One of the finest and living traditions of craft making is Solapith which is purely Indian in origin and has been prevailing in parts of West Bengal and Assam from a very long time. The Solapith craft is made from Sola or Kuhila, a plant which grows in the marshy waterlogged areas. The scientific name of this special plant is Aeschynomen Aspera and is an herbaceous plant. The main part of the plant which is used for making is the cortex, the inner soft-white and spongy part.
Solapith craft originated in West Bengal which is now prevalent at some places like Dhubri district of Assam. This is mainly due to geographical reason as to the availability of marshy areas suitable for growing of the Sola or Kuhila plant. In West Bengal, Birbhum district mainly houses the artisans and the small scale industries that produce these delicate craftworks. As Solapith are mainly used for religious purpose it has a mythological story related with it. Legend says that, a celestial dancer named Solabati had fallen in love with Banasur, who was a demon and was in the court of Indra. Indra was not very happy with Sholabati’s show of affection towards the demon so he cursed her by transforming her into Shola reed. Solabati asked forgiveness to Lord Indra and in return as an act of mercy Indra altered the curse by saying that only in the hands of the Malakars or the garland makers she will be purified and that she will not be useful to others. Thus, till today the Malakars before they start to prepare the garland of Solapith they stuck the Shola with a stick n put it in the water, believing that she is reuniting with Banasura.
This particular plant grows mainly in marshy situations and is widely available in places such as Bengal, Assam and in some parts of Orissa and Deccan peninsula. The seeds of this plant germinate with start of the showers from April and mature by September / October. These are collected and dried in the sun for 4 to 5 days, after which the leaves are cut and the stem is taken for crafting.
The second stage includes peeling of the inner, soft, light, lustrous potion which looks like ivory to be used by the artisans. The stem of the plant is cut into 3 to 8 parts according to the need of the artisan. Then with the help of a sharp knife long sheet termed as ‘kap’ or thin slices called ‘paturi’ is cut out moving the knife in circular motion. These fine sheets are pasted on papers to give extra support. Also, additional attachments are stuck to the main body with the help of aluminum wire. The roughness is smoothed out with a chaeni.
Not only flowers but also toys and other dolls are made out of it. Firstly the stem is cut into rectangular blocks. These are then pasted with the help of gum or commonly known gond or atha (prepared by mixing flour and copper sulphate). For toys, animals and human forms various molds are used to give a definite shape. The Shola artist for preparation uses knife, ribbons of various colors, gold and silver thread, and colors to accentuate the beauty of the artifacts. Examples of some of the products created by these methods are: topar (traditional headgear of the bride and grooms), durga murti (image of durga), saodagari naao ( ancient ships, used for interior water ways). These artworks not only have utility importance but also have aesthetic appeal.
Solapith significance in West Bengal:
In West Bengal this art form is a customary as well as a religious need. From ancient times the Solapith artist were considered important in the society, they were respected for their creativeness and were included in the nine artist clans of Bengal. Their importance is justifiable both socially and culturally, the Solapiths were mainly used for religious purpose and these artists used to supply wreaths and flowers for the village deities and other social functions of the society. It was impossible to celebrate and start any kind of Puja or ceremony without the decorations done with Solapith such as flowers or topar.
The production units are concentrated in and around Bolpur, Surul,and Kimahar in Bengal During olden times the items were limited and were mainly prepared for the royalty and zamindars. Later, with the increase in small scale industries and business purpose the items varied and re-appeared with vividness in style and products like palki (palanquin), nouka (boat), phooler jhaal (bouquet), flower vase, kadam phool (lotus used mainly for religious ceremonies), also haati(elephant).
Solapith significance in Assam:
In Assam, Solapith craft is also known as Kuhila Silpa. Families from the parts of Kherbari, Jhaspusabari and Shernagar Gaon Panchayat which belong to Dhubri district are associated with it. Like in Bengal, in Assam, too, the tradition of Kuhila craftwork is practised since olden times by some particular families and thereby it has become a hereditary profession. The artworks are not only made for religious purposes but also to be used as decorations for interior of houses and temples during various ceremonies like marriages and festivals. During the time of celebration of local festivals like kati bihu (a harvest festival celebrated in the month of October), Manasa Puja (celebrated in respect to goddess Manasa, the serpent), Bash Puja (bamboo festival), Charak Puja (celebrated to satisfy Shiva) and many more, the deities to be worshiped are made of Kuhila. The deities are ornamented with intricate designs handcrafted from Kuhila. Also, painted masks personifying different Hindu characters, made from Kuhila are worn during ballad performances.
The Kuhila made ornaments are also adorned by dancers while performing various folk dances like Kushan Nritya, Hudum Nritya, Kali Nritya, Sonarai Nritya, Chandi Nritya, Goalini Nritya and many more. Headgears called the topar are also made for the bride and groom of Bengali and Rajbongshi families.
These uniquely artistic works appeal to the onlooker’s eyes and display the true craftsmanship of these local artisans who are till today preserving this precious and neglected art form. This craft claims a superiority and popularity due to its artistic expressiveness and fineness. This is the main reason why this craft is considered so special to be used only for religious and auspicious ceremonies. But, with the introduction of modern technology and favoritism to factory made products like thermocol and plastics this rare artwork is in the verge of extinction. The families who at one time took pride and were honoured for producing such beautiful artworks are now facing poverty and forced to look out for other job prospects to earn their livelihood. We must respect and try to bring back the lost glory of this pure and precious indigenous artwork by supporting it, buying and also by learning the procedure of creating the various crafts of Solapith. As this art requires great skill and experience with correct choice of design and intricacy mastered by the great skilled craftsmen, we must conserve and practice to keep alive the beauty of this Solapith craft of India.
- Jain. Jyotindra & Aggarwal. Aarti. (1989). National Handicratfs and Handlooms Museum