Research on India partition sheds light on Bengal's artisan communities

An academic's curiosity about an idol's likeness led to exhibition documenting the history of traditional crafts

A sholapith, or Indian cork, craftsman at work. Ritam Ghosal and Archi Banerjee for The National
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In 1946, after ruling India for 300 years, Britain announced that it would grant the territory independence. But freedom came at a cost. The land it had ruled became two countries — India and Pakistan. This triggered an outbreak of violence in which approximately 15 million people were displaced, and an estimated one million died.

On the eastern frontier, the Radcliffe Line split the Bengal region into West Bengal state, India and East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh). After the partition of India, Shanti Ranjan Ganguly and his family, like millions of predominantly Hindu Bengali refugees from East Pakistan, migrated to West Bengal, India.

Durga Puja, the worship of Goddess Durga, takes place every year in autumn and is a culturally significant event for Bengalis. The Ganguly family has celebrated Durga Puja in their home in Barisal, Bangladesh, for generations. Growing up, Ganguly's granddaughter Archi Banerjee recalls hearing her family members wanting a particular mould of Durga’s face.

“They talked about it with longing, as if they knew modern potters could not recreate the face. And it was spoken about so much that it almost felt like I could see it,” she says.

Curiosity led Banerjee to search for the face her maternal family so longed for. She located the grandsons of Hiralal Pal, who made the idol for the family in Barisal. From them, she learnt that her grandfather was going through a rough financial phase post-migration. He was confident he could not continue their family’s traditional Durga Puja festivities. However, one fateful day, he met Hiralal Pal’s son, Jadunath.

Jadunath Pal had also migrated to Kolkata and promised to make the Durga idol irrespective of how much Banerjee’s grandfather could pay. This arrangement continued for years until Pal’s sons, Shyamal and Bimal, took over. According to them, their grandfather Hiralal and father Jadunath had continued to work for the Ganguly family because of their innate connection to the land they sorely missed. It was a connection based on shared heritage and history.

Hiralal’s son Jadunath continued the tradition in his lifetime, Banerjee says. But his grandsons did not continue it.

“Partly because they did not feel such a strong connection, but most importantly, it did not make sense business-wise to spend all that time making one idol and leaving their workshops during peak season,” she says.

Encouraged by her findings, Banerjee was determined to research the effect of the partition of Bengal on the handicraft cultures and craft communities of undivided Bengal — West Bengal, India and Bangladesh. She wanted to know how it shaped the identity of their craft and how later generations engaged with the memories of the partition.

With the help of a fellowship awarded by the University of the Arts London, she travelled across West Bengal and Bangladesh, documenting the history of craft traditions in undivided Bengal. She identified crafts affected by the partition, migration and violence of the partition era.

“My family’s longing for a face sparked this quest. Even though it might not have strikingly different features, it still had a sense of familiarity, which my family was missing,” Banerjee says. Potters, she added, create face moulds with much effort to make the idol look unique. Hiralal Pal also had his unique signature hidden in the cast or mould he used for the Durga idol.

During her research, she realised that people making religious products, especially products related to the Hindu religion, would be the first to move from East to West Bengal, because their upper-caste Hindu patrons had already moved during the initial partition phase.

Banerjee says understanding how these crafts evolved into their current state in both Bengals was essential.

“The project initially focused on the 1947 partition. But later, the impact of the 1971 liberation war [which resulted in the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan], followed by the migration phases in between and later up to the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, was also considered.”

The effect of partition

Banerjee selected six craft communities for her research — potters; shankharis, who make crafts from shells; Benarasi sari weavers; Tangail sari weavers; pati mat makers; and sholapith, or Indian cork, artisans.

For a year, Banerjee travelled through West Bengal and Bangladesh, visiting artisan communities, staying with them for days or weeks and documenting their stories and ways of crafting. She collected archival footage and many personal memories from her fieldwork.

Haripada Basak, 76, a Tangail sari weaver, migrated with his mother to Phulia, West Bengal, in 1968 to escape religious tensions in East Pakistan. He was born into a family of tant weavers in Tangail, Bangladesh and learnt the craft early on. The tant sari is a traditional Bengali piece, usually woven from cotton threads, making it light and transparent.

He says that tant weavers had been moving to Phulia, Dhatrigram and Samudragarh in Bengal, India, since the partition of India in 1947 and established settlements there.

“The biggest challenge was establishing a market for Tangail saris in India,” he says.

In the 1970s, three co-operatives were established in West Bengal under the West Bengal Co-operative Societies Act 1973, which led to a surge in the production of Tangail saris.

But modern technology, power looms and, more recently, the Covid-19 pandemic, have affected the traditional weavers.

Similarly, shankharis, who make bangles from conch shells called shankha, have established a sprawling industry on the Indian side, having migrated to the Baghbazar area of Kolkata and then to Barrackpore from Shankhari Bazar in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

“Using their familial ties, they even export the bangles to Dhaka. In Dhaka, however, because the raw conch shell material is not available on the Bangladeshi coastline, and due to the high import duties on importing — it is exported from Sri Lanka — many business people prefer to get ready-made bangles from India,” she says.

So the artisans of Shankhari Bazar are almost out of work. Very few remain in this field and struggle to make ends meet.

Evolving stories

In November, Banerjee presented her research findings with Parted Crafts, a 10-day multimedia exhibition displayed at the Bengal Gallery in the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, Kolkata. Every day, she held curator walks, narrating the stories behind the exhibits as she walked the audience through the gallery.

According to Tapati Guha-Thakurta, art historian and honorary professor at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, the exhibition was distinctive and unusual because Banerjee wove together the stories of many craft traditions across the two Bengals. She says that the partition of Punjab in the west predominates the partition discourse in India, and Banerjee’s project sheds a much needed light on the twice partitioned Bengal.

"Partition, migration, displacement and relocation become a critical part of the story that Archi puts together through her account of Parted Crafts. And she says it through stories, objects, documents, and life histories," Guha-Thakurta says, "combining the skills of detailed ethnography with those of a design and craft practitioner."

She says that Banerjee’s presence enhanced the exhibition. “I was there for different walkthroughs, and the stories were never the same. With questions, her stories kept evolving. And I think that was the magic of the show.

“And then, it suddenly becomes an interactive process of the researcher telling a story. And the audience got drawn to it and asked more and more questions about it, and the exhibition came to life. And over each of the 10 days it took on a new dimension because there would be new questions and new stories.”

Rituparna Roy of the Kolkata Partition Museum, the outreach partner for the exhibition, says that upper-class and upper-caste stories have received more attention, but what is so unique about Banerjee’s work is how partition affected the craft communities in Bengal, which is a neglected area of work.

“When these craftsmen came over to the other side, they continued practising, bringing with them the benefit of their craft and skills,” she says.

Banerjee is looking forward to publishing her research and plans to take the exhibition to London next year.

Updated: April 07, 2023, 6:02 PM