Friday, May 30, 2014

Shola cottage industry in West Bengal: Local history and future prospects1

The following article provides a look at shola artists and shola industry in general. The orginal Bengali articles were written by Sanjay Ghosh for Manthan Samayiki, and has been translated by Koel Das, Sanhati. Shola is a naturally occurring substance which has been used traditionally by people for making flowers and other artworks. Unlike petroleum-based thermocol which degrades in water thus polluting marine-life, shola products are less polluting and environmentally stable. There is a rising demand for shola artwork, and more and more villages are engaging in this cottage industry, which is in danger of being lost partly due to Government inaction.
Part 1
Pukuria village is in the Mandribazar police district of South 24 Parganas, West Bengal. Right next to the pitch road through which several bus routes run, there are some small brick buildings with tiled roofs. One of these is the workplace of the shola artist Kamal Bairagi (42). When I met him, he was working with the front door closed. The back door was open and looked over a rivulet that flowed behind the building. There was a small boat anchored in the water. He mentioned that he would need the boat to go the fields to answer nature’s call. Talking with him, I was able to learn some things about shola and the shola industry.
Mr. Bairagi had been a van rickshaw driver since the age of 15. Afterwards, he left that profession, and for the next 20-25 years was able to make a living by making artworks out of shola. His house, in the Bazarberia village, is a short distance away. That village lacks electricity, and has poorly maintained roads. This is why he has rented a PWD owned house in the Pukuria village. This house is on a bus route, and also electricity is available as power lines run by the road. This helps the artist to easily communicate with the buyers. However, it is PWD property, hence the government can make him move any day.
His wife Ratna (39), and two sons Deepak (25) and Dilip (18) all work in the Shola workshop with him. His two daughters Shikha (24) and Rekha(18), both of whom are married, continue the work in their married homes in Chitraganj and Bazarberia respectively. The daughters of the shola artists in this region enter their married homes with the tradition of the artwork. I asked Mr. Bairagi some questions about his profits and losses. The replies that came through reflected despair and dejection from the systematic deprivation that he has been subjected to in his career as an artist.
With an investment of Rs 500 for the raw materials, the resultant products can be sold for Rs 700 to Rs 900. This means there is a profit of Rs. 200-400 net profit with this investment. As a result, with all four people working, the profit is around Rs 3000 from a monthly investment of Rs 5000.
On the other hand, Shyamal Gayen and Bimal Gayen of the same village have become extremely wealthy by being able to invest heavily with their capital. Larger corporations based out of Dharmatolla, Kolkata, order artworks with specific designs meant for export to foreign countries like USA, France, England, Russia, Japan and Singapore, with resulting profits in tens of millions of Rupees. The artists themselves get very little of the profits, and are barely able to survive. The local businessmen buy their art works for 40-50 paise (100 paise = 1 Rupee) and sell it to firms based in Dharmatolla for a much larger profit who in turn export these products abroad at a higher rate.
If the government would invest 100,000-200,000 Rupees or would take direct responsibility of purchasing and marketing the artworks, then the middlemen who do not do any of the work would not be able to make these huge profit margins. On picking up one of the design catalogs that he was working off, I noticed the word “Espana”. This indicated to me that a Spanish firm had possibly ordered these goods.
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