Shell Craft of West Bengal

Shell Craft of West Bengal

While shells and Mother of Pearl are most commonly utilized to create jewelry, souvenirs and objects crafted in West Bengal the specialty is the crafting of Conch shells/Shankha for ritual, festive and decorative purposes. The tradition of preparing and working on conch shells is an ancient one. They have been used in India since Vedic times and are considered auspicious by both Hindus and Buddhists. Traditionally, priests use them to drive away evil spirits, at the beginning of weddings, sacrifices, or at other Hindu rites. Buddhists also blow conch shells as a sound offering. The Conch shell continues to be part of religious practice and is blown to drive away evil spirits, to commence something new and auspicious, to accomplish a successful puja process or ritual, and additionally for celebrating victories or happy occasions. The Shankha bangles are also considered a must-wear for married Bengali Hindu ladies. Going beyond these bounds the Conch shell carvers create a large variety of articles of detailed patterning and design. These include images of deities like Durga, Laxmi, Sri Krisna on the shell; entire episodes from epics and mythological stories or single motifs of floral or ornamental patterns. Besides making items such as paperweights, boxes, agarbati stands, buttons, vermillion container, cup, spoon, fork, door hangings, they craft hair clips, pins, and jewelry - bangles, broaches, earrings, necklaces, pendants . In spite of this variety, there is not much profit to be made from the crafting of shells. The conch shells are generally sourced 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 raw material. The conch shells are separated into groups according to their thickness. The thinner shells are generally used to be blown and the thicker ones are chosen to carve out. After acquiring the shells the craftspersons wash them thoroughly to remove 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 lighter and whitish in colour and is now considered ready to be carved. Filing and polishing are the last stage to provide luster. The equipment used for conch carving is basic like file, chisels, hammer, grinder etc. The chisels are used in different sizes depending on the detailing and intricacies of the pattern. The conch carvers usually belong to the Saankhari community and mainly reside in Bishnupur, Saaspur, Hatgram and Rampur. However since the 1980's the carvers have been facing a huge scarcity of supply from Chennai and the conch craft has inevitably declined. The craftsperson's have moved to carving coconut and wood apple shell as well as pumpkin shell and the fish scales somehow keeping the tradition alive.

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