Bolpur-Santiniketan area is a tourist hotspot that attracts people from Kolkata, other states, as well as from foreign countries, particularly during the months of October to March.
These higher-class tourists form the customer base for the hundreds of artisans who sell their handmade products in the popular Sonajhuri market during the weekends, making them heavily dependent on the former for their livelihood.
A wide variety of crafts were covered in our visit to the Sonajhuri haat – traditional musical instruments (popularised by the baaul exclusive to this region), stitching and designing techniques (kantha and batik products), terracotta and dokra showpieces (the latter were originally exclusive to this region), jewelleries and home decor furnishings, and other products made of bamboo and kaash flower (a commonly found flower in the state).
Most of the artisans we interviewed procure their raw materials from Bolpur and surrounding areas.
For instance, the clay required to make terracotta products is obtained from nearby rivers, and the cloth on which kantha stitch is woven is available in local markets.
We spoke to a few artisans there about their work and the working conditions.
Mallika Ray, an artisan who makes baskets and containers out of the stem of kaash flower, collects the raw material from the surrounding forests.
Santosh Mal, a musical instrument maker, acquires bamboo and wood from Jharkhand. He also uses everyday vegetables like bottle gourd (lau) and stone apple (bel) to make the popular ektara.
Machines will not give us the same kind of finishing that can be achieved by hands.Sandeep Mahato, Musical Instrument Maker
Only two artisans among those surveyed have wage workers employed under them. Moreover, the use of machines is limited in most crafts. Thus, either only a part of the production process requires the use of machines, or the products are made entirely by hand.
Change of Production With Change in Demand
The artisans make mostly souvenir products, which do not have local demand. Thus, much of the production is undertaken on a small scale, catering to touristy demand.
Local demand is formed by the students of Visva Bharati University. Artisans also take orders that are placed via informal networks, catering to the demands of higher classes in various cities.
Products are also sold in bulk at wholesale prices, which are then sold in showrooms, ensuring at least a 50 percent profit margin to the wholesaler.
"They sell these products in AC rooms at significantly high prices. We only have our labour."Datta, Terracotta Artisan
Hence, while profits are earned when products are sold directly to customers, it is almost negligible when products are sold in bulk.
One dokra artisan stated, “There are 30-40 artisans who are willing to sell their products to these showrooms. If I wish to charge higher, they will stop buying from me.”
Production process has remained almost unchanged owing to minimal usage of machines.
However, artisans keep up with changing demand: Mahato has started making bamboo-based lamps that have become trendy recently, and has reduced the production of bamboo boxes which have seen a fall in demand.
Nowadays, Mal makes walking sticks in light of higher demand. Similarly, kantha stitch face masks were seen all over Sonajhuri.
All the artisans we spoke to, claimed that they decide the designs themselves; Nikhil Mondal, a 70-year-old earring craftsman, told us that he often checks the internet while deciding on his designs in order to keep up with the latest trends in the market.
'Visible and Invisible' Female Artisans
A number of female artisans were observed in Sonajhuri, selling either hand-stitched garments or jewellery pieces.
While kantha stitch artisans learned their stitching skills from a vocational training school, the artisan selling earrings acquired the skill when she initially worked under an acquaintance.
On the other hand, Ray, the kaash flower artisan, learned her skill from her mother-in-law.
The desire to make a living from their skill encouraged them to sell these products. Thus, this is not the only source of income for their families. Their spouses are also employed – as toto drivers, and as contractual workers.
Ray mentioned that she opts for employment under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) when her husband is not around and takes up the employment only if available nearby. This arrangement underlines their status as secondary workers in the family.
However, their incomes contribute significantly to their households, which are primarily spent to finance their children’s education, and also to meet their daily expenses.
They are able to set aside a part of their earnings for personal expenses as well, and claimed that it did not feel right to ask for money from their spouses for every petty expense.
Being married mothers, they shoulder all of the household and childcare responsibilities, which severely impinge on the time they can potentially devote to their craft.
Receiving little or no help from other family members, they have to forgo their leisure time in order to purchase/collect raw materials and to make their products. Their lack of time to undertake paperwork deprive them of availing loans, which makes it unable to expand their production.
