life stories of master craftsperson’s award recipients : the artisan’s tales

life stories of master craftsperson’s award recipients : the artisan’s tales

The Master Craftsperson’s Awards were presented to artisans who displayed extraordinary skill in their respective mediums. Naveed Islam interviews the recipients of these prestigious awards to look at the lives of ordinary craftspeople. These stories reveal the everyday struggles of those working in this dying trade and highlights the importance of ensuring its survival.

Master Craftsperson’s Award winner for wood crafts, Md. Shariful Islam, playing his favorite dotara.

Crafts, as both a commercial good and as an art form, is slowly losing its relevance in modern Bangladesh. Several activists, intellectuals and organizations such as the National Crafts Council of Bangladesh (NCCB) and the Bengal Foundation have championed the movement toward its revival in the marketplace and in the cultural sphere. The Master Craftsperson’s Award is part of this initiative, by recognizing handicrafts as a legitimate art form and craftspeople as artists deserving of wider acclaim.

The National Crafts Council was formed with the goal of preserving the country’s centuries-old crafts heritage. The project was spearheaded by renowned artist Quamrul Hassan and eleven others, to protect the endangered folk arts from extinction. In 2010, the Council formed a partnership with the Bengal Foundation, which works to promote Bangladesh’s rich culture, and organized the annual Crafts Fair and Master Craftsperson’s Awards. Their aim was to support crafts and keep these traditions alive.
A researcher was commissioned by the Council to conduct a nationwide survey of handicrafts. He spent several months visiting villages and collecting samples of crafts work done across the country. The selections were submitted to a jury who chose the four winners from four different mediums. The awards were presented at a three-day Crafts Fair, held at Bangla Academy from 11-13 January, 2013. The award recipients’ works were displayed and sold at the Fair alongside a wide variety of crafts from across the nation.

The head of one of Md. Shariful Islam’s dotaras, crafted with a bird motif.

We were given some insight into the lives of these ordinary craftspeople in their short speeches to the crowd, but were not able to learn much more. Their stories are not only inspiring and revealing, they also allow for a deeper understanding and appreciation for crafts. With this in mind, Jamini interviews the four recipients of the Master Craftsperson’s Award, Md. Shariful Islam, Pradeep Kumar Das, Md. Arifuzzaman and Subodh Chandra Paul, to learn more about their struggles of surviving in a dying industry.

Master Craftsperson’s Award winner for bamboo and cane crafts, Pradeep Kumar Das preparing to weave a basket.

