Toy story

Handcrafted clay toys of Assam reflect some unique qualities but may vanish at the onslaught of assembly-line toys and changed taste, Ranjita Biswas writes.

The finished product may look a little primitive and not as smooth as potteries seen elsewhere. It is unglazed and deep red.  “But that’s the charm of these particular clay toys of Assam,” points out Birendranath Datta, well-known folklorist of Assam. These toys are fashioned with palms rather than on the potter’s wheel by the Hira community. Datta has collected some of these toys for his small museum. “In this age of ready-made toys this age-old art may soon disappear,” he says.

Toy story

The Kumars and Hiras are two traditional potter communities of Assam. The Kumars do use the wheel like most potters around the world while producing toys, pots, pitchers and other everyday use articles. But the Hiras do not use the wheel at all thus making them unique in this field of handicrafts. Besides, only the womenfolk are engaged in pottery work among them; the men help them in procuring the raw material and selling the wares.

The Hiras are a small community and are concentrated in lower Assam. There is a charming folk tale about the origin of the Hiras. It tells of the head of a family who died while performing a pilgrimage. His wife Hira had to take care of her two young sons. While walking by the banks of the Brahmaputra searching for food, she saw some bright clay. She made some small earthen pots from it to sell in nearby villages. The pottery craft took the name of Hira and the unique type of clay is called hiramati.

The tradition of women potters has come down through the centuries and even today the art is passed down from mother to daughter. In the traditional Hira pottery, no design is added but “In south Kamrup district white lime is used sometimes to give a designing effect,” Datta observes.

Near Gauripur in western Assam there is a village called Asharikandi which, on the other hand, shows off a highly stylised form of terracotta pottery.  “It’s very striking that this terracotta style resembles that of Harappa,” Datta says.

Asharkandi’s most famous figurine, a woman symbolizing mother earth in this style, is in great demand by art and craft collectors. The village is now a thriving centre of pottery making thanks to Dhirendra Nath Paul, a well-known pottery artist who has won accolades at home and abroad for his work. His mother Sarala Bala Devi was a nationally recognized pottery artist too.

 Paul says that his ancestors came from Bengal (erstwhile East Bengal). “We hear that our forefathers were travelling potters and helped make earthen rings for newly-dug wells in this area. Seeing their work the zemindars of Gauripur gave them land and invited them to settle down here,” Paul says. By the way, legendary filmmaker- actor Pramathesh Barua belonged to this family of zemindars.

Today, Paul has trained young potters, including his own sons and has helped re-establish this local form of art. Figures of gods and goddesses, animals and mythological characters are popular.  Paul, however, bemoans the lack of adequate support from the arts and crafts department of the government to help these artisans.

Apart from clay, toys in Assam are also made from materials like cane and bamboo. Pith (Kuhila) toys of Goalpara are famous. Birds dominate the over-all output of these toys. The tradition of making cloth dolls by the women of the family is common too and this craft is passed from mother to daughter. Bride and groom dolls (koina-dora) are the most common among cloth dolls.

The Kamrup district, near Guwahati, has had a long tradition of puppet theatre. Here too cloth-and-mud toys are used. However, like many traditional arts and crafts in the country this tradition too is suffering from lack of patronage as the young generation would rather enjoy a show on the electronic media or a live performance by their idols.

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