While these artisans were ‘visible’ female workers, the ‘invisible’ female artisans also deserve a mention. Most of the male artisans reported receiving help from their female family members in their production process.
Mahato’s wife helps him with polishing and weaving of the products.
"Women usually take up the relatively unskilled work since they are unable to carry out the heavy part of the production process which I have to do on my own."Sandeep Mahato, Musical instrument maker
Artisans have reported that women are engaged in the colouring and polishing of musical instruments, and they help with painting and designing of terracotta products.
Thus, it is most likely that females are engaged in the relatively unskilled part of the job. However, some of the artisans claimed that no such division of labour was followed in the making of their products.
"All the family members, male and female, help me in making my products. There is no division of labour in the production process."Jayshankar Patra, Earring Artisan
Thus, we find that while ‘visible’ female artisans receive negligible help from their spouses, female family members were crucial to the production process undertaken by male artisans.
The latter constitute ‘invisible’ workers who cut down on production costs by providing unpaid labour.
An important implication of this scenario is that these unpaid female family workers remain unacknowledged as working members, and are perceived solely as homemakers.
Role of State and Impact of Pandemic
Most of these artisans had a card issued to handicraft artists that initially promised them benefits like subsidised loans and sponsored trips to handicraft fairs in the city from the government. But possession of the card did not benefit them significantly.
"We are promised support only on paper, never in practice."Nikhil Mondal, Earring Artisan
Many said that they could expand their scale of operation if loans were available at subsidised rates. However, none of them were able to do so, in spite of some artisans undertaking the requisite paperwork involved in the process.
One artisan claimed the bank manager told him that he was ineligible for a loan because he did not have enough money in his account.
Few artisans also claimed that they had received calls for popular handicraft fairs held in Kolkata and other cities in the country before the pandemic, where the government would bear costs of accommodation and commute.
The absolute dependence on tourists rendered the artisans vulnerable in the face of constant lockdowns due to the pandemic.
The annual Poush Mela or the winter fair was not held in December 2020, the celebration of Dol Utshob during spring 2021 was restricted, and Sonajhuri was shut down for months.
They also did not receive any calls for fairs outside Bolpur after the pandemic. The shutdown of the university also caused loss of customers for the baaul instrument artisan. These led them to incur significant losses.
Datta recalled how his family was on the brink of starvation during the initial days of lockdown, and managed to survive only because of the ration provided by the state, and food received from charity.
While artisans who employed waged workers could no longer pay them in full, few others had to lay them off.
"All the shops were closed, only 1 or 2 pieces were sold from home."Bharati Kar, Kantha Stitch Seller
Most of the craftspersons we spoke to, had no fallback options. This was primarily because they owned no land of their own, and also because they possessed no other skill.
However one of the terracotta artisans, Pramanik, told us that he was able to avail other jobs like idol making, painting, etc.
A Dokra artisan had to work as a domestic help after the lockdown to make ends meet.
As far as provision of MGNREGS employment is concerned, Ray worked for 30 days but she is yet to receive payment for her labour. Though she received rations (1 kg rice and 1 kg wheat per person per month), it was not enough for her family.
Thus, receiving absolutely no help from the state for their craft during such testing times, the artisans were left to fend for themselves.
The artisans take pride in the products they make, but the lack of state support in general and during the pandemic in particular, paints a gloomy picture.
While the promotion of tourism may seem like a noble gesture, it is essentially a perpetuation of an unequal relationship between the upper and upper-middle class tourists and working class artisans.
The former can refrain from purchasing these products for almost a year, but it spells doom for these artisans.
Thus, instead of merely depending on the aesthetic sense of Kolkata's babus, the state needs to play a greater role in supporting them to prevent the obliteration of their crafts.
(Satyaki Dasgupta is a PhD student at Colorado State University and Annesha Mukherjee is a PhD research scholar at Centre for Development Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. All 'My Report' branded stories are submitted by citizen journalists to The Quint. Though The Quint inquires into the claims/allegations from all parties before publishing, the report and the views expressed above are the citizen journalists' own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for the same.)