Believed to have been introduced by rulers from the Malla dynasty in the 16th century in Bishnupur, the Dashavatar card game required much skill. Artist Sharmila Sen notes that similar competence was also essential to make its set of cards that were designed by pasting together layers of stiffened cloth that was stretched, dried and cut into circular pieces and then painted by artists to depict the 10 incarnations of Vishnu. “Artists from the Faujdar family of Bishnupur specialised in making these cards. They were former warriors and the style reflects that,” says Kolkata-based Sen. With the dwindling popularity of the game, the artists, too, lost patronage, but now Sen is trying to do her bit to revive interest in the traditional craft. Interacting with the artisans for more than three years now, she has brought some of their paintings to Delhi in an exhibition at India Habitat Center. While in one frame we see the 10 carnations — Matsya, Kurma, Baraha, Nrisingha, Baaman, Ram, Balaram, Parshuram, Buddha and Kalki — in small circular cut-outs in a single frame, in other depictions, one of the 10 incarnations is enlarged. “The aim is to bring their work into the mainstream to help them get the recognition they deserve,” says Sen.
While her introduction of the families painting the Dashavatar cards is more recent, it has been more than a decade since Sen began promoting the traditional crafts of Bengal. Interested in the indigenous forms since childhood, it was while setting up her home almost two decades back that Sen began observing them more closely and gradually started travelling across Bengal to meet the artisans. The exhibition titled ‘Art Beyond Tradition’ in Delhi offers glimpses — from the more well-known Kalighat paintings and Dhokra work to experimental paintings on conch shells and metal kettles.
“We decide on the details together, from the theme to the colour combination,” says Sen. She points out how her team of artisans are like family, and gives individual acknowledgment to each. If Chandan Chitrakar from East Midnapore has painted the Bangla Patachitra, the Kalighat Patachitra panels have been painted by Uttam Chitrakar. Mythological tales are the dominant depictions, but there are contemporary themes as well, including an engraved shell that portrays women empowerment. The bright colours of the Kalighat paintings have been replaced with black colour of the soot for two monochrome works. Painted metal plates act as table tops for wooden legs in Burdwan wooden dolls. “We want to innovate but also keep the tradition alive,” says Sen, who has priced the works from Rs 350 to 35,000. “It should be accessible to maximum number of people,” she adds.
Also on display are wooden masks created by Shankar Das from West Dinajpur. “People are often reluctant to put masks in their homes but I want them to know that masks are pleasant… Each mask depicts a story,” shares Sen, looking at the intricate handiwork. If one is engraved with Kansa, Putana and Krishna as an infant, another has numerous episodes from the Mahabharata. Yet another layered mask has scenes from the Ramayana, including Ravana’s abduction of Sita and the ‘monkey army’ building the bridge to Lanka. “The more elaborate masks can take months. It requires utmost expertise,” adds Sen.
The exhibition is on till March 1 at Central Atrium, India Habitat Centre
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