Would you take a putul, would you?
Would You Take a Putul, Would You?
Abhilash Banerjee

Dear reader, let me start off by asking a question. Have you heard of the wooden ‘Kalighat’ dolls? If you haven’t, don’t lose heart; go on reading, but, if you have, then I have got a few questions for you. Were they part of your childhood? Have you played with them as a child? Do you still have them around, maybe as a part of your home décor, or something? If you answer in the affirmative, dear reader, then I am proud of you and overwhelmed. But, if the situation is otherwise, don’t be disheartened, I am here to talk to you about them—the wooden ‘Kalighat’ dolls. 

What are ‘Kalighat’ dolls? To begin with, they are wooden dolls, around five to six inches long, and painted in bright colours. There are varieties of dolls—Rani putul, which also qualifies as the ‘Mummy’ putul, Raja putul, dolls of Gaur-Nitai and wooden owls, which were often used for worshipping the goddess of prosperity, Lakshmi. In recent times, the wooden owls have overpowered the other varieties of dolls and have become the mascot of the art and culture of Bengal. But we often tend to forget that the wooden owl, in its present form, is just a product of external intervention and innovation; there’s yet another version of the owl which precedes the one that we have been talking about. But this is a different stream of discourse altogether and can be addressed later. 

When a name of a place is added as a prefix to something (often a common noun) usually its origin is hinted at. For example the Dashabotar ‘Ganjifa’ cards of Bishnupur. Regional variation or place-specific distinction is also a reason why the place-name prefix is added. The Dotara of North Bengal and its South Bengal counterpart are structurally and tonally different instruments. But in our case the place-name, Kalighat, neither suggests the area of origin nor the unique nature of the wooden dolls. By Kalighat we also don’t mean the Kalighat area in general, we hint at the temple premise of goddess Kali. 

The fact that the Kalighat temple premise is one of the busiest areas of Kolkata is not unknown to us, so is the fact that devotion is a brilliant source of generating capital. I am trying to associate devotion, (in this case that to goddess Kali) with the process of generation of capital, (in this case the swarming shops and stalls in and around the temple premise) mediated by the people, who play a dual role, that of the devotee and that of the consumer, who flock to the said area. A complex process binds this transactional structure of devotion and consumption together. 

Since the Kalighat temple is a crowd puller and therefore an ideal space for putting up shops and stalls (it’s also a brilliant space to put up a nukkad natak, but let’s not delve into that). It’s futile to ask what these stalls consist of, rather it would be safer to ask what they don`t. As far as these shops are concerned, negation is the only safe way out. From items required for puja to photographs of gods and goddesses, utensils of all kind, religious books, almanacs, panjis, worshipping manuals, clothes, stationeries, and what not, the list can go on. The wooden dolls also feature among such items. People would often buy these dolls for their children. As a result of which the wooden dolls which were found in Kalighat came to be known as Kalighat dolls, the varieties of which we have discussed above. 

But where do these dolls come from, if they are not made in Kalighat?  Well, there are a lot of places where these dolls are made, especially by the carpenter community, often known as the Sutradhars, or the narrators of tales. Among the most famous places, one is Natungram near Purbasthali in the district of Bardhaman. Natungram is now being promoted by the West Bengal Government as one of the finest places of doll production. The government organizes art melas around Natungram in order to promote their fascinating work of art. But there are other places where wooden dolls are produced such as Dainhat, Patuli, Kashthoshali in Bardhaman, Raspur in Howrah, Daspur, Kanshona and Akulshanrha, Jharbani and other villages under Medinipur district. They are also made in villages in Bankura and Purulia. According to Tarapada Santra, such dolls were also made in various districts of Eastern Bengal (modern Bangladesh) such as Dhaka, Faridpur, Mymensingh, Chittagong, and Coomilla 1.  

In almost every book which has an entry on the Kalighat dolls, it’s often mentioned that these dolls are widely available anywhere around Kalighat. That could have been true for the writer visiting the place a decade ago but not anymore, because when I went there to get a hold of a few dolls, I was quite disappointed. While walking down the stretch of Kalighat Road I asked each and every shopkeeper for these dolls—some were oblivious, some blissfully nostalgic, others simply ignored me. They had every other item in their stock except for the wooden dolls. It wasn’t that they didn’t have dolls; only the wooden dolls have been replaced by plastic and fiber dolls. Plastic dolls are everywhere, all over—the ones with moveable body parts, bright colourful clothes, ruddy cheeks, and blue eyes. I had almost lost hope when, at last, I got a shop where they said that there’s a faint chance of finding one or two samples in their godown. I waited while they brought a cloth bag covered with a plastic packet with years and years of dust layered on it. The cloth bag could have easily belonged to Murshid Quli of Murshidabad; nonetheless, I got a few samples of the famous Kalighat Dolls—a ‘Mummy’ or Rani putul, a Raja putul, an older version of the owl that we have discussed earlier and one of the Gaur-Nitai duo. 

These dolls are made by roughly carving small pieces of wood with the help of a chisel. These are then coloured and coated with a paste of tamarind seeds. The colours are bright. I am about to write a sentence which can be found in every book on folk art and culture: earlier natural colours were used but now the artisans have turned to synthetic paints while the paste of tamarind seeds have been replaced by varnish. That’s it, that process of making these wooden dolls ends here. In some versions of the doll, the carved wooden base is often coated with a fine layer of clay in order to make it smooth and even—an attempt to replicate the texture of human skin. Every other detail is painted. Interestingly the hands and limbs of the doll are not separated from their bodies—they always seem to stand in attention! For an imaginative mind these dolls might seem like an Egyptian sarcophagus and as a result of which the Rani putul, in general, came to be known as “Mummy” dolls, a great pun in itself. 

