Dolls of Bengal: Clay dolls

Dolls of Bengal: Clay dolls

November 8, 2015

Bengal has a rich and ancient heritage of dolls. The peculiar feminine models of fired clay, discovered from excavations or by chance, from various corners of Bengal, are a standing testimony to the craft of doll-making. Potter communities nestling around these excavation sites still manufacture such dolls. Fired clay dolls of today are the descendants of India's ancient terracotta art. Dolls have been customarily crafted by women from the potter communities.

In addition to clay, artisans also create colourful dolls made from wood, metal, sponge wood,
palm leaf, jute, etc. Statues of deities are also made from rice powder soaked in water. During the festival of Kali Puja, the worship of Lakshmi-Alakshmi requires an unsightly model of Alakshmi to be made from cow dung. Dolls have been made for children too.

Urbanisation has slowed down the pace of doll-making, but it has not been able to bring it to a halt. From fairgrounds to modern showrooms, the year-round bustle is enough to warm the hearts of these artisans.

Ahlad-Ahladi dolls (

Clay dolls

The clay dolls of West Bengal have great variety. Dolls made of soft clay and fired-clay are available all over the state. Each of these dolls is made differently. First, a basic hand-pressed structure is made with loam. The hands are symbolic and the female parts more prominent.

The ornamentation is done with mud or straw. A few of the dolls have a bun on the top or back of the head. Most of the time, a number of kids are attached to the arms or all over the body. These dolls are locally named as Shasthi Dolls. These soft clay dolls are sun-dried, baked and painted in different hues. Azo dyes have replaced herbal colours but they still retain their folk look. Human figures, birds and animals are the primary themes along with a variety of elephants and horses.

Traditionally, potters have used the wheel and the firing kiln to make dolls, like the potters from Kanthalia (Murshidabad district), Kunoor (North Dinajpur district), Panchmura (Bankura district), and Sandra in Rajgram. With the advent of technology and changing lifestyles, doll-making is also undergoing changes. Moulds have replaced potter's wheels because they speed up the process. The body is shaped in the mould and the hands and legs are joined to it later. Dolls for Janmasthami festival are made in this way. Two-faced moulds are used to make Queen or Fairy dolls in many areas of Howrah district. Dolls representing deities are also manufactured with such moulds. The patua community also makes clay dolls.

Dolls for Jhulan (North-24 Parganas): These dolls (jhuloner putul) were earlier manufactured in the Kumartuli and Potuapara areas of Kalighat in Kolkata. Though not much in demand now, they are still made by the female members of potter families living in Dakshindari, Nimta, Kumartuli and nearby areas. Everyday characters and scenes like the balloon seller, postman, policeman, soldier, ice-cream seller, park, kitchen, fetching water from the tube-well, etc. go hand-in-hand with mythological themes like the killing of Taraka, Ravana, Radha-Krishna, Shiva-Parvati, etc.

Terracotta dolls of Panchmura (Bankura): Bankura’s Panchmura earned its fame through the fired-clay models of horses and elephants. They were meant to be used during making-wish ceremonies, but it later became item for interior decoration. For logistical purposes, the parts of the dolls, including the ears and tails, are detachable. Apart from horses and the elephants, the traditional Shasthi dolls, Rail dolls, Manasaghat, Manasachali, and Bonga dolls are also part of the heritage of Panchmura. Artisans periodically introduce new models.

Hingul dolls of Bishnupur (Bankura): Hingli dolls (hingul putul) are named after ‘hingul’, a particular red tint in which these dolls are painted. They are exclusively made by women belonging to the family of Shital Faujdar, an artist from Bishnupur. These finger-sized dolls made from soft clay are dressed in frocks; some also wear a cap. They are mostly sold during Durga Puja, Jitasthami and Tusu.

