Lush green sal trees, swampy canals, water patches and the legendary lal maati (red soil)… no eye, for sure, can miss the young men and women in their batik print kurtas and kantha-embroidered saris, golden brown footwear, beaded jewellery, and black and brown leather bags. This is the land that Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore nurtured as his karma bhoomi, or the soil of his toils. The ambience here is unmistakably Bangla – steeped in the lore of its rich tradition and culture. Of course, old-timers will always maintain that the winds of change have wafted away what was once the core of Santiniketan, translated as the ‘abode of peace’. There is, of course, another Nobel Prize winner after Tagore, Amartya Sen, who has made this land proud. However, without digressing much, let’s go back to the streets of Santiniketan, where temporary bamboo structures and many a tinned roof sell jewellery, apparel and footwear – in typical Santiniketani style.
The red soil of Santiniketan
On the banks of the river Kopai, among the hutments, the eucalyptus rows and the milestones, stands a statue of Tagore surrounded by a cluster of red-and-yellow single-storey buildings. A peep into these buildings reveals an unexpected wealth of rural craft and fashion – kantha stitch, dokra, terracotta, silk, bamboo crafts, macramé, batik, solapith craft and woodwork. Scores of rural artisans are at work – cutting, dyeing, stressing, weaving, painting and creating some of the most beautiful leather bags, jholas, bedsheets, saris, dress materials for blouses and salwars, headgear, footwear and even beanbags. These are sold at the 2,000 square feet store next door, at prices that range from Rs 5 to Rs 5,000. Amar Kutir, now a Rs 1.30 crore brand, is the pioneer of Santiniketani fashion and lifestyle products.
The famous leatherwork that Shantiketan is renowed for, was introduced by Tagore’s daughter-in-law, Pratima Tagore, who learned the art in Java (Indonesia). Block printing techniques from Orissa were also taught for increasing the commercial value.
“The Santiniketani style was born out of the swadeshi fashion struggle. Mahatma Gandhi’s call to boycott foreign clothes and accessories captivated the creative imagination of an entire generation. His visit to Santiniketan in 1923 catalysed this movement,” informs Bikash Roy, manager, Amar Kutir.
Established in 1923 as a leather workshop for rural artisans by freedom fighter Sushen Mukhopadhyay, Amar Kutir was transformed into an institution for the revival of village arts and crafts after independence.
The craft of Santiniketan on display
Spread across 100 bighas, Amar Kutir designs, manufactures, retails, distributes and exports a wide range of fashion and lifestyle products, and is growing at a steady rate of 20 per cent per annum. It exported goods worth about Rs 14 lakh last year and earned Rs 10 lakh from its products sold at cottage emporia around the country.
At present, Amar Kutir employs around 54 artisans at its 13 manufacturing units. Ten of these concentrate on leather work. “Artisans are trained in different craft forms according to their capabilities and interests. They are given every possible facility and help. They even have share in the profits,” claims Roy.
Each employee of Amar Kutir gets an equal share of the profits. On an average, each artisan is paid Rs 2,500 per month, apart from other allowances like medical and provident fund. Artisans also have the facility of paid leave and get Rs 1.5 lakh whenever they decide to leave the organisation.
In 1978, an autonomous society, Amar Kutir Society for Rural Development was formed.
Amar Kutir apart, Santiniketan is also synonymous with exotic tribal jewellery. ‘Ethnic yet experimental’ is what best describes the style sense of Santiniketan, which has a distinctive dressing style of its own. This quintessentially innovative and experimental spirit is well-reflected in the variety of junk jewellery available here, almost redefining the term ‘costume jewellery’. Each piece is a manifestation of immense versatility, dedicated effort and simple elegance. Studded neither with diamonds nor with emeralds, yet if one walks into any page three party wearing a tiny tribal piece, it is bound to grab many an eyeball. These simple tribal pieces in beads, dokra, terracotta, dry fruits, seeds, grass, and fresh flowers, can accentuate the look for an evening out without investing a fortune.
Being situated in Birbhum, the district which is largely populated by Santhali tribes, the designs and motifs engraved on the jewellery bear a mark of rustic ethnicity. It infuses the mystery of tribal art with the sophistication of modern styling almost seamlessly. And pricewise they epitomise ‘value for money’.
Essentially, dokra is the most popular of all tribal crafts. This lost wax process of metal casting is still practiced here by the traditional smiths. Being one of the ancient metal-casting systems, this wax process is implemented in casting brass, bronze and other noble metals. Tribal craftsmen in Santiniketan replicate their religious symbols and cultural motifs in dokra jewellery. In recent times, a touch of modernity has been added to the designing sense to cater to the trendier and younger target audience. To give it a more casual and trendy look, craftsmen often team it with colourful wooden and glass beads.
Apart from the local market, dokra jewellery has a huge demand in Kolkata, Orissa, and also in the other metros like New Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad. But, it is the overseas market that provides the much-needed profit to the small-time dokra craftspeople. While in the domestic market the price ranges from Rs 35-3,000, the price overseas starts almost at the double markup. “We do get good response from abroad. We generally supply through the non-resident Indians and their relatives settled here as we know most of them personally. They come here once or twice in a year and pick up the stock from the comparatively big vendors,” says Sujata Chanda, a supplier of dokra jewellery. They also earn a considerable share of revenue by supplying to the local lifestyle retailers like Amar Kutir and Vasundhara Art Museum.
Among the traditional crafts, terracotta is another favourite here. The art of terracotta dates back to 2500 BCE and it still exists in Birbhum in its full glory with a few modern elements added to it. These burnt scarlet clay pendants or earrings are ethereal yet earthy. While in other states terracotta epitomises the religious sculptures of Hinduism, Santiniketan is one place where the art refers to clay jewellery. Square clay pendants with a tribal goddess or a folk motif engraved on it, earrings in various shapes or hansuli-shaped neck pieces reflect the splendour of our rich tribal culture. Only the original rustic designs have now been toned down to match contemporary tastes. The market price ranges from Rs 10-30 only. The jewellery is preferred by teenyboppers and classy women alike. Browsing through the streetside stalls at Bhuban Danga and the Viswa Bharati campus, the wide collection of terracotta art is bound to invoke the shopper within.
Santiniketan's terracotta craft
First published in 'IMAGES Business of Fashion'
Written by Kunal Majumder