Asharikandi is 2,500 km east of the site where Harappa existed. But an unbroken thread of a terracotta heritage provides ample evidence of a connection between this village in Lower (western) Assam’s Dhubri district and the prehistoric site of Indus Valley Civilisation in Pakistan’s Sindh province.
A unique craft resembling Harappan terracotta culture continues to flourish in Asharikandi through its terracotta toys. The Hatima Putul, a terracotta toy literally a mother with elephant-like ears with a baby on lap, is perhaps the best example of the village’s distinctive creativity.
More than 200 artisan families of Asharikandi engaged in this ancient craft have not only been able to keep this tradition alive, but have made it a huge success story in today’s highly competitive market-oriented economy. This can be attributed to their indomitable spirit, urge to experiment, products diversification and gradual upgrading of skill.
A recent study titled ‘Economic Survey on Terracotta, Tourism and Trade’ conducted by North East Craft and Rural Development Organization (NECARDO), a non-government organization in Dhubri, has put the annual turnover of Asharikandi’s terracotta and pottery business at Rs 12 crore ($1,875,000 approx). The survey, completed on July 24, covered all 345 artisans families and shops in Asharikandi Gram Panchayat – one of very few large clusters in India in which both terracotta and pottery are preserved and practiced regularly.
“The results of this survey are quite amazing. The artisans have made it possible constantly fighting with endless odds. Neighbouring communities that were originally not into the craft, too have come forward to take terracotta and pottery as occupation witnessing the unique livelihood opportunities,” says Binoy Bhattacharjee, Director of NECARDO, which has been constantly working towards improvement of the craft and the community.
Most of the new experiments in Asharikandi, done on the basic concept of Hatima Putul, have received a vibrant market response. Artisans of the village love to remember how the conventional ‘mother and child’ toy of the village, got this local name. The story dates back to the early 1970s, a glorious time when the royal family of Gauripur nearby patronised the terracotta toys. It was Nilima Baruah, sister of renowned filmmaker Pramthesh Baruah – the first of India’s most popular screen tragic hero Devdas – who coined the name Hatima Putul and showcased them in different parts around the world. The name came from observing the elephant-like ears of the mother.
The Gauripur royal family also used to nurture an elephant-centred culture. They captured elephants from the wild, reared and traded them. Many local people were involved in this entire business. The folk songs of Gauripur are thus deeply rooted to this culture.
“My mother Sarala Bala Devi used to make these toys for children of the village. It was a time of acute economic hardship. These toys did not have any market value. Local artisans almost gave up making toys and only made those utensils that had some demand in the market. However, my mother used to make these decorative pieces and distributed among the children to play. Nilima Baruah was largely instrumental in giving these terracotta toys a huge exposure,” says Dhirendra Nath Paul, eldest son of a master artisan, who won the Bokul Bon Award in 2005. He adds that his mother won the prestigious President’s Award for Traditional Terracotta Craft in 1982 for Hatima Putul because of the relentless efforts of Nilima Baruah.
His artisan-mother was also a source of inspiration for Paul, who gave up a government job twice to dedicate his life to improvement of the Asharikandi terracotta tradition. He was invited to participate in the Asian Games in 1982 as a terracotta artist. He participated in a month-long Traditional Terracotta Workshop held at Lalit Kala Akademi regional Center in Madras (now Chennai) in 1988 under the guidance of Haku Shah, eminent artist and cultural anthropologist, and visited Sweden and Denmark for a month to undertake a series of classes on terracotta art as part of Bharat Festival. His masterpiece Bicycle Rider, a variant of Hatima Putul on a bicycle, was highly appreciated in France and United States in 1984. Paul exported almost 10,000 pieces of his masterpiece within two months to both the countries that year.
Ashrikandi abounds in experiments. Mahadev Paul, a senior craftsman, bagged the Best Handicraft Artist award by Assam Government for his masterpiece Lord Ganesha. Keeping the family tradition alive, Dhirendra Nath Paul’s eldest son Devadas took his diploma from Viswa Bharati, West Bengal while the youngest, Gokul, received a gold medal from the leading institution. He also received the Ministry of Culture’s Young Talented Artist Award during 2009-10.
Like the master artisans who keep experimenting to make Asharikandi terracotta a remarkable craft form, common artisans too are busy in meeting the demand for wide-ranging products including idols of gods and goddesses, flower vases, portraits, lamp stands, storage pots, drinking glasses, decorative lamps, wall hangings, masks, etc. Today, Asharikandi supports more than 2,000 families directly or indirectly involved with the craft and its trade.
The earning per family varies between Rs 60,000 and 2.5 lakh a year. Master artisans, in addition to their own work, impart training at different workshops in and outside the state. The NECARDO survey has revealed that some members of the fishing community nearby have taken to terracotta trade by making jaler kathi or terracotta balls to lend weight to fishing nets. This innovative, eco-friendly and commercially sustainable product has replaced iron balls used in conventional fishing nets.
The survey results have made NECARDO draw up a comprehensive plan to incorporate Asharikandi in the rural tourism roadmap. This would be able to address key issues of artisans including proper drainage system of the village, water supply, community toilet, market complex, waiting shed, parking place, kilns (bhatti) for baking the craft items, electricity, old-age pensions among others, says Bhattacharjee.
(Ratna Bharali Talukdar is a senior journalist and a writer)