Art that thrived through the mediation of Kumbhakars
Continued from the previous issue...
While collecing data on shora paintings of Bangladesh what becomes apparent is that the traditional production centres of some shoras have shifted from one location to another. For example, Sureswhari shoras are no longer produced in Sureshwar; instead, their present source is Chandra-mukhdoba village under Bhanga upazila of Faridpur district – and it has been so for a good many years. Once, the kumbhakars or potters of this region regularly purchased Lakshmi shoras which came from Sureshwar as they were central to the rituals. Some 40 to 50 years ago, one of the kumbhakar families of this village, taking cues from what the farias or middlemen had suggested, began producing shoras of this genre to sell them to those middlemen at a cheaper rate. Eventually, this village became the sole production centre of Sureshwari shoras. But, ironically, these shoras bore the name Ghatmajhir shora as this genre had been marketed by the middlemen from Ghatmajhi (or Ghaatmajhi, according to some other sources) village.
In a similar fashion, many existing styles – those that originated from specific locations – have been subjected to such relocation. With the emergence of a new market impacting the production and value of such products, even after traditional production centres went out of operation, they reappeared in new locations.
There are a number of reasons for the potter community at village Sureshwar to falling to ruin. Firstly, it was to do with their inability to cope with the intensified competition they faced in an expanding market. Secondly, the insecurity that gripped the entire community as communalism was on the rise in this particular region (for a certain period, fueled by the presence of an influential religious leader, a pir, who transformed the region into a stronghold of his followers). And thirdly, the destruction of habitats in river erosion.
Traditionally, the potter communities in Bangladesh establish their habitats on river banks, so that they can access both soil necessary for their craft and river transportation to freight their end-products to different markets. Also, it was once convenient for them to build houses with the space necessary for their workshops and kilns in those areas. But, with the increase in population over the years, they have been forced to divide their land amongst family members, thus, effecting a gradual shrinkage of the work-spaces needed for pottery-making to sustain. In some other cases, families were faced with the most pragmatic issue – their profession was no longer cost-effective and, as the land price witnessed an upward spiral, they were forced to sell off their landed property to find cheaper land plots where they could re-establish their habitats to ensure sustenance.
Or, having felt threatened by the looming occupational crisis, some of them devised a way out of the predicament by switching to other lucrative professions. Those who are trying hard now to continue with their profession as potters, even in the face of stiff competition, are also employing unskilled family members indiscriminately (sometimes even depending on child labour) to find a cheaper way of producing shoras to ensure that their products enjoy visibility and are regularly sold in the market. As a result the quality has seen a sharp decline. Others, as a part of their survival strategy, have burdened themselves with the task of producing the same shora in a huge number all on their own. Interestingly, this resulted in simplification of the motifs through fluency of lines leading to extraordinary aesthetic achievements.
It must be highlighted that no other style of shora named after the place of its origin has so far gained such a scale of popularity as has been the case with the three kinds of shoras mentioned above – Faridpuri, Dhakai, and Sureshwari genres. Further to note, although a number of production centres as well as styles are to be found of Lakshmi shoras, most of them originated in and around Dhaka and Faridpur districts. One may surmise that Dhaka and Faridpur districts were much bigger in size at the time when the styles evolved and acquired their names. Additionally, some researchers hold that the tradition of worshiping goddess Lakshmi through the ritual use of shoras originated from these two districts. It is also difficult to overlook the fact brought into light by some that similar worshipers living in different regions of the country at present, had their origin either in Faridpur or in Dhaka. A number of experts have also drawn the conclusion that there is an element of novelty in presenting Lakshmi as Dhaanyo-Laxmi, or Paddy-related-Lakshmi.
They have also attempted to link the tradition of worshiping the new Lakshmi – a way of apotheosizing the devi – through kojagaari Lakshmi puja during full moon of Ashween, one of the months of late monsoon, to pray for high yield of Aaush, or a fifth crop witch would be a source of prosperity. Lakshmi puja, being an expression of appeasement after enjoying her indulgence, turned into a major religious ritual among the people living on the banks of the River Padma. It is important to note that these areas remain submerged during monsoon, when siltation prepares the crop-fields for cultivation of Aaush paddy, a name that may have an etymological link with the word aayesh, meaning ease. This actually denotes how easily or effortlessly the people on the banks of Padma were able to cultivate this particular rice variety. Thus, Dhaanyo-Lakshmi is related to the high yield of Aaush, cultivated in a certain time of the year (late monsoon) and is a source of economic affluence of the people of this region.