md. shariful islam
I met with Md. Shariful Islam from Kushtia, who is receiving an award for woodcrafts, at the Crafts Fair grounds on a cold winter morning. Cheerful and energetic, Shariful’s mood is not fazed by the chilly weather as he begins recounting his life story.
Shariful, like many other craftsmen in Bangladesh, did not come into this profession solely for his passion or creative need. His father was physically challenged and it fell up to him to earn for their household. Shariful stopped going to school when he was still in Class 5 and began looking for work then. His first job was with a man named Jibon, a carpenter who made furniture. It was then that he learnt the basics of working with wood.
He made chairs, tables and beds, but did not find this work fulfilling. “It was a lot of work but for very little pay,” recalls Shariful, “I thought I had to find something else I could do. I had become skilled as a carpenter and felt that I should stick to working with wood.” He spent his days as an assistant to a craftsman, before coming under the tutelage of Amirul Islam, a famous and award-winning artisan living in Kushtia. He spent six years studying woodcrafts with Amirul before he decided to venture out on his own. He specializes in making musical instruments called dotaras.
The dotara is widely regarded as one of the most important instruments associated with folk music in Bangladesh. It is a stringed instrument, similar to a lute or mandolin and is made of hardwood. It is played by plucking the strings and applying pressure at various points along the neck to produce a wide range of tones. ‘Do’ means ‘two,’ suggesting two strings, but dotaras can also have four or five strings. Shariful Islam also makes ektaras which have ‘ek’ or ‘one’ string.
The steel strings are stretched from a round soundboard at the base of the instrument, along a narrow wooden shaft and up to a peg box at the top. The head is elaborately carved, employing decorative animal motifs, such as birds or other animals. Shariful Islam cut peacock shapes into his dotaras, their proud tail feathers etched along the base, at the point where the belly tapers off into the neck. Shariful also carves faces of famous people like Rabindranath Tagore or Lalon Fakir onto his creations.
“Dotaras are very popular in our village,” said one of Shariful’s helpers, “if you stop by one of our markets, you’ll see dotaras everywhere.” There is no shortage of craftsmen who practice woodcrafts in Kushtia, but despite this Shariful cites finding and hiring help as one of his biggest challenges. “I just don’t have the money to take on more workers,” he says, with a sad smile, “we manage to get our work done on time but it would be easier if I had some help.”
Now that he has won a Master Craftsperson’s Award, Shariful is hopeful that this will no longer be a problem. “I can use the money I’ve won to hire people,” says Shariful, “there will also be more people who will want to work with me now that I have this award. It will surely help me get more orders for my work.” His biggest clients are patrons living in the city and showrooms where these instruments are on display. Shariful hopes that his work will appreciate in value now that he has received this award.
When we finish talking, Shariful’s helpers bring out a large slab of wood, shaped like one of the dotaras displayed along the walls of his stall. He takes a pencil and begins sketching the outline of a peacock on the side of the wooden slab. “I draw birds a lot but make subtle changes in each of the works I finish,” he notes, “if they were all the same, my work wouldn’t be as valuable.” At Shariful’s insistence, one of his assistants shows me two dotaras they brought along for the fair. One had quite an ornate peacock-shaped head while the other was simpler in its design.
With the shape sketched, Shariful takes a hammer and chisel and begins hacking away at the wood. Passersby stop to admire Shariful’s work and take his picture as he carefully makes cuts along the outline he has prepared. His favorite species of wood to use is neem. “It’s good for you,” he says, “When you’re playing a dotara, you’re holding it close to your body for a long time. Neem actually helps you improve your health as you hold it. The wood is also strong and doesn’t attract bugs so it lasts longer.”
Shariful has a favorite dotara which he made and kept for himself. His helpers quip that its shape and size is perfectly suited to the small craftsman’s body. Shariful takes a break from his wood carving and sits down with the dotara, plucking and tuning it. I move to another stall as a crowd gathers to hear him play.
pradeep kumar das
I meet a thin, young man at a stall on the other end of the fair grounds. He is Pradeep Kumar Das, a Master Craftsperson’s Award recipient from Kushtia who specializes in bamboo and cane crafts. He is surrounded by baskets of various shapes and sizes, all of which he made over the last few days and brought over with him to Dhaka. A quiet and reserved young man, Pradeep lets his companions speak about his career though he chimes in to fill in the blanks or add details.
Pradeep was born with four brothers and one sister. One of his brothers has his own business, another has left for India and two others work in hair salons. His father was once a craftsman and ran the household with the little income he earned from selling his works. But since becoming diabetic, Pradeep’s father can no longer sit at the workshop. The young Pradeep, who spent his childhood watching his father work, took it upon himself to learn the craft. When his brothers refused to send money, (a part of his life which Pradeep seems reluctant to talk about) he decided to take care of his family’s finances. He left school when he was only in Class 8 to devote his life to mastering bamboo and cane crafts. “We were very poor,” he says, “I couldn’t afford to go to school any more so I left and worked hard for 9 years studying how to do my father’s work .”

Pradeep Kumar Das with one of his prize-winning creations.

The baskets Pradeep makes vary in shape and size. The one which earned him a nomination for the award is a small basket, with holes near the top. This type of basket can be seen at shops or in the backs of pull-carts anywhere in Dhaka. They are commonly used to hold small animals, like chickens or ducks, that are being transported to markets and butcher shops. “It can take me half-a-day to make a good one,” replies Pradeep, “I’ll make one today for the fair. But I would have liked to get an earlier start on some of the work we brought over from my village.”

The young man sits down and takes a blade out from his bag. He places the blade beneath one foot, balancing it by pressing down on the handle. Then, he takes thin strips of cane and runs it along the sharp contours of his instrument. Bamboo and cane are favoured materials for making handicrafts due to their softness and flexibility. Pradeep bends them to test its quality. “I think anyone can make the big ones you see over there,” he says, pointing to a few large, round baskets that were flatter than the small one he had shown me earlier, “it takes a lot of skill to do these little ones.”

Pradeep Kumar Das’s handcrafted baskets made from bamboo and cane.

