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Shankha Seashell handicraft artwork of Bishnupur Bankura India

Conch shell craft is neither unique, nor a new practice in India for creating marvels in decorative yet artistic pieces of utility items. The affinity for conch has been eternally in craze since the remote Vedic age when human psyche realized an utter zeal for a philosophical and psychological uplift. The Conch shell is regarded as an inevitable instrument for performing the religious rites in many of the countries and occasionally it is blown to drive away evil spirits ensuing many of the religions.

In West Bengal, the conch shell is mainly used for two functions. The conch itself is to be blown for driving away evil spirits, to commence something new and auspicious, to accomplish  an entire puja process or ritual, and sometimes celebrating victories by blowing it. Secondly ‘sankha’ or the conch bangles are the must-adorable for the married Bengali Hindu ladies. But the conch craft of Bengal is not only confined to these quintessential purposes to be carried out, rather there lies a greater variety of articles derived from this mere marine organism.

Bankura, with a treasure of an extreme passion for beauty and elegance, holds a distinct position in conch shell craft among all the conch carver communities all over India. These conch carving devotees have spent the whole of their lives creating astonishing designs on the shells. Either they have played up fabulous images of deities like Durga, Laxmi, Sri Krisna on each and every shell or they have put down an entire episode from an epic or a mythological story instead of a single motif. They also introduce floral or ornamental patterns for ornamentation with same dexterity. Besides working with the entire piece of a conch  they also bring forth artistic specimens of hair clips, bangles, brooches, earrings, necklaces, pendants, paperweights, boxes, agarbati stand, buttons, vermillion container, cup, spoon, fork, door hangings etc.

The conch shells are generally purchased from Chennai, which are collected from the beach of Tuticorin. The empty and dry shells are sent to Kolkata and the conch carvers buy them in bulk as their main ingredient or raw material.

The conch shells are divided into groups according to their thickness. The thinner shells are generally used to be blown and the thickers are chosen to carve out.

After acquiring the crude shells from market the craftsmen wash them thoroughly to wipe out all the dirt and debris brought from the sea. Then they are put to a grinding machine to remove remaining impurities of the shell surface. Then it is again washed with hydrochloric acid which leaves it fairer and whitish and leaves ready to be carved.  Filing and polishing impose an ultimate lustre which makes it ready to be sold out to the customer.

The equipments used for conch carvings are very simple like file, chisels, hammer, grinder etc. The chisels are used in different sizes depending on the detailing and intricacies of the pattern.

These conch carvers of Bankura belong to Saankhari community and mostly reside in Bishnupur, Saaspur, Hatgram and Rampur.

This craft is undeniably a precious one and conveys Bengal’s eternal uniqueness for its perception of beauty. Many of these craftsmen have enriched the treasure of Bengal’s craft corner by being awarded for their creative excellence. But after facing a scarcity of supply from 1980s from Chennai the production of conch craft has inevitably declined. The people with their utmost spirit for creating these opulent art pieces have chosen the coconut and wood apple shell as their raw material instead of the required conch shells. They even choose the pumpkin shell and the fish scale too to keep anyhow the tradition alive. Though the production rate of conches has decreased yet the few amounts of conch those are still being carved out arousing wonder.

The term "conch" has been often used throughout history to designate a variety of medium to large sea snails, particularly their shells. Bishnupur, a city and municipality in the Bankura district of West Bengal, India, has a rich heritage that includes the skill of carving these conches. Conch shell carving is renowned for its incredibly lovely and elaborate patterns contributing to some elegant visual art forms. In the Hindu faith, they play a crucial role and are seen as lucky in the mythology of the Hindus. Common products created from conches include ornaments, trumpets, beautiful home goods, sculptures, and more. This craft of carving conch shells is practised by traditional artists, many of them are members of the caste known as "Sankha Banik." Nowadays, the centre of these activities by these artists is a location named "Sankhari Bazaar" in the city of Bishnupur. Their expertise and art are passed down from years to generations, ensuring that this indigenous craft form never goes extinct. This paper makes an effort to comprehend the history of this craft form, the effects of geography and other state sovereignty conditions on it, the multiple techniques used to create objects from conch shells, its distinctiveness as a centuries-old art form, and finally, to investigate the current issues affecting this industry. The present scenario and user perspective has been tallied through a stakeholder survey conducted in Bishnupur, West Bengal, India. As a conclusion, this paper also seeks to identify potential paths and future directions for Bishnupur's conch shell sector to emerge as a prospective visual communicator.