Dhaanyo-Lakshmi ritual originated in this region at the behest of the women members of the community; they were the ones who had been maintaining the tradition of practising mongal brota, a ceremonial act seeking good luck or mongal for all. It is a tradition that dates back to the ancient time. At one point of history, women of the Hindu community of this region started to incorporate the formalities of Lakshmi brota into their weekly ritual of mongal brota.
It can be concluded without any doubt that the people who had settled in the vast region on the banks of the Padma were of indigenous origin and, culturally, inherited the non-Aryan traditions. So, the rituals that utilize shora, which affords a surface area in which to depict the devi in an iconic form, seem to have been a part of the non-Aryan ethos that lies outside the ambit of the Vedic canon later infiltrated the subaltern culture and faith. Worshiping Lakshmi through the use of shoras entails a series of rituals that easily reveal its root link to an ancient agro-based culture. As alpana – a form of decorative patterns done with powdered rice – together with elements such as grass, banana peels etc, are used in embellishing the sacred space with much flourish, undermining the presence of the shora itself; the entire design implies a deep-rooted connection with the primitive matriarchal society far removed from the Aryan mores. Experts further point out that depicting the owl – the carrier of the goddess – is of immense importance as it has never been the norm in any region other than Bengal, thus, proving its rootedness in the past. According to experts, owls as killers of insects and mice had become a sign of good omen for the peasants of this region. The shoras that do not display the goddess in her iconic significance with a stalk of paddy in hand, must have an owl signifying the difference as it is considered a treatment of deference. Therefore, it is either the paddy stalk or an owl which stand proof of this genre of Lakshmi shora.
No uncontested proof or explanation is found for the reason of a shora being selected for painting the goddess on its surface. Some opinions suggest that shoras are metaphors for pregnant women, alluding to fertility in general. Again, some consider the round shape of the shora emulates the roundness of the earth. Many even cite Rig Veda, which considers the dharitree or earth as the 'mother'. But it is also a fact that this riverine land has a legacy of worshipping the earth as lakshmi – one who brings good luck. Additionally, one should also remember that the Bengali people, in their idiomatic utterance, often allude to the fact that some people have the knack for mistaking the earth for the shora – dhorake shora gyaan koraa – to mistake the shora for the earth, in literal translation. Some experts judiciously lend importance to the fact that the worship of kojagaari Lakshmi takes place during full moon, and, based on popular belief, conclude that the goddess arrives with the full moon, whose round shape is echoed in that of a shora (the chandro or moon has long been considered a goddess of agriculture and fertility). Further, it should also be taken seriously into consideration that even 60 or70 years ago paper was scarce in this region and processed leaves of palm or banana tree were widely used as substitutes for paper. Unavailability of paper had led to the painters of this region known as patuas to use powdered chalk mixed with gum as primer on a certain kind of thin-cotton fabric that they used to paint idols on as part of their practice to meet the regular demand of the devotees. Similarly, if the potters were to assuage the thirst of the public for such religious images, they needed a means which would provide an ideal surface for them to paint on. Shoras provided them with an easier solution, enabling a parallel practice. By sourcing what was available at hands, which was somewhat similar to a plain surface, the shora became the canvas of choice in the far corners of the rural Bengal on which to apply the techniques of painting in the vein of the potuas.
Another aspect which calls for serious investigation is that, besides the shora-producing kumbhakars or potters, there are other potters communities similarly inclined to perform the ritual of shora puja in a befitting decorum and pomp. Interestingly, there are potters in the same region who do not follow such tradition.
It is interesting to note that the very form of the shora is the base (lower part that emerge during the first phase) of all other implements made by women potters; it is the primary form of every lump they throw into their wheels and work till the male potters take over to turn the base into pitchers and pots. Therefore, that very form might have been the subject of veneration, giving rise to the ritual practices centred on the shora itself. Many researchers are of the opinion that these traditions of puja around earthen plates existed in the pre-Arian Bengal and are still being continued in communities living in certain areas next to the Sundarbans utilizing ritual implements such as bara-ghat, Manasha-ghat, Lakshmi-ghat, painted potteries that are still prevalent in those swampy areas of this region.
NISAR HOSSAIN is an artist and researcher, and teaches at the Faculty of Fine Art, Dhaka University.