The land of clay toys and figurines

The craft began in Krishnanagar almost 300 years ago and ever since, the city has been famous for modelling – not just toys but images of gods and goddesses

My earliest visit to Krishnanagar was probably when I was 6 years old and all I can recollect about the visit is about a clay toy-maker and his wife or perhaps his daughter painting tiny figures like tigers, cows, cats, deer and horses. But what caught my eye was the clay figure of a farmer and his bullock cart. I later found out that at that time, the city was famous for the clay painted dolls and animals. It is said that this craft began in Krishnanagar almost 300 years ago and ever since, the city has been famous for modelling – not just toys but images of gods and goddesses.

The city was named after Krishnachandra(1728-1782) who acceded to the title of Maharaja of the Nadia District in 1728. But another theory says Krishnachandra named it after Lord Krishna, which was originally known as the village of 'Reui'.

Krishna Chandra was determined to improve the skill of the city modellers and searched for skilled sculptors from other cities, to create better images of gods and goddesses for temples and community pujas.

The Rajbari (Royal Palace) is a splendid palace but the years have taken their toll and it has lost much of its past glory. Its partially dilapidated structure continues to have some of the exquisite carving on its inner walls. The grandest puja celebrated in Krishnanagar, is probably the Jagaddhatri Puja – in which Goddess Durga is worshipped as 'Jagaddhatri'. The whole city is full of lights during this festival.

The figures are created by modelling coils of clay over a metal frame, clay is then mixed with cotton wool for the more detailed, finer features of the model. The figures are sun-dried and any cracks that appear are filled with paper and tamarind seed or glue. The figures are then painted in natural colours and their hair is made either of sheep's wool or jute. Similar techniques continue to be used today to create life-size portraits.

The second half of the 19th century and early 20th century was when Krishnanagar's modellers became famous. The better known names at the time were Jadunath Pal (1821-1920), Ramlal Pal, Bakkeswar Pal (1875-1924), Rakhaldas Pal and Candrabhushan Pal Mukharji (1888). Jadunath Pal's group of figures made for the Victoria Museum's collection, received an order of merit at the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1880.

The fame of the sculptors of Krishnanagar, spread far and wide. Their figures are so detailed and lifelike that they appear as though they might have been modelled on real people. For instance a number of life-size portraits have been made and are on display at the Peabody Essex Museum, at Salem, Massachusset.

The remarkable realism that these modellers are able to bring into their work, was recognised when skilled craftsmen were commissioned to work on the complex model of an Indigo Factory, created for the 1886 Colonial and India Exhibition - now part of Kew's Royal Botanic Gardens collection.

Krishnanagar has been an important centre for culture and literature. There is also a strong tradition of drama and acting.

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