Apart from historical monuments, hidden amongst the crowded houses and narrow roads of the Khagra Bazaar in Berhampore there are small niches of exquisite beauty - the ivory marts, the cork craftsmen, the Kansa (bell-metal) marts, shops of silk cloth and the wood craftsmen.
Now many of the craftsmen have also diversified to other crafts, like the Fiber glass work, Coconut (with fiber) work etc.
Murshidabad has a very rich historical and cultural background. The Murshidabad carvers were declared to be perhaps the best in India, fully displaying the finish, minuteness and ingenuity characteristic of all true Indian art.
Though Murshidabad is one of the leading districts in handicraft, still the market is showing the tendency of decline. The essence is to sustain, the skill and technology has to be modernized with the changing taste and changing social aspirations. Traditional arts and crafts are supported by peoples wish, traditional beliefs and customs, aristocracy, as well as the societies choice & aesthetics sense.The Great Exhibition
of the Works of Industry of all Nations, took place in Hyde Park, London, from 1 May to 15 October 1851. It was the first international exhibition of manufactured products and was enormously influential on the development of many aspects of society including art and design education, international trade and relations, and even tourism.
Ivory Craftsmen from Berhampore also participated in this exhibition.
The following is an extract from The Illustrated London News, dated 26th
April, 1851."We have been favoured by a Correspondent at Berhampoor with the accompanying examples of the ingenuity which our Great Exhibition has called into action in far-distant lands.
One of the Illustrations shows the interior of the room, with the Berhampoor ivory workers engaged upon the manufacture of articles for the Exhibition of the Industry of all Nations.
The walls of this room, it will be perceived, are covered with charcoal sketches of the various parts of the elephant, camel, &c., to guide the workmen.
The subjects already carved are numerous, consisting of elephants, camels, bullocks, boats, palanquins, tigers, carts, a set of chessmen representing the figures from Layard's "Nineveh;" puzzles, letters, and a variety of minor articles.
It would doubtless amuse many people in England if they could see the rough and primitive tools with which such minute and beautiful work is turned out; and more would it astonish artisans and others to witness the use of the workmen make of their feet, which to them are equal to an extra pair of hands, the feet being constantly called into play even to picking up their tools when beyound the immediate reach of their hands.
The ivory carving trade at Berhampoor, the produce of which requires to be seen in England to be highly appreciated, has only existed for about fifty years; it having been introduced by an Englishman, whose name at the present day is doubtful. Before his time, a few ivory carvers were attached to the Newab's court at Moorshedabad, eight miles from Berhampoor.
Their work was, it is supposed, confined to ornamenting elephant howdahs, couches, and furniture. The present workmen amout to twenty-six in number, five of whom are considered sirdars, or chief workmen, who can draw their patterns and carve from them; the remainder are merely workmen. The several carvers are Bengalese, and can carve anything, however elaborate, of which a drawing or model is furnished. The whole of the ivory work is at present under the guidance and superintendence of an officer in the army.""
Jute products are at present highly appreciated as rich handicrafts. Besides being used in carpet backing, sofa cover, curtain, bags, wall decoration, quality paper production, as substitute of wool, being mixed with cotton, wool, silk and synthetic fiber it is also largely used as gift articles, jute fabrics, and the pandel decorations.
As a decorative element, thus this traditional fiber is emerging as a very important article of different material.
Bell metal works are immensely supported by the phenomenal attitudes of Bengali families, "Aristocracy". In Bengali ritual, those items are widely used and gifted. Though the old items are respected and valued more, but the new generations taste would help this craft skill to sustain who even wishes bell metal to be
used in their furniture, clocks, doors and windows etc. Shell carving and wood carving works are marketed largely as gift items. After Ivory carving had been banned, sandal wood works replaced ivory carving.
Handicrafts and the skills as a whole can be marketed, as the local artisans managed to make special style, may be named as "style of Murshidabad", after years of works and practice.
Whatever might be the medium, it seems all the items of Murshidabad Handicraft can be such arranged to compose a beautiful poem as a whole.
Most of the craftsmen are from the third tier of the Hindu caste system, the Vaisyas.
With time a lot has changed in terms of the caste composition of the Indian society.
However, traditional handicrafts are still mostly created by the people of the respective trade based castes.
With the influence of Islam and associated conversions to Islam of many craftspeople, the sphere of the form and content of the crafts changed.
Still in many cases particular skills remained family traditions, even when that was not dictated by caste.
The traditional craftspeople castes are:
- Sarnakar (Sar-no-kar): Goldsmith
- Kansakar (Kansa-kar): Coppersmith
- Sutradhar (Sootra-dhar): Holder of measuring tape: Architect, Carpenter, Carver
- Tantubay (Tantu-bai): Weaver
- Kumbhakar (Koombha-kar): Potter
- Sankhakar (Shonkho-kar): Maker of shell articles
- Malakar (Mala-kar): Gardener (garland maker)
- Chitrakar (Chitro-kar): Painter