He has never been to Dhaka before, and seems eager to see it when he finds the time. “I’m only here for the Fair, and our schedules are busy,” he says, “I’d like to be able to take a break and explore the city.” He believes that his award will help him tremendously. “I’ll be able to progress in my field. This title means so much to me,” says Pradeep. He does the bulk of the work himself, spending between 9-10 hours a day in his workshop. It costs around 500 taka to gather everything and make his baskets but his works sell for only 60-80 takas. “Good quality material is costly,” he says, “but after work I also have to go out and shop for dinner before the shops close for the day. I have to run the family by myself and am responsible for getting food for my parents,” he says, with some pride.

One of Pradeep’s companions pulls out a finished basket as Pradeep continues to work, a piece of thread in his hand. Several strips of cane are laid out in a circular pattern in front of him. “This small basket was Pradeep’s first sale,” the man says, “he sold it for 4 taka and now this has won him an award.” The quiet and somber young Pradeep flashes a boyish grin, as he swiftly begins tying the strips together till a basket’s shape emerges. I leave him to his work.

Master Craftsperson’s Award winner for Shatranji weaving, Md. Arifuzzaman.

md. arifuzzaman
I look for a man named Md. Arifuzzaman, who has received the award for workmanship in Shatranji, asking one staff member to point me in his direction. After a short walk, I come to a stall whose bamboo walls are decorated with ornate rugs. A boy in his mid-teens is busy folding and stacking the contents of a large bag in small piles along the wall while a man works in the corner. I tap the man on the shoulder, introduce myself and ask if I could speak to him. The man, knowing whom I had come to interview, chuckles. To my surprise, he points to the wide-eyed boy now holding a large rug who turned out to be his son, Md. Arifuzzaman.

Arif came to Dhaka for the Crafts Fair and Master Craftspersons’ Award ceremony with his father Anwar. The boy belongs to a family of Shatranji weavers; his father, mother and sister are all involved with this craft. Anwar learnt weaving Shatranji from his wife who studied it under her parents. “I was very close to my mother when I was growing up,” reveals Arif, “I started working with Shatranji under her guidance and learnt how to make it from her.”

He is still in school, studying in Class 10 and has an interest in science. “His teachers love him,” says Anwar, beaming with pride, “he’s a good student and they say he has a bright future ahead of him if he chooses to stick to science.” But Arif hopes to enroll in the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Dhaka. He believes that a deeper understanding of aesthetics will help him improve in weaving the handcrafted rugs he and his family make.

Shatranji is a type of handwoven carpet that is made out of fine thread. It was popular during the Mughal era; Emperor Akbar was said to have adorned his palace in New Delhi with intricately designed Shatranji rugs. But, as was the case with many mediums in the handicrafts industry, it declined in popularity with time and eventually lost out to imported and factory-produced alternatives. Fortunately, several entrepreneurs, activists and NGOs took the initiative to try and revive the dying craft, generating employment for thousands of workers, who weave Shartranji for sale in numerous stores and showrooms.
The Rangpur district, where Arif is from, is famous for producing high-quality Shatranjis. He and his family are very well-respected in their village and are doing well financially. Each Shatranji sells for 60 taka per square feet, and can be sold at even higher prices depending on the size. It can take anywhere between a few days to a month to weave one high-quality Shatranji carpet. They are also in demand as prayer mats and table spreads.

Handwoven shatranji rugs at Md. Arifuzzaman’s stall.

Arif’s family holds a key position in their village for being able to provide jobs for their neighbours. Anwar is able to employ several helpers, many of whom are women. “There are lots of women in our village and nearby communities, who have left their husbands or were abandoned by them and now need to find work,” says Anwar, “we teach these women how to weave in our spare time and start employing them in our workshops when they’re ready.”

It is for this reason that Arif does not want to leave his parents’ trade when he finishes school. “They all depend on us for jobs,” he says, “if I don’t stay then what will they do when my parents are gone?” Anwar and his son are both very eager to keep this crafts tradition alive in their village and in Bangladesh. Despite his son’s success in school, Anwar believes that Arif will stay in weaving. “It has become a matter of pride for us,” he says, “I know I won’t be able to talk my son out of it, when the time comes. This is what he wants.” When asked how he thinks the Master Craftsperson’s Award will help him and his family, Arif says that the money will allow them to employ more people and his award will attract more buyers.
Later, when the visitors arrive and begin to examine the various stalls at the Fair, Arif takes his award and proudly places it against the rugs he was stacking earlier. A loom is set up at one side of the stall, for weaving the thick strands of thread to demonstrate the craft at the Fair. As Arif begins working, his father attends to their customers, who haggle but eventually purchase some of their rugs. I bid them goodbye and wish the young boy luck on an upcoming exam before going to the next stall.