(Lto R) Jhulan doll, terracotta doll, Hingul dolls (

Jo dolls (East and West Medinipur): The womenfolk of the patua community make these unique clay dolls (jo putul). The mother-and-child duo is one remarkable specimen in a series of colourful hand-pressed dolls. The art is confined to the districts of East and West Medinipur. The figures are carved from soft clay, and then sun-dried and fired. Finally the dolls are painted with home-made herbal colours. Readymade chemical colours are also used these days. The distinctiveness of these dolls lies in the primitive look.

Kanthalia dolls (Murshidabad): The potter community of Kanthalia in Murshidabad create a special kind of doll (kanthaliar putul) through which mundane household situations are depicted. A woman pounding pulse in a grindstone, a lady tying up her companion’s hair, a milkmaid, an oil massage given to a baby, horsemen and elephants – these are all popular themes of Kanthalia dolls. A layer of mica and chalk dust is smeared on the clay models. The facial features and decorations are done with red and black colours. These dolls stand out for their striped designs.

Queen dolls (Howrah): The structure of the queen dolls (rani putul) of Howrah is prepared in a two-faced mould and then fired. These dolls do not have legs and are clad in a ghaghra (long skirt). The curls on the head are crowned at times. Some of the dolls are coloured with red paint mixed with mica.

(L to R) Jo dolls, Kanthalia dolls, queen doll (

Nodding dolls (North-24 Parganas): These head-wiggling dolls (ghar nara purul), made from soft or fired clay, have the heads and other body parts attached with the help of springs. The commonest of these figures is that of an old man with a beard, smoking a cigarette. In a few cases, the cigarette is substituted with a hookah. These nodding dolls, widely available in fairs, can be both small and big.

Sasthi dolls of Kunoor (North Dinajpur): The clay dolls of Kunoor (sasthi putul) are one of their kind! The red, hand-pressed crude dolls are made of terracotta (fired clay) and are mostly figures of mothers and sons. Though the locals call them ‘Shasthi dolls’, they differ from their counterparts made in other parts of West Bengal. The mother here symbolises a worker, carrying a basket on her head, and the son is on her lap. A few dolls have the kids on their backs, similar to the women working in tea gardens.

Magic lamp of Kunoor (North Dinajpur): These beautiful kerosene lamps (ascharjya pradeep) come in the shapes of horses, elephants, fishes, peacocks, tortoises, etc. The structure prevents the oil from flowing out. The wick is held in the mouth of the doll. The dolls are intricately painted. The modern-day artisans of Kunoor are coming up with contemporary utility items like pen stands in the shape of Ganesha.

(L to R) Nodding dolls, sasthi dolls, magic lamp (

Clay dolls of Joynagar-Majilpur (South-24 Parganas): A special variety of coloured, fired-clay dolls are manufactured in the regions of Joynagar and Majilpur in South-24 Parganas. At present, Shambhu Das, grandson of artist Manmath Das, is the sole representative of this genre of doll-making. The range of characters depicted includes local deities like Ban Bibi, Bara Thakur, Dakshin Roy, alongside Ahlad-Ahladi, girl with a pitcher on the waist, etc.

Wheeled dolls Haroa (North-24 Parganas) and Howrah (Howrah): Eye-catching wheeled dolls (chaka lagano putul) are made in Haroa and Howrah. The toys made here primarily include the fired-clay wheeled bullock carts, cars, boats, horsemen, etc. Shathi dolls and horse and elephants for make-a-wish ceremonies are also made. The simple colour scheme is soothing to the eyes. The dolls are given a coat of chalk dust before being painted in stripes of red, yellow and blue. A few such wheeled dolls have been discovered from the excavation sites of Berachapa and Chandraketugarh. Wheeled boats and palanquins are also made in the Jagatballabhpur region of Howrah district by women belonging to the potter community. These dolls are also baked and coated with chalk dust before being dyed red, green, blue and yellow.

Tusu dolls (Bankura):
The Tusu festival is celebrated during Poush Sankranti, in the border areas of Bankura and Purulia districts. Throughout the month, women pray to the goddess, Tusu all night long. The immersion of the Tusu takes place in the early hours of Makar or Poush Sankranti. Clay statues of Tusu (Tusu putul) resemble the bridal dolls of Natungram. Tusu dolls are decorated with colourful paper. Modern figurines are also made.

