The art that thrived through the mediation of the Kumbhakars
The most renowned genre of traditional painting in Bangladesh once thrived in the hands of the Acharya community, a people now extinct. Apart from the Acharyas, who earned their living by painting alongside producing painting proper, there are little evidence of any other artist communities having ever been engaged in painting in the Eastern part of Bengal, which is now Bangladesh.
Close on the heels of the Acharyas, the community that emerged showing considerable proficiency with the paintbrush is the 'Kumbhakars', or the potters. The word 'Kumbha' indicates a profession that entails artistic acumen in making earthen pots and pitchers. However, throughout Bangladesh, there are potters who are also engaged in painting clay idols and potteries. Among the cultural products that are the most praised, and are also granted a status equal to painting, are the painted earthenware known as 'Lakhsmi shora'. This type of painted earthenware, made on the occasion of the Lakhsmi puja, embellishes the village homes throughout the year following the ritual function they serve during the puja. Furthermore, as the surface of the shora – a concave circular pottery – is almost plane, experts have been referring to them as 'painting', not as painted shoras, hence the popularity of the category – shora painting.
A huge number of established shora painters left this country following partition in 1947 along with the migrating Hindu communities from across the region. They settled in Nadia and Chabbish Pargana, West Bengal, India, making these districts their new-found production centres. Both artists and patrons, who were primarily members of the Hindu communities, were thus lost to migration. Still, due to the increase of population at an exceedingly quick pace in the last few decades, the number of consumers for these ritual art pieces has gone up rather than seeing a decline. Compared to the sale they used to enjoy in the eras before partition, today the demand is even higher. Due to the improvement of transportation and communication and increased purchasing power of people, the demand for these forms of paintings based on ritual practices is continuously rising and the market is expanding as well.
Under the present circumstances, many new potter families are taking up shora painting in an attempt to earn an extra income. Consequently, between the well-established customs of any given regions one discovers some intermediary genres that have emerged over the years. Other then these new developments, a number of fresh trends also surfaced, which escaped the notice of the previous researchers. Perhaps the oversights are due to the fact that these paintings are produced in some specific regions for specific small, local markets. It is noteworthy that researchers in their essays on painting done on earthenware always mentioned one genre from Bikramampur known as 'Dhakai shora', indicating provenance (Bikramapur is a district of greater Dhaka), and the other three genres such as Faridpuri (of Faridpur), Sureshwari (of Sureshwari) and Gonka or Acharya shoras, which originated from Faridpur, now a district town. These four types of shoras are also the only varieties found in museums across this region.
Another important point to ponder is that, at present, the village Sidda of Kailara, Sariatpur, is the only production centre for the Faridpuri shora. Also, it has long been the source of Gonka or Achraya and Dhakai shora. Moreover, the village Sureshwar, from where an entirely new type called Sureshwari shora comes from, is also located in Sariatpur. Before Sariatpur was a district, both these regions were part of greater Faridpur. Therefore it will not be inappropriate to conclude that the shoras from the above-mentioned villages have always been perceived to have originated from the district of Faridpur, which led the early collectors and researchers to have focused on the well-established genres only. Or, perhaps, their area of interest had been the Faridpur region. One should also take into account the fact that Faridpur has always been famed for folk-art.
Besides these points, an important question begs an answer: why the two distinct forms of shoras made in the Faridpur region have two different names? One is called Faridpuri and the other Sureshwari. The question leads to the hypothesis that the shora of Faridpuri genre manufactured in Sidda-Kailara is the original style unique to the Faridpur region, and the Sureshwari style emerged at a later date. Or, we may hypothesize that the Sureshwari genre had never seen its production in villages other than its original production centre. Likewise, the shora from Sidda-Kailara areas, which can be considered as the original Faridpuri genre, used to be produced from multiple production centers across the district, and the Midda-Kailara centres are the last remaining strongholds. Interestingly, in Sariatpur, the Faridpuri shora is referred to as Kailara shora.
We can also employ a different method to lend basis to our assumption. For instance, if we survey and analyze the market of these two types of shoras, we will see that the Sureshwri shora's market is, by and large, confined to the district of Faridpur, with Barisal being a peripheral market. In contrast, the Faridpuri genre (Sidda-Kailara) has a market not only in the home district but also as far as Barisal, Patuakhali, Jessore and Khulna. In fact, even in the production centres of West Bengal, the Kailara genre enjoys a considerable following. Accordingly, three types of Sidda-Kailara shoras are known to the forias or the middlemen, as well as buyers outside Faridpur district, either by the name of Faridpuri, or Gonka or Acharya shora and also, at times, by Dhakai shora. And the fact remains that the people of Faridpur have always been familiar with the name Sureshwar as it is an established river-port and a business centre. All this forms the basis of how the genre is typified as Sureshwari shora.
Another important aspect is that the word Sureshwar and Shureshwari is etymologically linked to the Mahadeva and devi Durga. And we must also not overlook the fact that the Sureshwari genre uses the devi as its primary motif. Durga being the most worshiped idol of the region, probably the local artisans had to invent this special Lakshmi shora centered on the Durga icon, which perhaps never existed in Kailara.
Before this special Lakshmi shora emerged, Kailara shora had long been based on the jugolmurti (coupled together) of Radha-Krishna, as the region belonged to the Boishnobs, the worshipers of Bishnu whose revival following the emergence of Chaytanya Mahaprabhu has cultural-historical ramifications.
We can readily detect the influence of Radha-Krishna shora on the Kailara shora which displays the devi Durga in a milieu that refers back to the original practice of the artisans. The floral motifs – elements that are reminiscent of the pastoral setting of the Radha-Krishana shora and also provide a natural backdrop for the devi Durga – recall previous tradition. And the expression of the devi too takes after the humble countenance recognized in Radha-Krishna. In effect, the firm, fearsome look of the devi is replaced by an expression that evokes a sense of serenity. In contrast, in the Sureshwari shora, Durga is placed on a mandap or podium fitting to her stature.
Perhaps the mutation of the devi in the Kailara shora was considered to be a deviation from the scripture, and in reaction Lakhshmi shora was again introduced with an intention to display a strict adherence to the norm, as is seen in the Sureshwari shora. This new genre of Lakhshmi shora is now referred to as Gonca or Acharjya shora, which can be seen as a cultural symbol developed by the Acharya community. Either they themselves played a role as makers of this type of shora, or it was their directives that finally made possible the emergence of this new genre where the influence of the Baishnobs could be averted. Later, both traditions of Lakshmi shora enjoyed a wide following.
(To be continued in the next issue)
Translated by Depart Desk
NISAR HOSSAIN is an artist and researcher, and teaches at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Dhaka University.