Clay Models of Krishnanagar

The Clay Models of Krishnanagar: A Tale of Creativity and Craftsmanship

21-year-old Sneha is super excited to spend this year’s Jagadhatri Puja at mama-bari in Krishnanagar with her dadu-didun (her grandparents from her mother’s side). Although as a little girl, she was way more eager to play with her grandma’s clay dolls than the thrill of the Puja extravaganza. She’s mesmerised by the life-like miniatures and just can’t seem to have enough of them. There are mini musicians, vegetable sellers, priests, cooking ladies and fruits, birds, animals — all in such breathtaking details and more! She created a world for herself with these clay models of Krishnanagar.

She remembers her grandma telling her stories of local artisans making these dolls. That’s how her interest in the clay models of Krishnanagar grew. Now, as a student of History, she hopes to take up research on how this art was perfected by multitudes of local artisans in over five generations and more.

It’s true — these dolls are so endowed with lively, realistic depictions that they do speak for themselves, almost. Vibrant colours, intricate details to capture the tiniest fraction of reality into clay modelling and dedication to specifics in each of these miniature clay dolls are what make them so exclusive. The skilled artisans as if put in the very spirit of nature and life itself into their art form in Krishnanagar.

The famous clay art form of Krishnanagar has grown and is mostly centred in Ghurni, a small village of about 500 craftspeople in Nadia district. But how did it all start?

The Glorious History of  the Clay Models of Krishnanagar

Historical records tell us that the marvels started under the kind patronage of Maharaja Krishna Chandra Ray, the King of Krishnanagar during 1710-83 AD. He was a connoisseur of fine arts, literature, and music, and benevolently supported artisans in continuous improvements of their trades.

It is said that he relocated a large number of potter families from Natore in the erstwhile East Bengal (Bangladesh of today) to Ghurni and commissioned them to create clay idols of Hindu gods and goddesses for the palace and more. Impressed by their skills, the king then went on to support them in creating clay dolls with more varied subjects.

During his reign, the arts and crafts flourished so much that even the colonial British rulers could not ignore it! Starting with idols of Hindu deities to creating miniature clay dolls of real-life village people resplendent in their joie de vivre along with numerous subjects from nature’s flora and fauna – the exceptional calibre of the artists drew recognition on international shores as well.

This traditional art form of exquisite beauty and finesse has a lot of interesting facts under its belt, right from the inception.

Accolades and Acknowledgements

The brilliant craftworks soon caught the interests of multiple national and international patrons. Artists from Krishnanagar started to participate in various exhibitions, sales events, and competitions across the world, including London, Paris and the United States of America. Soon after, they started winning several prestigious prizes medals and certificates in international art exhibitions.

One such prestigious landmark in history was the EXPOSITION UNIVERSELLE DE 1855, where Sri Ram Pal, as a representative of the clay-artists of Krishnanagar received the medal and certificate for 2nd position on 1st July, 1857.

Another secret to the animated features of the famous clay models of Krishnanagar was the contribution from trade-experts in the final product. For example, in 1886, a complex model depicting an Indigo factory was created as part of the Colonial and India Exhibition. In its final stage, skilled people from trades like roof-thatcher, etc. also contributed apart from the designated clay artisans.

Many of the renowned clay artists from Krishnanagar had received further training in foreign countries during the era of Raja Krishna Chandra Ray and the British government of India at that time. Some of them went on to create more splendid works of art all over the world based on patrons’ requests and commissions, during the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A group of clay figurines by artist Jadunath Pal received the second order of merit in 1880 at the Melbourne International Exhibition. These figurines are now showcased in Australia-based Museum Victoria’s collection.

Even in the more recent times, Krishnanagar’s clay art form has received international recognition. For example, in 1976, Pope John Paul IV blessed Sambhu Pal, an acclaimed artisan from Ghurni for his flawless depiction of a Bengal village scene in clay art form.

In 1990, when the Government of Russia wanted a bronze figurine of Rabindranath Tagore for display in one of their national parks, they sought the help of master craftsman Kartick Chandra Pal to give them a clay model. Paul provided it and later converted it into a bronze sculpture.

Traditions Fused with Art in Krishnanagar

True to their origins, the clay art in Ghurni is intrinsically merged with royal traditions in Krishnanagar Raj Bari.

Every year, the stunning idol of “Raj Rajeswari” (Devi Durga as worshipped by the royal family), created by local artists, is erected for the sarbojonin puja at the palace grounds.

As part of the festivity, after Bisarjan (immersion of the idol), the royal family celebrates an age-old tradition called “Shatru Badh (eliminating the enemy)”. The ritual dictates that the king would take up a bow and arrow to shoot at a clay model tinged with a speck of life from the artists’ hands, representing the evil forces.

Present Day Concerns Regarding Clay Art

As beautiful as the esteemed artworks are, the craftspeople have been facing dire financial crisis ever since the royal patronage dwindled to support them in their livelihood.  Growing competition from cheap, machine-made replicas of their superior hand-made products and almost non-existent support at the government administrative levels for long years have suffocated the pristine art to a dangerous degree.

Many artists are being forced to forsake their generations of talent and training in this art form to support their families working in other trades. Or, they are choosing to diversify with big, larger-than-life-sized clay sculptures to meet the demands of current business trends over painstakingly creating the beautiful miniature (2”-3”) clay dolls. This is an unfortunate and hefty loss for the age-old art.

A Change in the Winds

In the last few years, however, things are starting to look up. With Government recognitions, President’s awards, and initiatives by active NGOs, the artisans are slowly reviving the art again.

With the ongoing efforts by the government, the Krishnanagar craftsmen are taking advantage of their proximity to the metropolitan city of Kolkata and gaining access to a bigger market. Beautiful specimens of the clay art are available at Biswa Bangla Showrooms at Kolkata Airport, Dakshinapan in Kolkata, and Biswa Bangla Haat at Rajarhat, Several art and crafts fairs hosted in the city, including the famous State Handicrafts Fair or the ‘Hastashilpa Mela’, feature the works of these artisans regularly, offering them a wider platform to showcase their art. And because these fairs are thronged by visitors from across West Bengal and other states, and even foreign tourists, the art form is receiving higher exposure than ever before. As a result, Krishnanagar clay dolls have found a new life as home décor items and accent pieces in themed restaurants and coffee shops. The world is starting to look back at the dying art form once more. Although, there’s still a long way to go.

To reach the grandeur of the golden age of this special art, we need to provide the artisans with proper infrastructure, sufficient funding, and diverse sales channels. Organizations such as the state government-funded Krishnanagar Mritsilpa Co-operative Society and West Bengal Handicraft Development Corporation Ltd. are rays of hope in this regard. But more needs to be done.

There need to be more efforts toward training the artisans in modern tools and technologies along with acquainting them with new marketing methods to keep up with the business part of their trade in today’s tech-savvy world. Hopefully, these steps will help revive Krishnanagar’s clay art in the near future because it’s truly an art worth preserving.

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