Somnath Karmakar is a member of the Bikna co-operative, a craft hub Shiplagram in Bankura district of Bengal housing nearly eighty-one families. Dokra is a five thousand year old craft.
Bikna is a humble craft village with many kaccha and pukka huts standing next to each other with almost no usable toilets. Members of the cluster share a common workspace. This helps them bond well as a community and pitch in when orders are too large for a single family. The children go to school and join in when they return.
Somnath is a twenty-three-year old man who is well educated and versed with technology and photography. He represents the community in their marketing efforts by sharing images of products and co-ordinating with customers. He confesses a deep fear of contracting the Covid19 virus. “We all live so close together. Social distancing is impossible. Some nights I cannot even sleep properly just thinking about it.”, he confesses.
He explains how each figurine takes 5-7 days to craft, graft, cast, bake, dry and polish. Usually the finest craftsmen make the design first after which the women sculpt the basic structure with mud. The men generally work with fire and complete the steps of casting and baking the idol.
Most of the artists in this cluster concur that the current government has done a lot for them. Even the land they live on was given to them by the government. Their sales take place through annual fairs organized by central and state government, exhibitions facilitated by NGOs, and orders from Biswa Bangla (the government craft shop). Every weekend, the craft village turns in a mini fair with all families displaying their products in the common area so tourists can buy directly from the artisans. This weekly haat is an event that every villager looks forward as the sales are immediate and help them with financial liquidity.
Earlier the mud was sourced from open land and farms but now it must be bought. The price of brass has also gone up. The rise in price of raw materials is not proportional to the growth in selling price of final products. The price of a product is determined by size, weight, and design intricacy of the product.
Their only mode of entertainment is the local news and other programs on regional channels. Although the government provides rations to all the families and some NGOs have also offered support, work has come to a grinding halt. Orders have been cancelled. However, the Biswa Bangla, the government craft emporium, has promised to buy products. Currently only those with working capital are able-to continue their work. There are no direct competitors to the Bikna cluster, but they are planning to work on more innovative finishing techniques to help their urban market grow.
Orders generally come through the year and so no seasonal factors affect demand and supply. Unfortunately, several health problems crop up in the long-term practise of dokra; long hours of sitting leads to eye problems; exposure to fire causes respiratory issues.