R.: What about tawtto sweets (you showed us your new design already)?
J.D.: The dice is not getting bigger; they are getting smaller. Because of cost restraints. That’s a big problem. So we have to fit intricate patterns into that shrinking space. After all, it is a completely handcrafted and our tool sizes limit us, how much of patterning can be done in a certain space. For example, this dice will take three to four kg of sandesh material. Now not every client can afford that. But to give space to this idea, I can’t make the size any smaller, otherwise embossing on the sweet will not be sharp, it will become hazy. It will not look good. But this is not on commission, this is something new I have made. Very few sweet shop owners will take this. But I hope there will be some takers.
S.R.: Do the dice also differ for different materials for sweets, say chhana or narkel (coconut)?
J.D.: Yes, of course. Because their textures are very different. Chhana is smooth and soft in texture and narkel is more rough and chewy. So the dice has to be different so that we get clear impressions of the patterns. See these ones with more intricate patterns, they will come as it is on chhana but because narkel has its own rough texture, these won’t work. For sweets made with narkel, you need more deep and less detailed patterns. But that doesn’t mean we need different kinds of wood in each case. Just different kinds of pattern. But I advise those who are using these dice at home, should dip it overnight in some kind of edible oil, before the very first use. Because no matter how much smoothening we do, wood is still made of fibre and there will be very little ups and downs on the surface, just like we apply polish to smoothen wooden furniture. So if oil is soaked up into the wood overnight the surface becomes even smooth and the impression on the sweet will be distinct. Otherwise, there will be streaks on the sweet. When you use oil and wipe it off, the longevity of the wood increases, it hardly looks like wood, more like black stone. And the impression is also much better as I said. If you make sweets with narkel at home, if you run the mixture through mixer-grinder once, the impressions would be even better.
S.R.: Tell us more about the lifespan of these dice. Other than the grooves getting worn out with use, can the wood also get spoiled?
J.D.: Not really. The longevity of the woods used are very good, they last almost forever. And after soaking up fat, the longevity increases. But that’s not good news for us, right? Our customers are mostly sweet shop owners. If the moulds and dice last generation after generation, who will come again to buy from us? How will we survive? Our allies our rats and cockroaches who often spoil the wood when the sweet shop owners store them. As the price of ingredients in sweet making change every two months – sugar, fuel, milk everything, they have to change the size of sweets every few months, so they have to get moulds of new size. Either the width changes or more often the depth changes and width remain the same to keep the selling price of the sweet same against increasing cost. We have to decrease the depth of the mould. Customers won’t understand of course, they will think the shop-owner is great and giving them the same size at same price, but we know the real story.