Lac Dolls of West Bengal — An Example of Minimalist Art Form
I am an art lover and collector of handicrafts. I have hardly ever missed any handicrafts fair in my city. And if I am traveling to another place I am sure to visit the local handicraft shops in that region. I am particularly fond of dolls. Dolls are considered as playthings to many, but to me, it is a representation of the tradition and culture of the people residing in that area.
Recently I came to know about lac dolls of Bengal. Lac Dolls or Shellac Dolls of West Bengal are popularly known as Gala Putul in the Bengali language. It is an ancient craft of making lac coated terracotta dolls or toys and figurines of various gods and goddesses with the purpose of playing or worshipping.
What is so special about these dolls?
What attracted me the most about shellac dolls is that they are big examples of minimalist art form only that they are produced by some skilled artisans from villages of Bengal. It’s all in the making of these adorable little two to six inches long figurines. The shapes of these lac dolls are quite similar to the wooden dolls of Varanasi and Ranchi. But thematically they are more ‘Bengali’ -like in expressions.
They are made of clay with only hand pressing techniques to give the desired shapes. These dolls are then dried up in sun and later baked in a small domestic oven. The coloring techniques used here are the ones that give these beautiful minimalist art form to these simple primitive-looking handicrafts.
The making of the lac dolls
Firstly, lac is heated and mixed thoroughly with paint powder. Different types of natural colors are mixed like turmeric paste to produce yellow-colored lac and so on. Then long sticks of painted lac are produced. The dolls are painted with these sticks while they are hot and the paint sticks to the figurines thereby coating them with the lac. Fine strings of golden-colored lac are made and used to decorate the figurines. All these are done using bare hands and the skills of the artisans are really appreciable.
I found two videos that show how the lac dolls are made by these artisans. They are a wonder to watch.
Look how intricately the dolls are decorated with the simple use of geometric patterns like triangles and straight lines. The lips of the doll are done with just two strokes of straight lines using the fine strings of lac. All these techniques are simple but they give this unique feature to this handicraft form.
Various forms of lac dolls
Some common forms of shellac dolls that are made in Bengal are mother and child, man husking paddy, mahout riding elephant, a horse rider. Animals like tortoise, elephants, horses, etc. and, fruits like mango, custard apple, lemons, lychee are also very common. Certain god dolls like Manasha, Ganesh, etc. are also being made for worshipping purposes of as showpieces for home decor.
This was once a very popular handicraft of West Bengal. Like many other ancient art forms that have gone extinct, gala putul or shellac dolls were also becoming extinct due to lack of demand, and the Nuri community of Ilambazar in the Birbhum district of West Bengal that was associated with the production of lac dolls vanished from the region.
Nowadays, the shankhakars or conch shells artisans have adopted this handicraft form as their alternative income source as the art of shankha or conch shell bangles are also facing a decline in demand.