Mallika Halder, a shola artist from Mathurapur in South 24 Parganas, has been associated with the art since her childhood. After completing her daily chores, she would diligently work on intricate designs using sholapith along with her father. After marriage, Mallika started working on the craft all by herself. By making topor and shola flowers, she would earn `5,000 to `6,000 per month, enough to support her family. Not just Mallika, but a number of women in her village support their families in a similar way while the men go out to work in the fields or seek jobs in Kolkata. “For our ancestors, this craft was the prime source of income. But it’s not the same for us what with the shrinking market of shola and the stiff competition it has been facing from thermocol,” said Mallika from the stall she put up at the Charity Christmas Market organised by the German consulate in Kolkata recently. Though Mallika and the likes of her never took this craft all that seriously, the last few months have seen the game changing for them. It is a result of the German consulate in Kolkata’s efforts to not just identify this great art of Bengal but also to market the products made by these artisans globally.
Shola in Bengali culture
Shola or pith is the tissue in the stems of vascular plants. For
centuries, pith art or sholapith has been a part of Bengal’s folk culture. This craft is mainly practised in Bardhaman, Murshidabad, Birbhum, Nadia, Hooghly, Malda and South 24 Parganas. The craftsmen are known as Malakar, which means garland maker, probably because they made shola garlands for idols and for the noble class. Traditionally, sholapith products have been used for decorating idols and creating the headgear of brides and grooms for Bengali weddings. In fact, there is a separate idol decoration made of shola, which is called daker saaj. Even during the British era, the shola-style pith helmet, also known as the sun helmet, gained immense popularity around the world.
Sholapith handicrafts have made its way into home décor, but it has been losing its popularity due to a constant battle with thermocol. Though it looks similar to shola, thermocol is a petroleum by-product, which is not biodegradable. Since the late 20th century, when the commercial manufacturing of thermocol began, it started giving a tough competition to pith.
A learning platform
With just a few weeks of planning, the consulate identified more than 25 families from across Bengal who were then specially trained. Several workshops, some by artists from across the world, were conducted for the artisans. “While our aim was to make their artworks meet the demands of the global market, we also ended up giving soft-skill training to the artisans,” said a worker from the consulate. Mallika alone has attended more than 10 workshops since mid-2019. “I have learnt so many things and these workshops have opened up new avenues for me. Besides topor and flowers, I didn’t know that one could make a variety of modern fashion accessories with shola. There’s a huge demand for these items. The workshops also helped me learn how to market our products,” shared Shubhankar Halder, another artisan.
Going the eco-friendly way
This craft is not just limited to accessories. The artisans have shown their innovative skills by using shola to create a host of decorative items like rice lights, Christmas tree, its decoration and even chandeliers. While the beautiful headgears, hairpins and other fashion accessories are already a hit, the newer items are also gaining popularity in different metropolitan cities across the country.
What makes shola attractive is not just its elegant white colour, but also the fact that it is eco-friendly. Mekhola Biswas, a media professional who was trying out a shola headgear at the market, told us, “There are two reasons why I like using shola products. It might stop an old Bengali art from getting extinct and also because it doesn’t harm the environment. Most fashion accessories nowadays are made of plastic or theromocol. I totally avoid those.”
Source: Times of India