The article sheds light on how shola craft is actually made by the artisans and the community that revolves around this cottage industry. The shola plant is lithe and flimsy, so working with it takes out-and-out concentration and training on the part of the artisan. Inside the coarse woody outer cover of the plant lies the soft white inner core. This covered white material can only be used once the woody cloak is shaved off. This is the primary step in the making of any shola product. This white pulp inside is then sliced into rolls, cubes, dices depending on the product it is going to be used for. The cuts vary as the artisan's imagination takes hold of what is being carved out.
The resultant stem portion used for the craft items are then mechanically disengaged into pieces of four to eight inches according to the specific requirements. S/he then exquisitely cuts the paper into long sheets (kap) or slender slices (paturi) with a long, accurate blade. Often, serrated blocks or designed ones are initially made from which slices are cut off for decorative purposes. In some cases, like for toys and animal forms, plaster moulds are put to use, where sheets of shola are compressed into the desired outline and stacks of loose sheets are pasted on the back for a strong upward support. Once the flat sheets solidify into looking like one homogenous unit, they are then tied at one end and cut into shapes, geometrical or floral.
Shola stems, which are a meter long, are snipped into pieces of an average length of 12 cm each. The singular pieces are then subjected to a hard shaving for the core to be exposed. The thin white sheet is scraped off the wood with the help of a kath. The white core differs on the basis of its width and lustre depending upon the expertise of the artisans. Several shola sheets are then held together, rolled in a cylindrical manner and packed into a bundle. These rolls are then sold in the makeshift weekly markets for costs that have risen over time. This simple wrapping of 20-25 sheets together for shola rolls is legit work for many labourers who do this to eke out a living.
Malar Kaj is a rough method which lacks finesse as the shola used for this is generally low quality and the artisan need not wield exponential talent. Dhari and Sheuli are the end products of this method. The sophisticated method that needs a sharpened expertise is known as daker kaj (Mandal, R.N., R. Bar, & D.N. Chattopadhyay 2014:103). The shola used for this has remarkable features like milky white colour, malleability, texture, sponginess, suppleness and is extremely soft. The process is well-oiled for there is no storage of half-processed goods here to prevent them from getting rotten. The procedure halts only once the final product is in hand. Not a single piece of shola is wasted but is used as additional embellishments for various craft items.
Craftsmen invest long hours on a piece to meticulously carve out the details. With hand-operated simple tools, they engrave exotic designs on the sholapith. The motifs differ depending on what product is made. While the base of every different item is bound to be unique, the motifs that are used to decorate them further have some common forms. Geometric motifs and floral designs or shola petals reign over decorations. The sizes vary and are often amalgamated with each other to create spectacular hybrid designs that spell out the majestic creativity of its maker.
The colouring of some shola items is often done using extremely bright colours. Initially, to ensure that the entire process evokes nature, herbal paints were preferred for the coloured items. Thus, the colours were of varying hues of red and black. But now, an artificial stage has taken over the reign and a majority of the products are dyed in artificial colours (Ghosh 2015:54). The final touch of the artisan blesses the product with its sublime-yet-stylish quality, by virtue of which the items become ethereal. The processes are actually very simple when internalised and done on an everyday basis. What needs to be honed by oneself is the steady hand and great skill.
The sustenance of two groups are weaved into the making of shola items - one community that harvests the plant and the other that makes the craft items (Mandal, R.N., R. Bar, & D.N. Chattopadhyay 2014:103). The first community generally hails from the Scheduled Castes category of the Indian Constitution, both economically and educationally backward. Living in collectives spread over marshy regions, these people dwell in huts in waterlogged areas and earn their daily bread by selling the regular biotic resources from the water. Shola is one of them, which they harvest round the year and sell it in the local markets.
The other community is the Malakar community. People involved in the making of the shola crafts are the members of this community. They belong the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category as mentioned in the Indian Constitution. They too, find it hard to break from the economic fetters that grow stronger with time. Like many communities in India, the Malakars too believe that their ancestry can be traced to divine origins. According to Brahma Vaivarta Purana, the first Malakar was the progeny of the god Vishwakarma (believed to be the 'principal architect of the universe' and hence the presiding deity of all artisans) and the pious Ghritachi, a cursed Gopi girl. In the Brihad Dharma Purana, the Malakars are referred to as the progeny of a Brahmin father and Vaisya mother.
A majority of the Malakars worship Shiva. This too is said to be connected to a legend according to which they are the descendants of Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati. On his wedding to Parvati, Shiva had expressed a desire to Vishwakarma of wanting to wear a white conical hat. His desire germinated in a wet land in the form of the shola plant. Given the fact that the heavenly artist Vishwakarma dappled with hard materials like a stone for his creations, he could not make use of shola. The strength of Shiva's desire conceived a young man who fulfilled Shiva's wishes by making him the much-wanted hat. This young man was named Malakar.
In ancient times, they held a respectable position in society because of the reverence that was paid to their Daaker shaaj. The entire family contributed to this. But with the market becoming extremely complicated for them, many Malakars have ventured out to find work as daily wage labourers, be it agriculture or building projects.
The community that deals with the everyday practice of selling the shola plants do not really have a name ascribed to them like the Malakars owing to the heterogeneous nature of the work they do. People who harvest and sell shola plants have an array of other products to sell in the market. Shola is a plant that grows quite easily and does not demand any special care. So Malakars, who own some land, tend to assign a patch or two to shola along with the other, crops being cultivated. So what the people of the former community do is more or less regular and does not require any expertise. The Malakars, on the other hand, are one community which is linked to each other through the work they do because the crafts they make is their main source of income. Also, since it is largely an inherited skill that passes down the generations, there is with each successive generation a certain amount of developments. Thus, someone who now not only produces such craft items but has flourished enough to become a dealer with a burgeoning rural enterprise can trace his lineage traced back through generations to an ancestor who was a simple maker of shola crafts.
Sholapith production, unlike many other handicrafts, is largely dominated by women. Many a times, families which are involved in the making of shola crafts train the young children at home to be capable enough to possess a holistic know-how of the making of such items, irrespective of gender. Unfortunately, it is fairly common in villages for women, to be given in marriage to men who cannot provide a financial protective blanket for the bride. With regard to the families who are engaged in sholapith one finds several instances where women have taken the practice of sholapith to their in-laws who through her come into the Malakar community. The optimistic endnote to this is that women are economically empowered and their creative talent finds an outlet, allowing them to be the masters of their own fate.
The present generation of Malakars is fighting daily battles of survival. Their rich wisdom does not fetch the proper price that it should. Given this, it comes across as natural that they would lack the synergetic approach for the protection and propagation of what their forefathers had begun. The condition is alarming and beckons restoration of faith in traditional crafts.
Ghosh, Kundan. 2015. 'Sholapith Craft of West Bengal: An Overview.' International Journal of Interdisciplinary and Multidisciplinary Studies (IJIMS), Vol. 3, No.1,54-62.
Mandal, R.N., R. Bar, and D.N. Chattopadhyay, 2014. 'Shola, Aeschynomene aspera L. used for making indigenous handicrafts revealing traditional art needs conservation.' Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge, Vol. 13 (1), pp. 103-110.