Clay doll of Joynagar, wheeled doll, Tusu doll (

Clay dolls of Krishnanagar (Nadia): The potters of Ghurni region in Nadia’s Krishnanagar have earned international fame for their life-like dolls. The community changed from making traditional dolls to these kinds of dolls because of royal patronage. These are far more expensive than ordinary clay dolls. The baul couple, farmer, blacksmith, vegetable seller, tribal couple and tanner are a few in a lengthy list of such realistic dolls. Recently, the artisan community there has started to experiment with their art form, with fancy home decor items.

Diwali dolls (West Medinipur, Purulia): The Diwali dolls (deeplakkhi or diwali putul) represent wealth. These dolls are made exclusively in the districts of West Medinipur and Purulia. The lower portion of these dolls, with the ghagra (long skirt), is hand-crafted with the help of a clay wheel. The moulded upper part, the torso is then fixed to it. The limbs are then fixed along with the round girdle that has numerous lamps attached to it. Apart from the traditional models, contemporary Diwali dolls are also manufactured in West Midnapore, with kerosene bottles shaped as hands. Diwali dolls in the form of animals, birds and deities are quite common in the Mirzabazar fair in Murshidabad district.

Manasa ghot (pot) of Dakshindari (North-24 Parganas): These pots (manasa ghot) look like pregnant women, representing popular female deities who are symbols of fertility. Barishal in Bangladesh is known for such pots carrying the painted figure of the snake goddess Manasa. Post-partition, these artisans settled down in the district of 24 Parganas. These ghots are commonly seen during Shravan Sankranti in Kolkata and nearby areas.

(L to R) Clay doll of Krishnanagar, Diwali doll, Manasa doll (

Elephants and horses of Belia (Birbhum): The baked-clay elephants (hati) and horses (ghora) of Belia are unique. The semi-circular ears and the diversity in the trunks of the elephants along with the long ears of the horses undoubtedly set a different standard for these artefacts. On the other hand, the simplicity of the creations reflect the distinctive influence of folk art.

Pressed dolls of Narendrapur (Howrah): The women belonging to the Kumbhakar family of Narendrapur, Howrah, make bride and bridegroom dolls with fired clay. These pressed dolls (tepa putul) are made with the hand pressure technique and sun-dried before being baked. The bride-bridegroom dolls are similar to the Shasthi dolls. The female features of the bride are prominent with a bun on its head. The bridegroom has a conical face. The eyes on both are made from small clay dots which are then poked with a straw or thin stick to make holes. The bride gets a tilak on the forehead. They are mainly used as toys for entertaining kids. The women also make horses in a similar manner. These horses are dedicated to folk deities.

Bonga elephants of Sandara (Bankura): The Sandara region of Bankura is famous for its Bonga elephants (bonga hati). In the triba-inhabited district of Bankura, these elephants are dedicated to the Santhal deity of Singh Bora. After making the model on a clay wheel, the artists hand-paint the dolls. It is then sun-dried and baked. The peculiar round shape of the Bonga elephants is its main attraction.

(L to R) Elephant doll of Belia, pressed dolls, bonga elephant (

Shiva head of Nabadwip (Nadia): The ritualistic wedding of Shiva-Parvati takes place at the time of Basanti Puja, during the Bengali month of Chaitra, in Nabadwip. The local kumbhakars (potters) make colourful busts of Shiva, known as Shiva masks (Shiber mukhosh), on this occasion. This moulded soft-clay structure is sun-dried before being coloured. The facial features are drawn on the white face of Shiva. Yellow kalki flowers are painted on both ears and a golden crown (like that of a Bengali bridegroom) is placed on the head. This mask is taken door to door and the money thus collected is used for the wedding expenses of Shiva and Parvati. This is mostly done by the children.

Shiva head (

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