It was still spring and the lukewarm weather of North Bengal came as a welcome respite for Norwegian Eivind Falk and his two British companions Robin Wood and his daughter Jojo Wood. Walking down a dry mud track of Kushmandi in the district of Dakshin Dinajpur on a March afternoon in 2017, Robin said that the temperature at his home, a few miles from Birmingham, would be around minus four degrees Celsius at that time… “and it’s very, very wet too, with a constant drizzle and wind,” said Jojo. Eivind was smiling… after all he was here before — in 2016 to be precise.
The West Bengal government’s Department of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises & Textiles (MSME&T) had developed 10 Rural Craft Hubs (RCH) with 3,000 traditional handicraft artists in nine districts of the state between 2013 and 2016. The initiative was undertaken in partnership with UNESCO and the main purpose was to conserve and revive different forms of intangible cultural heritage (ICH) of West Bengal. In February 2016, a 14-member team of international experts visited the RCH hubs for project-related consultation and Eivind — the Director of the Norwegian Crafts Institute — was part of that team. They visited the Wooden Mask Hub at Kushmandi and Eivind was highly impressed with the craft and the artists. His interactions with them sparked off the idea of future collaborations. It was during that visit that he conceived the idea of a skill-sharing workshop between the Master Class Artists of Kushmandi and Greenwood craft artists of Europe. Things took a concrete shape when Eivind met Shankar Das, an eminent Wooden Mask artist of Kushmandi who went to the UK to participate in the London Craft Week later in 2016.
So here was Eivind at Kushmandi again! And this time he had come with Robin Wood, another internationally recognized traditional woodworker, and Jojo, a second-generation Greenwood artist from the UK. They had come to participate in a collaborative three-day workshop on Wood Carving with traditional Wooden Mask Makers at Mahishbathan in Kushmandi (March 17-19), followed by an exhibition of the products created at the workshop and another workshop, this one with teenagers and youths, in Kolkata (March 21-24).
For the uninitiated, Greenwood craft is a special form of carpentry where artists work on unseasoned or ‘green’ timber to create a wide range of products — from traditional masks and wall hangings to utilitarian objects like bowls and spoons. Greenwood being much softer than seasoned timber is also easier to shape with hand tools.
The interface between the European trio and the artists of Kushmundi — most of whom are used to making masks for the local Gomira folk dance form and mythological characters, gods and goddesses like Shiva, Kali, Durga and Asura — was an unprecedented and rewarding experience for both the teams.
While Eivind, Robin and Jojo marveled at the pieces of woodworld wonders in this part of the world and were enriched by the Kushmandi artists’ canvas, repertoire and traditional skills, including their exquisite quality and intricate details, the four Master Class artists of Kushmandi who participated in the workshop — Shankar Das, Tulu Sarkar, Nandi Sarkar and Dipak Sarkar — got to know and work with advanced tools and equipment used in the West and caught a glimpse of a completely new range of products, styles, designs, techniques, textures, colours and skills.
The four local Master Class artists were chosen after much consideration. Shankar is a recipient of the State Award and his works are on display at the CIMA Gallery in Kolkata. He participated in Gannat Festival in France in 2015, and his works were showcased at an exhibition titled ‘Gods & Demons’ at the Nehru Centre London in 2016, apart from Edinburgh Museum and Southside Fringe Festival at Glasgow.
Tulu is a promising young artist who has travelled to several Indian cities with his works and participated in many fairs and festivals. He is an active member of the exchange programmes held at the Kushmandi Wooden Masks hub and has students from several design institutes. Dipak is an artist who has evolved over the years, winning much appreciation and accolades. Meanwhile, Nandi is an artist by his own right. He is renowned for his amazing skills in depicting female figures in the masks that he makes.
The cross-cultural experience also included an introduction to the two types of local timber used in Kushmandi — Gamar and Mahogany. This evoked much interest among the visitors. All of them work essentially with apple, peach and pear. Robin, in particular, had worked in forestry before becoming a woodworker and studied North Bengal’s trees and woodlands with avid interest all through the visit.
