With art and grit, she helps women in Maoist badlands

Tribal women at work in Bundu near Ranchi making terracotta figures.  

Deep in the heart of Maoist-infested region in Jharkhand, a young woman is reviving ancient artistic genres to “bring new meaning into the lives of tribal and backward caste women” whose husbands and kin have taken to arms.

Reshma Dutta, the daughter of the erstwhile ‘zamindar’ of Bundu, an economically backward district 40 km from Ranchi, makes terracotta, dokra (metal ware) and ceramic sculptures, jewellery, cutlery and solid three-dimensional wall paintings using ethnic Sohrai motifs and techniques.

“I was inspired by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the founder of Art of Living. He advised me to utilise my training, skill and land for the service of the local people,” Dutta, 35, a fine arts graduate from Santiniketan, told IANS at her home.

“I heeded his words because Bundu was a trouble hot spot. Now, eight years on, the villages around my homestead and outlying our land are peaceful.”

Her arts and crafts cooperative society, Adhaar, employs 80 tribal and backward caste women from the potters’ community, most of whom are either victims of Maoist violence or have been abandoned by husbands and male kin who have joined the insurgents in the forests.

Besides the women, Adhaar also employs 15 talented young men from the backward community who claim to “have opted for arts over arms unlike their comrades”.

She works out of a small workshop-cum-studio spread over two acres at her sprawling homestead in the midst of paddy fields, low hills and dense forests — which are Maoist strongholds located off the Bundu Block Road.

But the Maoists do not bother Dutta and “neither have they ever touched her land”.

“The Maoists respect people — especially women — who work for the improvement of the local lot and preserve ethnic traditions. They usually target businessmen who mint a lot of money and do not plough it back for the development of the poor tribal and backward caste villagers,” she explained.

Initially, there was resistance from the villagers who did not want to send their women, “fearing for their lives and a backlash from the Naxals”.

“But the women I settled on were all in some way connected to the problem. They were either deserted by their men — who had gone to the hills — and had to fend for the families or were singed by it,” she said. Most of the women are from the potters’ community.

Dutta’s family originally belongs to Vishnupur in West Bengal. When she returned to Bundu in 2001, “her homestead was in ruins”.

“My siblings had migrated abroad and my parents were living in another house on our land a little farther. The homestead had no power, water and the roof had caved in. The courtyard where my father manufactured ‘lai’ — a natural fibrous glue — was crumbling.

“I stayed alone in the homestead without electricity and worked with 10 women, making terracotta sculptures with clay culled from our land. I trained them to craft figures and fire clay. In turn, I picked up the traditional Sohrai art from them. We sold our wares personally at village ‘haats’ (weekly markets) and at fairs across Jharkhand,” she said.

“Impressed by my work, the state government gave me a grant of Rs.500,000 five years ago. But that was paltry. I (and my team) make nearly 250,000 goods every month,” Dutta said.

She makes 62 different varieties of corporate gift items — fusing traditional terracotta, dokra metal and ceramics.

“I am looking to tap the corporate gift and export markets. Right now, I supply terracotta, ceramics and dokra to Jharcraft, a semi-autonomous government crafts council which has outlets countrywide.

“And I also support Adhaar with money earned from personal commissions (commissioned art jobs) and a modest investment by my partner Debashish Chakrabarty, who joined me last year,” Dutta said.

According to Chakrabarty, the owner of a successful advertising agency in the State, “The major problems that constrain the rich legacy of tribal arts and crafts of Jharkhand from getting an international market are the absence of a packaging industry and poor information network.”

“The crafts shop concept is missing in the state and regular strikes affect production. Naxalism adds to the problem, along with poor infrastructure like erratic power and bad roads,” Chakrabarty said.

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 8:36:22 PM |

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