West Bengal`s rich and living traditions of rural crafts often transcend the political boundaries that divide the people of Bengal today. These craft traditions are related closely to the area`s geographic conditions and manifest in them are centuries of history and culture, with the cultural expression often based on religion, rituals and frequently caste. With the exception of tribal communities, most of the artisans are from the third tier of the Hindu caste system, the Vaishyas.
Traditional crafts were and are still mostly created by the people of the respective trade based castes. But with the influence of Islam and associated conversions to Islam of many artisans, in the middle ages, the sphere of the form and content of the corresponding crafts changed. Still in many cases, particular skills remained family traditions, irrespective of caste. The traditional nine artisan castes are Swarnakar - Goldsmith; Kanshakar - Coppersmith; Karmakar - Blacksmith; Sutradhar - Architect, Carpenter, Carver or Holder of measuring thread; Tantubay – Weaver; Kumbhakar – Potter; Shankhakar - Maker of articles from conch shell; Malakar – Maker of garlands and Chitrakar – Painter.
Even in West Bengal, where caste considerations play a less visible role in day to day life, almost all small towns and villages still have localities where people of particular trade castes stay and practice their crafts.
The primary aim of traditional art and craft was not to make a thing of beauty or to give expression to the artist’s own emotions but to create an object that was useful to society, in response to a definite demand in the social and religious life of the people. This domestic tradition accounted for the almost stationary character of folk art. The folk artist or traditional craftsman never did worry about “beauty” in his creations. It was the craftsman’s skills were passed down from generation to generation, not his sense of beauty. Considering the socio-economic conditions in which artisans lived, it is unlikely that they could afford to reflect leisurely on ‘beauty.’ Their art served a social or religious purpose and they did this, employing their inherited skills.
Some practitioners may have been or may be better skilled than others, but tribal art or folk art is essentially about the community, rather than the individual.
The joy derived and appreciation of the aesthetics of these forms obviously emerged from the urban educated middle class and sophisticated lovers of folk art. With his acquired hereditary dexterity, the craftsman created his art almost perfunctorily. His art was not the expression of a feeling produced in a vacuum.
The development of a particular kind of art in a region is related to factors such as the spread of religious cults, artisan immigration and arrival of artisans with the retinue of conquerors, extinction through wars, epidemics etc and contact between cultures. Within a region specializations of different crafts by different ethnic and caste groups emerged. But the caste system condemned almost all artisans to the lowest rank of social hierarchy. As a result, there was little impetus to improve upon aesthetic or stylistic dimensions. Moreover, thanks to his social milieu, the artisan’s field of communication was severely limited and his success was greatly dependent on who his patrons were.
But not all traditional art was folk art. While some artisans were fortunate to receive royal patronage, the majority depended on the familial, social and religious needs of the common people. The court artisan, pressured to satisfy the whim of his patron, invariably produced work of superior skill, while the common artisan had no such sword of Damocles hanging over his head. Thus while Bankura pottery, scroll paintings of the Patuas and Dokra metalcraft are examples of people’s art in Bengal, the ivory work of Murshidabad, wood and stone carvings and temple terracotta are not folk art forms.
Declining patronage over both traditional and folk forms, post independence, is a tale of gradual degeneration of skills. Reduced to catering to marginalized local needs and mainly indifferent urban tastes out for a cheap buy, artistic standards have fallen. Survival is their only mantra.