Getting started at the workshop, Eivind showed his wooden spatula, fruit knife and butter knife and went on to make some of them. Robin showed his skills in making wooden bowls, while Jojo carved up wooden spoons with smooth surfaces and edges.
Shankar, Tulu, Dipak and Nandi showed their skills with traditional tools and taught the visitors the art of making the masks used in Gomira dance. Overall, it was an exciting, creative, both-way learning process that included a fruitful exchange of ideas and skills.
Summing up the experience, Shankar said, “New tools and new ways to craft are among the best things we learnt from this workshop.” Tulu said, “This workshop has opened a new chapter for our craft.” Taking a cue from him, Dipak said, “We learnt to make so many new things… we want more such workshops.”
Reflecting on the Kushmandi workshop, Eivind said, “Working here, out of comfort zone, was a challenging one, especially working with different tools and materials, doing things differently… but it was a wonderful way of growing! These artisans of Kushmandi have a high performing level.”
“One of the highlights of my experience here in Kushmandi has been the opportunity to make the masks with these great craftsmen… it was very special… and yes, we all enjoyed Mukha dance,” said Robin.
The visit also provided the three Europeans an opportunity to know the lifestyle of the local artists. This included a tour of the village and the village market (haat), the homes and studios of local Bamboo Mask Makers, and a brush with some historical documents on the masks of the region.
They also visited Bangarh and Sami Briksha. Bangarh is known for a mound of ancient ruins on the left bank of the river Punarbhaba, a tributary of the Ganges. Several terracotta tiles, stone pieces and fragments dating back to the days of the Maurya Empire (322 BC – 185 BC) were excavated from the place by the Archaeological Survey of India. Folklore has it that these were part of King Bana’s palace during the times of the epic Mahabharata. Sami Briksha also has reference to Mahabharata. The Pandavas, during their exile, were believed to have hidden their weaponry in the huge, imposing tree that is the Sami Briksha.
On the way back from Bangarh, the visitors stopped at Gangarampur to see how cotton sarees are made and had a glimpse of Bengal’s traditional art of weaving, dyeing and colouring fabrics.
Incidentally, the European trio’s first brush with local folk elements in Kushmandi was a Chodor Bodor (a folk puppet show) performance by Daman Murmu, a living legend of the art form. Eivind, Robin and Jojo were left awestruck by the skill of the puppeteer, his maneuvering of the puppets and singing. It was a mesmerizing experience. They were also treated to an evening of Gomira folk dance, a rich tradition of the region.
In Kolkata, the eclectic creations produced at the Kushmundi workshop were put on display at the Carve Out Exhibition at MakersLoft on March 21 and March 22, 2017.
The three-hour workshop with a group of lively teenagers and youths at the same venue on March 22 was an enthusing one for Eivind, Robin and Jojo. The presence of several girls lifted the spirits of Jojo in particular. She had noted, with much sadness, the complete absence of women artists at the Wooden Mask Makers cluster in Kushmundi.
There were 32 participants at the workshop that was open to 15 to 25-year-olds. The majority of them were school students. There was no entry fee. It was a completely new and refreshing experience for the youngsters, and the occasional cuts and bruises suffered while maneuvering with the sharp-edged tools failed to scale down their enthusiasm.
At the end of the day, Eivind summed up the weeklong experience quite succinctly as he said, “This was an amazing exchange of knowledge,” even as Robin and Jojo seemed to crave for more, with Jojo saying, “It was a brief encounter… a brief taste… but we wish to return for a longer duration, and soon!”
The workshops and the exhibition were organized by the British Council at Kolkata, the Norwegian Crafts Institute, and banglanatak dot com. The venue at Kushmundi was the Rural Craft Hub (RCH) Community Centre at Mahishbathan. The exhibition and workshop in Kolkata were held at MakersLoft, Himadri Apartments, 22, Ballygunge Park Road.