These beautiful glimmering clay dolls are mainly used as decoration pieces or as gifting items. Since a large variety of figurines are made- all the way from insects, to representation of folklore, to popular human figures to animated cartoons- these clay dolls fit perfectly in every setting. The colours and hues of the dolls add a pop of colour and aesthetic to any room. These clay dolls can be seen as storytellers within themselves since they represent a certain story of a certain individual and truly capture the essence of history.
These clay dolls from Krishnanagar are considered to be unique and special because of their designs, colours, techniques and the history attached to them.
The making of miniature clay dolls (2 to 6 inches in height) from Krishnanagar is purely an artisan’s skill-based work and is known for the detailing involved. A wide variety of day to day objects are made in this craft ranging from fruits, vegetables, animals, birds to gods and goddesses. The real specialities of this craft are to capture and recreate everyday life, work, mood and characters – farmers, weavers, rag pickers, basket makers, umbrella makers etc. The detailing given to each object and character through intricate artistic handwork & colouring gives these clay dolls close to reality representation, thereby contributing to the uniqueness of this craft of West Bengal. The utmost care, dedication and hard work that the craftsmen put in results in the clay dolls appearing to be extremely realistic in terms of expression and detailing which further makes this craft famous.
The clients for this craft range from national to international. At the national level – the local buyers, a tourist visiting their outlets in Krishna Nagar and other parts of West Bengal, at craft exhibitions organised in different parts of the country, we have a large display of these dolls in the Shankar’s Doll Museum in New Delhi. Moreover, Exhibitions of Krishnanagar dolls have also been held in London, Paris and Boston. The Ghurni clay models have also won medals and certificates at international exhibitions.
According to myths and traditions, clay art was originated from the Potter. Potter is the synonym of ‘Prajapati’ and is also revered as Lord Brahma, the creator, created human beings from clay. According to mythology, when Lord Shiva came to marry Sati, the need for an earthen pot was required. So Lord Shiva took two beads from his necklace and gave birth to male and female forms who are the first moulder of “Kumbha“. So the potter is also known as ‘kumara’.
This craft of clay doll making is 200 – 250 years old and are predominantly practised in a place called Krishnanagar in the Ghurni district of West Bengal. According to the doll makers, the area where this craft is located and practised is mainly in Ghurni since the proper image-makers have settled here. The purpose of this effort is to preserve and revive the traditional heritage of doll making.
Maharaja Krishna Chandra (1710–1783), a patron of arts, supported the production of clay dolls. As a pioneer who started Kali pooja, Jagadhatri pooja for the first time in Bengal, he encouraged the local artisans and brought in more potters from Dhaka & Natore districts of Bengal to the Ghurni- a neighbourhood of Krishnanagar. Hence, started the Bengali tradition of clay image-making, which is indeed a celebrated feature of the culture to this day.
Craftsmen practising the craft of Krishnanagar doll making belong to the group of the community called ‘Kumbhakaras’ constituting potters and clay modellers. In Krishnanagar over 300 people are involved in this craft including women and children. Initially started with four or five families, now it is a big community. As a community, they are not much integrated. The decline of feudal zamindari culture and loss of their patronage has adversely affected this craft.
The clay dolls of Krishnanagar generally capture the ordinary Bengali men and women at work. These dolls showcase a realistic representation of various emotions and objects through the craftsman’s skill and experience. Anybody who sees these dolls could easily interpret the scenario and feel that the craftsman wants to depict and portray. As an example, you can see basket weavers working with bamboo bark; a Brahmin priest doing puja in front of a Shiv Ling; umbrella repairmen fixing broken handles; Santhal tribal men dancing with the dhols; rural Bengali men and women carrying firewood home; an iron welder working his craft; a man making rope out of cotton; and male and female devotees with manjiras and dhols participating in kirtan.
The dolls are made with soil from the river Ganga (recently declared the National River), called “etail,” leftover once the tide recedes. The clay dolls of Krishnanagar (in Nadia district) are famed for their realistic depiction of everyday village life – fishing, farming, rag picking, basket making, cooking, cleaning and worshipping, among others – and subjects like fruits, vegetables, birds and animals. They have been a part of the legacy of the native potters for over five generations.
Exquisitely crafted, these mud dolls and figures in various sizes have delighted connoisseurs and laymen alike, with their real-life depictions of life around them. Figurines of gods and goddesses, Bengal rural scenes of thatched houses and palm trees, cobblers, priests, miniature Eskimos, birds, animals, fruits, vegetables, etc., are replicated with precision and consummate artistry. The detailing of these figures, especially in their clothes and accessories are brought about by tools to create that single or double pleat, a crease here and there, and with a few strokes, life is infused into their eyes.
The model making involved in this craft purely depends on the hand skill of the craftsman. There are different types of models – depending on the volume they can be categorized as small, medium and large.
Just like other handicrafts of India, there are several challenges associated with the clay dolls as well which prevent them from achieving the status and recognition they deserve.
In Krishnanagar, out of 100 craftsmen present today, hardly 15-20 could be counted as well flourished. A large number of craftsmen are still struggling and earn very low income in a month. This could be one of the major reasons that this craft is slowly dying out. This is mainly due to 3 reasons- first, there is high financial instability, second, the sales of these dolls keeps varying throughout the year making it difficult for these craftsmen to receive a constant income, and third, there is a lack of support and recognition.
Only 10 in every 100 craftsmen today believe they are doing well at doll making as a profession. the poor knowledge amongst the artisans about sales and marketing, the market is defiantly not as commercially viable as it can be. Besides, the craftsmen as a usual trend today find it more fulfilling to move to bigger cities like Calcutta where occasions (seasonal and otherwise) give their skill the raison d’être to persist. Nevertheless, doll making is passion personified and an admirable piece of indigenous art, which will find an increased number of takers as public awareness increases.