The artisans who are carpenters by profession are ceasing to make these dolls. Why so? Come hither O you dear reader, let me talk to you about Adam Smith. Or maybe you know it already that in a laissez-faire economy the so-called “invisible hands” will decide what’s in demand in the market. Now if one finds something in the market interesting enough, she or he shall get it and likewise create a demand for it in the market. But, the unfortunate part of this business is that the need or necessity of one individual is not important enough for creating a demand enough to sustain an artisan. Given a chance Ratnaboli of Daricha Foundation would have bought all the available Kalighat dolls if that would help an artisan to sustain his or her art and living. 

Work of art is like a language; they both change and evolve with time. Change nourishes both, affects both, positively and negatively. If a work of art or a language fails to respond to the needs of its time then, I would say, that it has performed miserably. Now, let’s change our perspective and look at them from another perspective. The fact that people have stopped buying wooden dolls for themselves, their children, and their homes, is it because these wooden dolls have failed to respond to their time?  Or is it another way around—that we have failed to respond to the work of art? Let’s take a break, and read a story, a folktale—not Greek or Roman but Indian. 

This tale can be found in the complete works of Abanindranath Tagore, or if somebody wants to save himself or herself the trouble, in Tarapada Santra2. The story is of a common type, it shares a narratorial structure with the story where there were four friends who were traveling from one place to another and had to spend a night in the forest. It was decided that one of the four should stay on watch while the others would go to sleep—this should continue in turns. The first one to stay on guard was a carpenter’s son who, in order to spare himself from boredom and sleep, took a small piece of wood and started carving on it. Next was a painter’s son who was on watch. He saw the wooden doll and started painting on it in bright colours. He was followed by a weaver’s son who noticed that the doll was brightly coloured but had no clothes. So he adorned the doll with beautiful clothes. Next was a King’s son, a prince, who knew a mantra, taught to him by a hermit—a mantra that could endow inanimate objects with life. He did what he had to do and the wooden doll turned into a beautiful lady, a pretty bride, looking just like a queen. What happened next is hilarious. Nonetheless, it happened. A palanquin was fetched and the bride was taken to the royal palace. 

Santra made an important observation. He noticed that this story throws light on the fact that the artist’s society was dependent on royal patronage. But there’s more to it if we look at a few motifs which feature at the end of the story: Bride, queen, and palanquin. These three are closely associated motifs—the bride was taken to the palace in a palanquin and was married to the prince and was made his queen. These events are extremely culture-specific; not that I want to remind you of the Bengali song which, if loosely translated into English reads, “Lo, the bride leaves in a palanquin”, but I am trying to say that it’s impossible for a person whose lived experience comprises both this tale and the song, to not linger in the common space that they share.  The Sutradhars had an advantage of their craft and could have used the Raja putul and the Rani putul while narrating the story mentioned above. Dear reader, just imagine the exquisite vigor with which this performance could have been enacted and also the possibility of the range of stories that could have been told. I believe that you are wondering about putul nach? It’s not surprising. But did you notice that the bride or the queen that the story mentions wears a sari? So does the Rani a.k.a. “Mummy” putul? Or did you think that the bride wears a beautiful gown or a skirt and has a pair of crystal slippers on her feet? Did you think that the queen had a fur coat around her neck, a silver tiara adorning her head? I wouldn’t need to explain it further—the contradictions that colonialism has left us with. How many of us still go back to Thakumar Jhuli? I am not trying to point fingers at anybody. This is turning bitter which in turn reassures me about its truth claim. 

I shall end with an example from a book called A Playway Method of Learning More That 2500 Words with Pictures, published and copyrighted by Arora Book Company, Darya Ganj, New Delhi, where “Q for Queen” comes with a picture of a lady in a gown with a crown on her head. Under “opposite words”, there features ‘beautiful’ and ‘ugly’; ‘beautiful’ comes along with a picture of a fair lady with blonde hair who is wearing something of a skirt or a gown whereas ‘ugly’ comes with a picture which, I thought as child, could have been that of my mother—a dark woman with broad nose in a sari and a ghomta. Just imagine a child trying to process these images in his or her mind by associating them with the words that come along with them! Why should that child be interested in a wooden doll that wears a painted sari and has yellow skin? Rather a Barbie or a Disney princess should be more appealing to him or her. 

Our disappointment at the wooden dolls for not being available in the stalls of Kalighat, and for the artisans who are not making them anymore and then at the end of all throwing all the blame on the “invisible hands” of the market is not going to work anymore. Because what is this entity of a market that we are talking about? Is it an isolated entity that exists only in abstraction? Are we not physical organs of the market? That’s not the situation right? Nothing exists in isolation. Therefore one fine morning if we find out that the time since when the decline in the consumption of the wooden dolls started coincides with the publication of the said  book, I wouldn’t be surprised. 

“Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established in times very different from the present, by men whose powers of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. But the amazing techniques, the adaptability, and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the beautiful. In all arts, there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. for the last twenty years, neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion or art” Says Paul Valery in his Pieces Sur L’Art, 1931, Le Conquete de l’ubiquite3.  It’s high time that we depart dear reader. Oh, wait! You can now buy a set of five wooden dolls from bonghaat.com at Rs. 655 only! What an innovation! 

1  Santra, Tarapada, Folk Arts of West Bengal and the Artist Community, Trans. Shankar Sen, Niyogi Books, 2011,  pp. 80-86
2  Op. cit. pp. 82.
3  Benjamin, Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1935 (original German edition).