Caught in the labyrinth of anyonymity

Debutante Payal Mohanka’s “In The Shadows – Unknown Craftsmen of Bengal” is an eye-opener on our unsung craftspersons. RANA SIDDIQU


Before his death last year, wigmaker Kazim Malik, 85 then, proudly remembered his tiny contribution to the national cause. He made a ‘sadhu wig’ for Subash Chandra Bose to help him escape British eyes in his village of Baniban Jadgishpur, 40 kms from Kolkata. His village is India’s biggest wig making source.

They make them for Kolkata’s theatre and film industry too. You name the style, from Tagore to APJ Abdul Kalam to the trendy red, green and golden wigs, Jagdishpur’s wigmakers would craft it within three days.

Meanwhile at Chandranagor, the unknown Shridhar Das changed the definition of illumination with his small lights 50 years ago.

Today, this town has the largest number of light makers. They have to their credit a contribution at the Mayor’s Thames Festival in London held in 2003.

Or take the polo ball makers from Deulpur. They have barely seen any polo match though they are the only polo ball makers in India.

In SERVICE Payal Mohanka (left) and a wig being woven at Baniban Jadgishpur village of West Bengal.  

If in 1938, they exported 30,000 polo balls, today, 200 families that make these balls (from bamboo mixed with wood shavings and wax) are at the mercy of those who run polo clubs.

These and other such nuggets of information about the unsung craftspersons living in the labyrinth of rural Bengal abound in the recently-released “In the Shadows – Unknown Craftsmen of Bengal”. In the colourful book, replete with pictures of the wigmakers, light makers, polo ball makers, boat makers, the shuttlecock makers and the denim cloth makers, several startling facts are woven into its narrative.

Grand realities

The Niyogi Books publication penned by Payal Mohanka, a former journalist and a documentary filmmaker, not only contains information about the skill, how they make these articles but also the ground realities. For instance, “The makers of denim trousers need a water purification plant to make their products chemical free. The local administration is threatening to close down their units due to chemical pollution without realising how much it contributes to the economy,” says Mohanka.

But then, all is not that bad. After Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram released her book at New Delhi recently, he gave her some good news. “He told me that this book would be used as a research material for small-scale industries studies by the Government of India. Also, Johar Sarkar, who looks after the small scale industries in the GOI, has assured me of helping these craftspersons through its Cluster Development Funds ,” relates Mohanka, adding, “there is no greater joy than serving those who are keeping our cultural heritage alive.”

Not that getting this extremely useful book published was easy for 47-year-old Mohanka. “I was turned off by as many as eight big publishers on two grounds, one, they asked me, ‘why Kolkata only’, and two, they said, the book wouldn’t be commercially viable!” recounts the debut author. This recipient of the Press Fellowship to Wolfson College, Cambridge, has to her credit “Mother Teresa, from Saint to Sainthood”, a documentary which was screened at the Nehru Centre. She calls this book “an extension” of a documentary on these craftsmen she had made for the BBC some time ago.


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