Sculpting with Shola
Many living rooms in Dhaka are decorated with Taj Mahals made of shola. Gopen Babu is the artist responsible for these works. He gets orders from all over the country to make things out of shola. The Taj Mahal in particular sells extremely well.
As Gopen Babu spoke to me, he said that he had started working with this art form out of curiosity. He makes carts, Taj Mahals, palanquins, flowers, horse carts, peacocks, elephants, parrots and crocodiles among other things. For him this is both an art as well as a way to earn a living.
Recently the award-winning Gopen Babu spoke to me about his life, his art and his struggle. He said that although at present he lives in Kharikhali village under Jhenidah Sadar, he was born in Arpara village under Kushtia Sadar Upazila. His full name is Gopendranath Chakrabarti, but he is known as Gopen Babu. This 60-year-old settled in Jhenidah after he got married. Now he is continuing his service as a peon in the Agricultural Research Institute in Dhaka.
Making a Living
While speaking to me, Gopen Babu narrated the bitter experiences of his life. His father Hemanta Chakrabarti passed away in his boyhood. His older brother Kiron Chandra used to stay at home and make cigars. Gopen Babu had to graze the cattle in the field due to extreme poverty. At the same time, he continued his study. Juggling these activities, he managed to study up to class eight. Later he got married in the hope of getting help with the household chores. He and his wife settled in Kushtia after their marriage. After a few years, M.A Hannan from his village took him to Dhaka. There, he managed to get himself a job as a peon in Dhaka College. Later, he got a job in the Dhaka Agricultural Research Institute. At present, his wife Anita Chakrabarti resides at Kharikhali in Jhenidah. Both his daughters have gotten married. His only son Bidyut is a student of BA 2nd year. Bidyut helps out with his father's work.
Making Products from Shola
Gopen Babu says that in his boyhood, he tried to replicate objects that he found. He could copy anything; it didn't take him much time. He made different kinds of sculptures using mud and date leaves in his infancy while tending cows in the field. When he was in charge of the Science Laboratory of Dhaka Ideal College, he would practice making different toys with a type of sponge wood that was used to protect scientific equipment supplied by the government. This sponge wood was a type of shola. Thus his craft started. He made elephants, horses, flowers, birds and birds out of shola and put them on display in the college to impress the teachers and the students. Gopen Babu said that one day in 1974, while making some commodities for the college campus, college teacher Majharul Islam asked him what he was making.
He was highly pleased when some things he made earlier were brought before him. Later, a female student of that college was impressed seeing his handicraft and did everything in her power to help him put up a stall at the Bangla Academy fair. Forty of his birds were sold in an hour on the very first day of the fair. His stall attracted many people. Finally, it came to the attention of BSIC authorities who noticed that his products were in great demand. Since then he has opened a stall every year in the fair arranged by BSIC. He has gotten the reputation now as one of the country's top shola artists. He received a national award in 1984. He has received more awards since then.
The Demand for Taj Mahals
There isn't one set thing that Gopendranath Chakrabarti makes. He makes whatever he sees in nature and is inspired by. But it just so happens that the Taj Mahals sell very well. He has already made five thousand Taj Mahals for the Dhaka city market. There is a market for the outside of Dhaka too. He said that Iqbal Hossain, a Bangladeshi who lives in England now bought a Taj Mahal from him to take back to England. A number of other people living in England have also expressed their demand for Taj Mahals and birds, but Gopen Babu says he can't produce as much as he would like due to lack of capital.
The artist explained that there was not one fixed rate for these shola sculptures. People purchase these handicrafts out of curiosity and they pay different prices. A Taj Mahal generally sells for eight or nine hundred taka. His birds, carts, flowers and other small objects sell for about three or four hundred taka a piece. He makes these products during his time off from his regular jobs. He thinks there would be higher demand for his work had he been able to rent a real store in Dhaka, but he his unable to afford that at this stage. His wife Anita Chakrabarti said that in the beginning, Gopen would just give out his products free of charge.
The Scarcity of Shola
Gopen Babu suspects that he will not be able to sustain his handicrafts trade much longer. He said that shola was difficult to find, it wasn't available just anywhere. The scarce supply of shola is making things difficult, but nevertheless, Gopen Babu does have some more immediate plans to put up stalls for his fairly unique creations.
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