The Dolls and Masks of Bengal: a depiction through pictures

The history of Bengal goes long back archaeologically, wherein tools from the Stone Age era dating back to almost 20,000 years have been found from various excavated sites. In historical texts, we find that the epic Mahabharata talks of this area as divided into different kingdoms: Magadha, Banga, Pundra, Anga, and Suhma. Each part was ruled by different tribes, and the languages they spoke belonged to the non-Aryan group of languages, still extant among some of the tribal communities, such as Santhal, Bhil, and Shabara. The neighbouring janapadas at that time were the Kalinga (Odisha), Videha (Nepal), and Assam which the Mahabharata mentions as Pragyajyotisha (prior to the Ahoms coming from China/Myanmar and settling there in the 13th c. CE). Later, people speaking the Tibeto-Burman and Dravidian languages settled in this area, adding to the cultural and linguistic diversities. Bengal also finds mention in the book Indica, written by Megasthenes, who referred to it as Gangaridai.

A baked clay duck from Bengal, which is a piggy bank.

Bengal art and craft still maintains its tribal roots, which is evident in some of the toys, dolls, and masks that we see in this state.

The Dolls of Bengal:

The Bengal dolls go long back into history, a journey that started almost with the start of human settlements in the Bengal area. Various baked clay dolls of feminine figures found during archaeological excavations from different parts of Bengal stand as evidences to this ancient craft of making dolls. Made by the potter communities, these dolls have been used for centuries in different religious practices, and sometimes played with as toys; while in the modern context often used as objects for home decor. Besides baked clay, Bengal artisans also use jute, metal, shola (sponge wood), wood, palm leaves, shellac, etc., for making dolls. Interestingly, cow dung is used for making an ugly doll like figure of the Alakshmi, which is used for ‘Alakshmi vidai’ during the worship of Lakshmi (the Lakshmi puja that takes place in Diwali/Kali puja). Given here are some of the traditional dolls and toys of West Bengal that still survive, despite the various hurdles and hardships faced by the artisans, which speak volumes of their love and devotion for their work.

Clay dolls of Krishnagar. The Krishnagar dolls have  a relatively modern
Clay dolls of Krishnagar. Photo by Sujata Aten
Dokra doll of Bengal. Made by the Dokra Damar tribe, who are the metal-smiths of West Bengal. The lost wax casting of metals  has been named after them, hence the name Dokra metals. The Dokra tribal community is spread largely across West Bengal,  Orissa, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh.
The clay lamps of Coonoor (in North Dinajpur). The traditional variety is known as the “magic lamp.” These pretty oil lamps are made in the shape of animals such as, a horse, a fish, 
The wooden dolls. These dolls were earlier made only by the carpenter community, and were found in Purulia, Midnapore, and Howrah. Currently these dolls are found in Patuli and Natungram, and are usually made by applying colours on teak wood.  The popular figures in wooden dolls series are that of brides, kings and queens, Radha-Krishna, owls, horses, etc
Two colourful wooden owls from Natungram.
The wheeled toys of Howrah. Made with baked clay, these toys are given a chalk coating first, before being painted in blue, red, and yellow stripes. These toys are very similar to the ones that were found from the archaeological site of Chandraketugarh, thus showing a continuity in craft-making traditions. Chandraketugarh, an ancient  port town, dates back to the 3rd century BC, and was a continuously inhabited site dating from the pre-Mauryan era, to Mauryan, Shunga, Kushana, Gupta, and finally into the Pala-Sena era.  
The Deepawali dolls from Midnapore and Purulia.  The lower part is made on a clay wheel and the upper part which is hand made is attached to it separately, as are the hands and the lampstand holding the lamps.  
Pressed dolls of Howrah, showing a bride and  a bridegroom. These are made by women from the potter families, by pressing their fingers on wet clay. Then the dolls are sun dried, and later fire baked. Horse dolls are also made this way, which are used for offerings to different folk deities.  
Hand pressed Sashti dolls of Coonoor (North Dinajpur), showing  a mother and son. In Bengal, Sashti pujo is done by mothers, wherein they do a day long fast and pray for the well-being of their children. 
Tal pata or Palm leaf dolls from Burdwan. Made of palm leaves the limbs are attached with  strings. When attached to the long bamboo stick, the head and limbs of the dolls can move. This craft is a dying one with very few buyers and makers.  
Mansa pot or ghat, this symbolises a pregnant woman, and is a sign of fertility. These dolls are made in Dakshindari, and are seen during Shravan Sankranti at the time of Mansa puja.  
Dolls of Jhulan, Kalighat. These clay items, which depict various stories from Krishna’s life, are made by the Kalighat patuas, and are seen during the festivals of Janmashtami and Jhulan, mainly for recreating little episodes from Lord Krishna’s life. 
Dolls of Jhulan, Kalighat. The dedication of an artist as he makes his creation.  A clay doll of  baby Krishna or Gopal. 
Image result for jute dolls of bengal
Jute dolls of Bengal. Jute is a commonly used fibre in Bengal, and besides the jute dolls, Mursidabad craftsmen make attractive key-chains, wall hangings, bags, animals, etc., using dyed jute fibres  Photo  Source 
The clay face of Shiva, Nabadwip. In the month of  Chaitra, the ritual marriage of Shiva and Parvati is celebrated in rural Bengal , and it is at that time the children take this clay mask of Shiva, and go from door to door asking for funds for the marriage ceremony to take place. 

