It sounds like a miracle in the forest. Unlettered women in the Sunderbans struggling for a livelihood by collecting wood at grave risk to their lives, finding other means of work as daily labourers or, when everything else fails, moving to Kolkata as daily passengers to work through the day and return home at night — that has been the ritual for generations. Their menfolk have failed to support their families and often lapsed into bouts of drinking to their despair of those who depend on them. It needed a radical transformation to bring some hope to those reconciled to a life of extreme hardship.
That hope has come from somewhat unexpected quarters through a unique a collaboration of natural skills rooted in the village and a support system growing in the city. It has turned out to be a rural-urban dialogue that goes beyond the steady flow of crafts in other spheres that have a long history in Bengal, on the one hand, and the marketing skills of crafts councils that have been doing their job with dedication and perseverance, on the other. Some of the poor craftsmen have seen their work travelling to destinations in India and abroad. It has brought dividends by way of marketing India’s cultural identity as well as bringing some security to those who have no alternative but to rely on their inherited skills.
What has happened in the Sunderbans is a three-dimensional movement that has the potential of bringing real change to their lives of the people — a new form of expression, a rural-urban bridge of artistic skills and the prospect of a rural revival. The movement has helped establish a unique platform exploring the magical possibilities of the Needle and Brush (the name given to the experiment) to produce an interweaving of art and commerce. At the heart of the new initiative is the 81-year-old Dhiraj Choudhury who, as retired professor from the Delhi College of Art, has not only taken his work to several destinations in India and abroad.
More significantly, he has utilised his extensive interactions with students and other sections, some of whom are not directly connected with the world of art. The result has been a relentless concern for spreading a new awareness through workshops and multi-disciplinary events in the city and taking the message of lines and colours to the grassroots.
It is the rural initiative that he believes has been the most rewarding in his twilight years. He has carried out several experiments in the past when he has been taking the message of love and human welfare through his canvases in a world torn apart by tensions. Even during his years in the art college in Delhi, he had set up a platform called Line to emphasise the basic skills that can be imbibed even by those who have not had the privilege or opportunity to receive formal training.
There were occasions when he had worked with groups of senior citizens in London with no direct acquaintance but merely a passing interest in art to bring home images of human concern. Back in India, he has organised art camps in remote villages in Manipur and other places that have not experienced the warmth of artistic ideas in order to recreate glimpses of the environment and then plough back the funds earned from the camp to help bring some change to their lives.
This time it is all about sensitive management of two forms on a single canvas. It begins with Dhiraj offering rough sketches to the unlettered women who, after their day’s work, proceed to create images of people and life with needle and thread on simple cloth. The skill and imagination with which they have been creating human forms, depicting rituals and harmonising colours have been a revelation.
The veteran artist, who does the finishing job of blending the cloth and canvas, is now committed to taking the results forward by way of more exhibitions, camps and interactions. An international camp has been held in Bangladesh where artists from several countries found one of the women, Geeta Sarada from the Sunderbans, demonstrating specimens of her natural skill. The exciting images with coloured thread on cloth were pasted on canvas to which Dhiraj added his impressions with brush and paint to create a rich tapestry of social and artistic revelations.
For the simple villagers, it was the beginning of a process of self-discovery unlike the potters and weavers in other parts of Bengal who have inherited the skills from their ancestors. The Sunderbans never had a tradition in the crafts –it was simply a grim struggle to survive. For Dhiraj, the story began with the woman who was working for his ailing wife and commuting from the Sunderbans. When his wife died, he encouraged the woman and others like her to try their hand with needle and thread — something that came to them naturally. The ritual turned into an adventure that was polished and perfected by Dhiraj to produce a new art form.
Seldom in India has an art initiative broken the class barrier so radically with exciting prospects of rural change. The international participants at the Dhaka camp discovered another facet of the Indian reality while Dhiraj has taken the results to Germany and other parts of Europe where he has been travelling during the last few months. There have been collaborations in music, theatre, cinema and the performing arts while the visual arts had long been considered a solitary and introspective enterprise in the confines of a studio or a personal experience of the natural environment. The Needle and Brush platform is now set to change the narrative.
Some of the results are already visible. Some of the women have left the ritual of commuting to Kolkata as daily labourers or as domestic cooks and workers to engage in the modest adventure of their craft. They have also learnt to work together with organised interest and have even drawn men into the effort. The sense of self-assurance has been reinforced with exposure to the urban environment. It may take time for them to match the success of the kantha-based textile industry. But the beginning has been made with the spontaneous assimilation of a new idiom and the relentless efforts by Dhiraj Choudhury to show the way to his younger contemporaries. If it results in a small step forward in generating a new consciousness and some hope of a rural revival in the backwaters of south Bengal, it would be an experiment well worth the effort.