Panchmura (Bankura): Neel Kumbhakar, 12, of Bankura is unwavering in his focus, his fingers deft in their movement, as he works with a block of terracotta clay. As he continues to mould the clay, a piece of art takes shape. It’s a horse, with the distinctive long neck typical of terracotta equines produced locally.
The son of a terracotta artisan based in Panchmura village, Neel has found his way around the craft too. He dreams one day of modernising this traditional art form unique to this district — give it more colour — but that is a plan for another day.
For now, for all his interest in the craft, he finds himself forced to spend much of his day laboriously crafting intricate models.
He is a student of Class 8, and, much like his peers around the country, should have been attending online classes, working on assignments, focusing on homework.
However, the internet in Panchmura, located in Bengal’s interiors, is patchy, and the local government school doesn’t have the resources to provide students with lessons in the absence of physical classes.
As a result, Neel told ThePrint, he has only attended one class in the 15 months since the pandemic began.
His parents have managed to arrange a local coaching class for him, and Neel meets his friends once or twice a month. Most of his time, however, is spent giving shape to the clay that is available in abundance at his home.
A traditional art form
Neel, who belongs to Bankura’s OBC-Dalit community of Kumbhakars (potters), represents the aspiration as well as the frustration of a small community that is struggling to get by, and preserve their distinct 1,000-year-old art form, amid hardships created by the Covid pandemic and the ensuing lockdown.
Terracotta is a nationally and internationally acclaimed clay art form, where the models are set into shape in improvised furnaces. They have to be kept at a certain temperature, and for a certain period of time, depending on the intensity of colour desired. The end product is a distinct reddish-brown. Bankura’s long-neck terracotta horses travel overseas as well.
The models come in a wide price range. While a small terracotta horse would set you back by Rs 150-200, the larger ones can cost Rs 3,000-5,000.
An average terracotta artisan in Bankura takes home an estimated Rs 8,000-10,000/month.
‘Not the way my father does’
The terracotta figures crafted by Neel are derived from a diverse universe, often with a touch of his vivid imagination.
There are the idols of Ma Durga and Lord Shiva, and those of horses and long-body cats. There is a mandir, and also a figure of Chandrayaan, India’s lunar probe.
Neel made his first art work four years ago, and it was unconventional. He made figures of Durga and Shiva and their four children, and coloured the idols with water paints.
Neel felt Mahishasur, the mythological demon killed by Durga, was not needed in the frame, as “he did not bring a reflection of goodness”. In the years since, he has reimagined different deities, including Viswakarma and Kaali.
“I love making such models. Father and grandfather make things look the same, which seems monotonous,” he told ThePrint. “I want to do it differently,” he added, when asked about his future plans.
He said he wants to go beyond the popular long-neck terracotta horses, and make models of heritage sites in Bishnupur, a small town in Bankura. As a step in this direction, he has already made a model of a centuries-old cannon known as ‘Dalmadal Kaman’ (canon).
“I want to do this, but not the way my father does. I want to colour them. My father does not allow me to use the furnace and get the clay fired. But he does it for me,” Neel said. “However, I want to make models combining colours and the fired clay. That will look good. But baba (father) says that is not the traditional style.”
While his parents want him to continue with the family business of making terracotta models in the village, Neel wants to study further. Speaking to ThePrint, he said he wants to pursue arts and study in a “Kolkata college”.
With dreams of a higher education, the setback of the lockdown will take some time for students like Neel to make up for.
When ThePrint reached the local MLA Arup Chakraborti to ask about the interruption in the studies of students in remote villages, he said he would inquire into it.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)