The process of making these beautiful Krishnanagar dolls is one that requires immense detail and accuracy. Moreover, it is an extensive process that is carried out through several stages.
The clay dolls of Krishnanagar require the following raw materials-
• Clay & Admixtures
Locally available clay from the river Jalangi and other places within Krishnanagar is used in this craft. This particular type of clay is most suitable for the kind of work the craftsman does This local clay is added with different admixtures to get different desired results such as sandy soil, rice husk/ saw dust, cotton etc.
• Metal wires
These are used for giving reinforcement to different components of the doll so that the clay does not break down.
Colours give life to Krishnanagar dolls and makes them look more realistic. Powder colours mixed with water and glue, poster colours, different dyes and pigments are used in the colouring process. Colouring is followed by applying varnish mixed with kerosene to give the glossy finish to dolls.
After the clay models are made, coloured and polished, they are dressed up with miniature clothing based on the character they portray.
This is used for lighting the furnace.
Clay as a material is difficult to control at all stages and the potter has to be constantly diligent from beginning to end, in order to avoid damage or breakage.
Mostly the tools used by these craftsman are customized and as per their requirement then make and modify their tools. Most of the tools used by the craftsmen are used generations after generation.
The following tools and technology are used in the process of making the clay dolls of Krishnanagar-
• Chirage– This tool is made of bamboo and has a flat and pointed tip. It is used for intricate detailing work.
• Basua– This tool is made out of bamboo and Kanini wood with blunt tip. It is used to create folds of cloth which they simulate from clay.
• Knives – Different sized knifes are used for scrapping work.
• Brushes– Brushes of different sizes and shapes are used depending on the need. Previously foreign made brushes were used but now days they make their own brushes. Brushes are made out of horse hair/ goat hair/ hog hair. Horse hair is soft and hence used to avoid scratches. Goat hair is used in making white colour and for painting. Dog hair brushes are used for cleaning and brushing work.
The process of making these beautiful Krishnanagar dolls is one that requires immense detail and accuracy. Moreover, it is an extensive process that is carried out through several stages. These stages are as follows-
1. Model Making
This is the first step for making the clay dolls and it begins with planning out the desired model. In this step, the whole figure is divided into various components and made one by one. These individual components get added on a reinforcement structure made out of metal wire that acts like skeleton for the model. The reinforcement structure should thus be made first as per the posture required for the model. For example: if the craftsman intends to make a human figure in sitting posture, he first visualizes the entire model. He then divides the human figure into various components keeping in mind the sitting posture. Based on the posture, a skeleton for the model is made out of metal wire. The craftsman makes each of these components like the legs, body, hands etc on the metal wire skeleton structure with their detailing. The head process of the human figure is made separately and added to rest of the body part of the model or the metal skeleton would have the head being made and attached beforehand. The level of intricacy depends on the experience of the crafts man. In case, a particular model has to be made in large number then they make mould. Every time the model is made, the wire frame is sandwiched between the positive and negative of the mould and thus a large number of pieces could be made easily. Finally, when the model is made, a final touch and detailing is given to it by the craftsman using different hand tools. Fine brushes are used to clean the surface of the model and with wet brush the surface of the model is smoothened.
Once the model is made, it is dried under sun only to the extent that the model does not get cracks on its surface. After drying the model is fired. The total firing process depends on the experience and may vary from place to place and craftsman to craftsman. Moreover, the temperature required and the duration of firing is decided by the craftsman. The process for firing includes- drying, loading, firing, cooling, unloading, cleaning.
After firing, the models go through the process of colouring which is another important part of this craft. Though the models are intricate but by the skill of selecting and applying colours is the one that makes the models look realistic and lively. Previously, in this craft powder colours were used by the craftsmen. However, in the present day, poster colours, water colours, different dyes and pigments are also used. Powder colour is mixed with water and adhesives for colouring the models. Adhesive sometimes are locally made by the craftsmen from tamarind seed. These seeds are fried and then after cooling they are soaked in water to peel off the skin of the seed. The seeds are then ground and boiled in water thereby forming a sticky viscous material having good adhesive property. At times readily available adhesives like fevicols are also used. To make the colour have a shiny appearance, cornflour is added. At last after applying the desired colour to the models, an additional coating of varnish mixed with kerosene are applied to give the clay dolls a glimmering effect. The coloured models are then kept for drying under sun or under a fan. Colours normally used in the doll making are red, blue, green, yellow and clay colour. Besides this the crafts man also use oil paints, plastic colours and metallic colours as per the requirement. For painting fruits they mix oil based colours with paraffin to get the gloss.
4. Final Product
The clay dolls after getting coloured are given clothing. After this, these dolls find their place in a showroom nearby its place of creation, where the onlookers and the customers can see them and buy them. The final product need not be a single piece of clay doll and may be a group of them and together they might represent a scene or particular emotions for example, tribal men dancing with their dolls.
Krishnanagar clay dolls are unique in their realism and the quality of their finish, as they truly represent a breakaway from the traditional form. Fruits, fish, insects, animals, birds, and of course the entire pantheon of gods and goddesses, and even the ubiquitous Donald Duck and other popular comic strip characters, faithful copies of real-life, down to the minutest detail. Realistic recreations of everyday life, work, mood and character- farmers, weavers, rag pickers, basket makers, umbrella makers – are yet other specialties of Krishnanagar dolls. Exhibitions of Krishnanagar dolls have been held in London, Paris and Boston. Ghurni clay models have won medals and certificates at international exhibitions.
List of craftsmen.
Sujay Das & Swarup