Masks of Bengal

Historical origin of the Bengal masks is rather vague, but the general belief is that it has its origins in the pre-historic times, when the masks were worn by the tribal priests or  shamans, to ward off evil spirits. It is for this reason masks have been incorporated in various ritualistic dances and used for appeasing evil spirits while praying for the overall well-being of all. Various folk dances and plays are enacted, where the actors wear colourful masks, like what we see in the famous Chau dance of Bengal Palamau. To make masks, the artisans use a variety of items that range from clay, wood, bamboo, shola, and paper, and paint on them to create beautiful works of art.  Each mask shows distinctively the characteristics of the region from which they originate, and each regional variety is unique in its exquisite craftsmanship.

Hues of culture: A Chau mask and a wooden variant, both of which have been recognised.
Chau mask of Purulia (West Bengal). Source 
A chau dancer wearing the devi Durga’s mask in a play . Photo from Wikipedia
Clay masks from Kumartuli. The face is made of moulded clay and sun-dried, while the decorations are of shola. These masks, which mainly depict the Bengali deities, are made as wall hangings, and are quite popular worldwide. Here a clay mask of devi Durga has been attached on a kulo (a cane made object used for hand husking of rice) and is used a as wall decor.
Gamira masks from Dinajpur districts. These are made from the Gamira wood, and are created primarily by the Rajbanshi community (North Bengal) to be worn during different plays enacted by them. The different stories from our historical epics form the basic theme of these plays, which are dedicated to Gramchandi, believed to be the protector of the Rajbonshi villages (Photo from Wikipedia). 
From the Gamira series (of South Dinajpur), this three faced mask represents Mahiraban, believed to be the brother of Ravana. Known as Patal Ravana, he had refused to side with his brother, but Ravana later tricked him into taking part in the war, where he was killed by Hanuman. 
Another mask from the Gamira series (from north Dinajpur), this is made of shola or sponge wood. 
Rabankata mask. A mask from Bishnupur in Bankura, which is used in folk dances that take place during the Durga puja, and tell the story of the triumph of good over evil.
Bagpa masks. These masks are a part of Buddhist tantric practices, started by Guru Rimparche. They are worn in dances that depict the win of good over evil, known as  Bagpa dance or the Lama dance. 
The masks are worn while enacting the Banabibi pala. Banabibi pala is a play popular in the Sunderban villages, and depicts the conflict between Banabibi (deity of the forest), and Dakshin Roy (the evil king). Banabibi is worshiped by the honey collectors and wood cutters, as they enter the dangerous Sunderbans, which are famed for the man eating tigers. Daksin Roy in spirit is the representation of these tigers, that kill many of the villagers entering the forests. 

The dolls, toys, and masks of Bengal speak strongly of their tribal roots, and show the

Tribal mask from Dinajpur. Wikipedia

amalgamation of different cultures that have stayed in Bengal from the ancient times. Many of these crafts are now rarely seen, and some are already dying out. As for example, the villages of Pashchimsai, Panchrol, and Pratapdighi in district Midnapore were once famous for their shellac dolls. Now only one artisan in the Pashchimsai village makes them. As these traditional crafts die out one by one owing to a lack of patronage, at the same time, unknowingly perhaps, we also keep losing a part of our culture and heritage piece by piece.

A Mask from Purulia (Wikipedia)

These dolls and masks and other Bengal handicraft products can be seen and ordered at the West Bengal government run Biswabangla shops. The link to their website is BiswaBangla 

Owing to their unavailability and a general lack of information, some of the photos of the dolls and masks that I have used here are from Biswabangla:

Bengal dolls

Bengal masks

The cover picture shows the Chau masks from Charida village in Bagmundi, Purulia district, and is by Kinjal Bose, taken from the Wikipedia.

(The photos used here are strictly for representational purposes only)

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Goutam Bose. says:

    Lekha ta khub bhalo ebong bolisto hoeche.lekha ta pore onek Kichu janlam je gulo age jantam na.Haser(duck) chobi ta dekhe Mayer khub Ananda hoeyche.


    1. moni1706 says:

      Thank you 😊


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