subodh chandra paul
The Master Craftsperson’s Award recipient for toy crafts, Subodh Chandra Paul, sits with his daughter at their stall. Paul is a quiet man, whose enthusiasm seems tempered by years of struggle. His daughter, a shy but polite girl, smiles at shoppers scanning their wares for something eye-catching.
Paul comes from a long line of doll makers. His father passed the skills down to him when he was still only a little boy. He has spent the last 25 years mastering this craft. However, in his long career he has never received an award for his work. “I have come to the city many times,” he says, “they’ve asked for my dolls to be displayed at fairs and museums. But, today I am finally winning a prize.” Paul is busy working for the whole year but makes most of his money during festivals . As with many other craft goods, dolls are very popular items at fairs when they, along with other traditional items, sell well.

Tepa putuls are a popular type of clay doll that is shaped by pressing one’s fingers down on clay. Paul’s stall displays a wide assortment of dolls arranged in several rows and columns. These range from animal motifs, to human and mythological subjects. Visitors to the stall who take closer looks at Paul’s work were able to make out the details, such as the etchings on the clay animals and human figures, or the careful strokes of paint applied to the coloured pots and masks.

Master Craftsperson’s Award winner for tepa putul, Subodh Chandra Paul.

“I make my dolls in the same style as my father did,” says Paul, “we get our inspiration from nature and make many animal dolls. They’re popular, especially with tourists. Children like them but so do adults.” I point to a small group of pots, with cobra heads sticking out from the sides and ask where that motif came from. Three cobra heads emerge from behind the pot – one is positioned to strike at the viewer from directly behind the pot, while two more heads peek out from either side.

“These are from Hindu myth,” says Paul, “we do a lot of such work for Puja and other Hindu festivals.” Small masks are also on display alongside his dolls. Paul’s masks depict characters from the Ramayana, such as the 10 different heads of Ravana, the demon king of Lanka who kidnapped Rama’s wife Sita in the Hindu epic. These are used in festivals held in villages across the country where actors reenact these stories in their shows.

The dolls, or putuls, sell for only 10-20 taka. Their usage has declined in recent years thanks to the emergence of new imported toys. These clay dolls are now sold in the city as souvenirs or as decorative items for someone’s coffee or side tables. Paul believes that this is why so many craftsmen have left the profession. “I know a lot of people who stopped working with dolls and started their own shops in the city,” he says, “they would rather work there because it’s just not worth the effort to make these dolls only to sell them for a few takas.”
Paul hopes that being a recipient of this prestigious award will change his fellow craftsmen’s negative perceptions regarding his craft. He thinks it will motivate them to not give up and continue working with dolls. A television camera and crew soon stops by the toy crafts stall. Paul speaks into a journalist’s microphone with confidence, proud of his accomplishment while maintaining his humility. He has, of course, reason to be proud as a representative of the crafts tradition and as a Master Craftsperson’s Award winner.

Subodh Chandra Paul’s clay creations.

Activists have predicted doom for the handicrafts industry and cautioned the general public to save this art form before it is too late. But the stories of these artisans, whose lives are often fraught with disappointments and hardship, are often overlooked behind these ideals. When the time comes for the ceremony to begin, each craftsman is called up to receive his award and asked to say a few things to describe their feelings. They thank God, their families and the two organizations responsible for the event, before leaving the stage and returning to their stalls. The audience disperses immediately after the ceremony to look at the various crafts on display at the fairgrounds. The dialogue shifts from the ideals of crafts preservation at the ceremony to the buying and selling of goods at each stall. Somewhere along the way, the stories of these individual craftsmen are lost or only vaguely alluded to. It is our hope that these brief but revealing accounts of the lives of four Master Craftsperson’s Award recipients will leave lasting impressions on our readers so that they can appreciate this art form and understand why it is so important to preserve it.

Naveed Islam is the Associate Editor of Jamini.

The Master Craftsperson’s Awards were presented to artisans who displayed extraordinary skill in their respective mediums. Naveed Islam interviews the recipients of these prestigious awards to look at the lives of ordinary craftspeople. These stories reveal the everyday struggles of those working in this dying trade and highlights the importance of ensuring its survival. Master…

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