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Majilpur Dolls

West Bengal has a wide variety of clay toys and dolls that have been crafted both as votive dolls and for the entertainment of children for centuries together. The colourful clay dolls of Joynagar-Majilpur belong to a 250 year old tradition and differ from most of the other dolls in that they are moulded. 

West Bengal has a wide variety of clay toys and dolls that have been crafted both as votive dolls and for the entertainment of children for centuries together. The colourful clay dolls of Joynagar-Majilpur belong to a 250 year old tradition and differ from most of the other dolls in that they are moulded. 

The genesis of the Joynagar -Majilpur dolls, according to Shambhu Nath Das, the sole practitioner of this unique tradition of clay dolls, goes back to a time when his ancestors were bodyguards to the Datta zamindars of Jessore. During a rebellion in Jessore, both masters and their bodyguards fled their homes, and settled in an area near Joynagar that came to be known as Majilpur, and most of their descendants continue to live here. Majilpur was at that time situated in a dense jungle through which the river Ganga once flowed, but had silted down since. Some reports say that it was the family of king Pratapaditya’s grand vizier and priest who had relocated here after the chaos surrounding Pratapaditya’s downfall - but this had happened over 400 years ago. 
Over time, the relationship between the Das family and the Dattas changed. They were no longer master and servant and the children of the two families were allowed to play together. Shambhu believes that it must have been around this time that a member of the Das family may have started crafting clay toys and dolls for the entertainment of the zamindar’s children. Subsequently they also started crafting images for worship for the Datta Rajbari. As their dependence on the zamindars gradually ceased, the Das family decided to solely focus on their clay art and continue to do so till this day.  

Their repertoire comprised a variety of fascinating dolls that reflected a slice of their lives and their observation of society around them. Dolls of every kind were made - gods and goddesses,  everyday people that they came in contact with - the milk maid, the tradesman, the trader`s wife, scenes from the epics like the Slaying of Kaliya, characters from folk tales, the British saheb and his wife, the big-bellied Ahlad-Ahladi dolls (Ahlad means pampered and complacent in Bengali), birds and animals - the list is endless. 

Their  tradition is now eight generations old and the first artisan to receive national recognition in the family was the late Manmatha Nath Das, a grand uncle of Shambhu Nath, who received a National Merit award in 1986 for a magnificent doll featuring the trio of Jagannath, Balaram and Subhadra that he had created. Manmatha excelled in crafting dolls of folk gods and goddesses and also fascinating dolls resembling stereotypical foppish zamindars in all their finery, women with pitchers at their waist, dancing girls and so on. His nephew and Shambhu Nath`s father, Panchugopal Das kept up the tradition of his illustrious uncle,  After the demise of his father in 2010, Shambhu is the sole keeper of this craft.  

Joynagar-Majilpur clay toys are moulded toys. The clay used is a kind of “entel” mati, collected from their fields; this is clayey soil, but which is slightly sandy in nature (bele). This works best for their dolls – for the sculpting and the baking. This soil was easily accessible earlier from nearby fields, but with increasing development, it has to be transported from greater distances.  This considerably increases the cost of final product. There are other difficulties as well and of course, soil cannot be collected during the monsoons. 

The clay has to be processed before it is ready for use. Procured as crumbly, dry soil, it is moistened, hammered and broken down with a shovel and then moistened again till it is completely soft. A further step, now discontinued, was to again “wash” the softened clay in a tub of water, swirl it around thoroughly and allow it to form a sediment at the bottom. The water would then be discarded. The process would be repeated several times until the clay became completely salt-free. This clay would be laid out on a jute mat and was now ready to be used to make the moulds. 

The washing process has been dispensed with for the past few decades. The main reason for this is that it was too time consuming and therefore costly. And also because, according to the artisan, the salt content of the available soil had reduced over time. This has been proven because their terracotta, even if over a decade old, now remains untainted by salt deposits. The process that now prevails comprises laying out the softened (unwashed) clay on jute mats and then have a man wedge it with his feet, mixing and softening it further and freeing it from any leftover twigs or stones. The more he works his heels into the clay, the more homogeneous it becomes.   

The moulds used are of over a hundred different kinds.  The earlier, traditional moulds were all made of clay. Today, they are mainly made from plaster of paris. Earlier the artisans would create one-piece moulds for the front of the dolls into which the clay would be packed. These models were heavy and difficult to transport. Gradually they shifted to moulds with two sections  – one for the front and another for the back. 

To make a mould, a model of the figurine is first made, its contours sculpted with a fine bamboo tool (cheyri) and meticulously finished. The model is then carefully marked vertically along its sides, from the head to the base, in order to demarcate the front of the model from the back. It is then laid on its back and packed with clay on three sides, barring the bottom. Four walls of clay are then made on all four sides, flush with the figurine. 

Into this “box”, a thick solution of plaster mixed with warm water is poured and allowed to set over one or two days. This will form the first section of the mould. The clay walls are removed and the partially plastered doll is now turned upside down and the process repeated. However, before the plaster solution is poured in, a thin layer of clay is coated on the inner surface of the section already plastered. After the second layer of plaster sets in a couple of days, the walls are dismantled and the mould is immersed in cold water.  The clay inside the mould will wash away from the hollow at the bottom  and since the two surfaces were separated by a clay lining, the two sections of the mould are easily separated. 

The moulds have to be air dried and then sun dried over a fortnight or so. During the monsoon, the drying process takes place by heating it gently in the kiln using a special process.

When the mould is ready to be used, it is first lined with powder and the clay is then thinly pressed into the contours of each section. If the clay is applied too thickly, it will not dry.  The two sections of the mould are then pressed against each other and the gap between them filled with a thin layer of clay. At least forty dolls can be moulded from a plaster of paris mould, before the mould wears out. A clay mould on the other hand, can be used successively for only five or six figurines before it becomes too damp, but lasts as long as it does not break. Shambhunath still uses clay moulds from his grandfather’s time for older designs of dolls. On an average, an artist is able to mould about twenty dolls a day and usually works on two different moulds a day. 

Once the clay dries, the figurine automatically separates from the mould and is easily removed. The joint along the centre is always visible and this is carefully filed away from the still damp clay model. The model is allowed to air dry for about 10 days before it is sent for firing in a kiln. The artist does not have a kiln in his own home, because of pollution laws and therefore has it fired at a potter’s kiln some distance away. This too adds to the cost of the dolls. 

The terracotta models are given a base coat of white clay (Khori mati) over which necessary colours are added. The brushes were earlier created from goat’s tail hair, but synthetic brushes are now used. Traditional natural colours – like green from sheem leaves, yellow from raw turmeric and black from lamp soot,  have long been replaced by store bought chemical colours. The colours are mixed with glue extracted from tamarind to help them adhere to the surface. It takes nearly an hour to complete painting a doll. A top coat of varnish (early arrowroot would be used) is the final touch – though some buyers prefer it without the shine that varnish gives. Sometimes an additional coat of synthetic resin is also applied.

Joynagar-Majilpur dolls were traditionally sold at fairs and festivals like the local Rath mela, the Dol jatra mela, Goshtho Utsav and so on. But rural demand has diminished over the years.  However, demand in Kolkata has recently increased – craft shops, online stores and students from art colleges have begun to show a keen interest in his dolls – and it is this developing market that is keeping the craft afloat.  Hopefully, this will continue to sustain the artist.