Nestled in the forests with a population of not even a hundred people, Lalbazaar was a nondescript village until not too long ago. Today it’s not only an art hub but also moving towards becoming a centre for dokra, a metalcraft popular in Bengal, all thanks to a Kolkata artist who made the place his second home four years ago.
“Two places are famous in West Bengal for dokra work — Bikna in Bankura and Dariyapur in Bardhaman. But if you notice carefully, the quality of their products is deteriorating. There is a lot of polishing and colouring, something that is not done in dokra. We are trying to keep things original,” said Mrinal Mandal, an alumnus of the Government Arts College who chanced upon Lalbazar, sitting on West Bengal’s border with Jharkhand, in 2018, while trying to document folk art.
He is, at the moment, curating a dokra workshop in the village with the help of Kolkata’s Chalchitra Academy. For the workshop, which began 45 days ago and in which 15 people from Lalbazar (from its total population 80) and five from surrounding villages are participating. Mr. Mandal has brought in six artisans from Bikna, including two master craftsmen — Amar Karmakar and Mahadeb Karmakar.
“Dokra is an ancient tradition; its documented history is about 5,000 years old. Making dokra art is a difficult process. Each figurine takes about a month to make. There are many processes involved, for which seven to eight varieties of clay is required, apart from other raw material. What works in our favour is that the raw material, including the metal, are easily available here [in Lalbazar],” Mr. Mandal said.
“The workshop will continue all of next year and production too will continue. The craftsmen have already created about 300 pieces of art so far, which have gone to shops in Kolkata and also abroad. Once the villagers pick up the art, they will substantially add to their income,” he said.
Lalbazar, also known as Khwaabgram (‘village of dreams’), is located about 4 km from Jhargram and is peopled by members of the Lodha tribe, once outlawed by the British. They mostly earn a living as labourers and small farmers. Once Mr. Mandal arrived there, he also began teaching them art. Today, many of them also earn a decent income by selling paintings and handicrafts to tourists.
“I am quite enjoying the workshop. I hope to master the skill some day and make money selling dokra work,” said Deep Mallick, a student of Class IX.
“My greatest satisfaction is that at Khwaabgram, we are practising this ancient craft in its original form, without any painting or polishing. We are reviving the original tribal motifs,” Mr. Mandal added.