Besides, wearing bangles made from conch shell is considered the symbol of marital status for a Bengali bride craving long life of her husband. A widow is not allowed to wear conch bangles. Later, versatility of the use of conch shell is noticed. Late Dukhiram Ostad of Bishnupur is recognized as the innovator of making variety of articles forged from conch shells. Taking a cue from his innovative ideas, rings, pendants, necklaces, elegant showpieces, incense stick stands, pen stands, vermillion containers, cutleries, etc. are now being fashioned out of conch shells. Conch shell articles are also prescribed by astrologers to satisfy Moon to avoid lunatic tendencies and ailments like chronic cold and enteric disorder.

the fine art and craft that entail delicate expertise, nuances, power of imagination and rich creativity to produce masterpieces are mainly concentrated at Shankhari Bazar of Bishnupur, a sub-divisional town, in Bankura district and Hatgram, a Shankhakar-dominated village of the same district in West Bengal.

Shankhakars are the most ancient community who settled at Bishnupur, one of the oldest towns of West Bengal old town. The particular area is congested with more than three thousand people. A large number of people are involved in their caste profession. Woman folks also equally contribute to the conch shell handicraft with their male counterparts to eke out earnings. The male members are supposed to do the hard as well as fine works. On the other hand, the women labourers generally do rough works like rubbing, drilling, polishing etc. However, some of them are also endowed with high skill expertise. They generally use different types of file to unfurl complex designs mainly on bungles which are also entangled with thin gold belts or wires. Unlike their male counterparts, they generally are not accustomed to chisel works that are indispensable for engraving delicate and meticulous works.

However, Hatgram, a Shankhakar-dominated village in the western end of Bankura district, can rightly boast of producing a large number of proficient artisans of national and international repute. The forefathers of the Shankhakars of Hatgram were displaced from their original village named Supur in Khatra sub-division because of unspeakable torture perpetrated by the local landlord on them over a dispute of beating the landlord’s deer trespassing into the garden of a Shankhakar’s family. The unsheltered people marching on the road with bleak prospect were detained and rehabilitated by another landlord of Pairachili village. Now there are more than two thousand people belonging to Shankhakar community at Hatgram or Bardagram erstwhile Ranjitpur.

It is no exaggeration to say if Hatgram dominated by Shankhakar community is called the epicentre of conch shell handicraft. The sincerity, dexterity and devotion to the craft on the part of the craftsmen here to create masterpieces have unequivocally elevated this art and sculpture to a new height. The pioneer of the exquisite sculptural art form on conch shells of Hatgram late Haripada Kundu whose masterpieces had reportedly been extolled by great men like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Bidhan Chandra Roy, Prafulla Sen et al.

shankha Bishnupur
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Sandipan Bhattacharjee , Sabyasachi Biswas , Bhaskar Saha

Original Article ISSN (Online): 2582-7472 ShodhKosh: Journal of Visual and Performing Arts International Conference on Emerging Trends in Design & Arts July-December 2023 4(2SE), 134–144

Sankha Shilpa is a type of art in which naturally occurring conch shells are incised with designs or pictures. The Gulf of Bengal's coastlines are where these shells are typically found. Most of the patterns and pictures in these engravings are based on legendary origins, such as those related to Lord Shiva, Lord Krishna, scenes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana, etc Bain (2016). Carving conch shells requires a lot of work and is tiresome. It frequently takes months to carve on conch shells, starting with the preparation of the raw materials and ending with the final item Chatterjee (2013).

In the Bishnupur area, traditional conch shell cutting has been practised for centuries. Due to their many uses in several events, conch shells are an essential component of Bengali households. It's a common belief that blowing conches chases evil spirits away. Also, they are blown as part of a whole puja process as well as when something auspicious or new is beginning. They are also blown to commemorate successes in addition to all of the above. Bengali ladies use conch shell bracelets to signify their married status Fruzzetti (1942).

Conch shells are used to make engraved shells in addition to jewellery and commonplace objects like bangles, armlets, rings, lockets, buttons, hairpins, and clips. Table lamps, incense stick holders, ashtrays, vermilion containers, spoons, and forks are examples of further conch shell goods Alamgir (2012), Chatterjee (2009).

Bishnupur is a well-known tourist attraction because of its extensive collection of stunning terracotta temples that display a wide range of structural styles of mediaeval Bengali temple architecture. The capital of a sizable region once known as Mallabhum was Bishnupur. Mallabhum included not only the entire Bankura district but also a sizable portion of the Medinipur and Bardhaman districts Biswas (2021).

In terms of art and culture, Bishnupur was at the height of its splendour during this period. According to historical sources, Bishnupur's primary economic pursuits were the processing of silk yams and handloom silk weaving Hamerow (1989) Lefler (1961). But other factors, such as the various kinds of handicrafts-making, that flourished under the active patronage of the Malla kings of Bishnupur, have also been significant contributors to the popularity of this place. It was not just silk that gave Bishnupur such an eminent place in the annals of history. Terracotta carving, conch shell carving, coconut shell carving, lantern making, brass utensil making, dashabatar card making, fragrant Amburi tobacco manufacturing, and other businesses have all been recognized to be of significant historical and economic value to this location Razin & Hayflick (2010). In addition, Bishnupur is the birthplace of the 'Bishnupur Gharana,' a well-known subgenre of Indian classical music. As was already noted, Bishnupur is also well known for its system of large reservoirs and gigantic and exquisite clay temples Banerji (1968). Having stated all of these details, it is possible to state with certainty that Bishnupur has been quite successful in maintaining the allure of an old Bengali urban settlement, bearing an undeniable testament of the bygone days of great splendor and magnificence, despite having existed for such a long time Alamgir (2012), Sengupta & Das (2021).

The conch shell business employs hundreds of craftsmen in Sankhari Bazaar, Bishnupur, who rely on it for their living. Titkiiti, Jarjir, Kachcham, Dhala, and Patisankha are the five main varieties of conch-shells that the craftsmen often employ as their primary raw material. These conch shells are used to create ornaments like necklaces, bangles, earrings, rings, and so on. Conch shells with elaborate decorations are also utilised for worship and puja ceremonies in addition to these. These conch goods are highly valued and significant on a national level. In 1988, the President Prize was given to renowned conch shell craftsman Shri Aswini Kumar Nandy for his accomplishments Nag (2022), Das (2014).

Now, the market is shrinking as a result of abrupt price increases and rising raw material costs. Several conch-shell carvers are now switching to carving coconut shells as a result. In this context, it is important to draw attention to Shri Gopal Nandy, who received the President Prize in 1988 for his outstanding artistic work on coconut shell. Together with this, craftspeople are currently experimenting with gourd shells as well (Sen) (Paul, "Economics of Conch Shell Industry-A Study in West Bengal.") Dutta (2011).

This paper ventures through the comprehension of the origins of the craft-form along with the impact of geographical locations and other territorial conditions. The study also explores the aspects of the processing of the conch shells particularly in Bishnupur area. Issues, such as hike in price for the conch shell carving industry, were also taken into consideration. The study puts primary emphasis on understanding the current scenario of the conch shell carving industry along with the perceptions of both the artisans and the potential buyers. To enquire about these a thorough literature study was done and was tallied through quantitative and qualitative surveys conducted among 100 individuals in Bishnupur, West Bengal, India. Among the respondents of the quantitative survey, 25 were artisans and the rest were potential customers. For the qualitative survey, the number of respondents were 10 and comprised of artisans, design students, industry professionals and professors. It is a holistic approach towards exploring the current scenario and future exponential growth possibilities pertaining to the conch shell carving industry in Bishnupur.

Conch shell carving in Bishnupur has a bright future because traditional arts are becoming more and more popular all over the world. Conch shell carving has gained popularity as people have grown more conscious of environmentally friendly living and products since it uses natural resources and has little negative influence on the environment. Conch shell carving in Bishnupur could have a bright future if it can be incorporated into contemporary design and consumer goods. Conch shells' unique patterns and motifs can be applied to a variety of products, including jewellery, home decor, and fashion accessories. This may open up a brand-new market for conch shell carving goods that can be sold all over the world, giving Bishnupur's artists a new platform for showcasing their skills and making money. Conch shell carving has additional potential for the creation of more specialised methods and patterns. Bishnupur's artisans can continue to experiment and invent with their ancient methods to produce one-of-a-kind and cutting-edge designs. By doing so, they will be able to serve a wider range of customers and maintain the art form's relevance and interest. Additionally, Bishnupur offers a chance for the growth of the conch shell carving tourism industry. Tourists may be drawn to the area as the art form becomes more well-known in order to see the meticulous process of conch shell cutting and to buy locally created goods. This can help the local economy grow and provide up job opportunities for craftspeople and businesses in connected fields.

Conch shell goods have seen a seasonal increase in demand in recent years due to their cultural importance. This industry, which is distinguished by its cultural relevance and rich past, cannot be sustained by this alone. The craftspeople have been compelled to pursue alternative sources of income due to the skyrocketing cost of raw materials and shrinking business margins. Hence, a novel strategy is required to safeguard the survival of this sector, whose origins date back to the era of the kings. Using contemporary technologies, setting up co- operatives, educating artisans and their final consumers, and developing goods that are responsive to shifting market dynamics might be realistic steps towards bolstering the sector and assuring its sustainability and durability. Giving the art form a GI tag would help give it and the craftspeople who participate in it a name. Based on this familiarity, a variety of rebranding and marketing plans might be developed to build a solid clientele. All of these initiatives are essential to preventing the extinction of this magnificent art form from the face of human civilization, which contains the vial of Bengal's golden period and its rich cultural legacy.


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