From Weddings To Pujas, Sholapith Art Is Intrinsically Interwoven With Bengali Culture

Sholapith, also referred to as Indian cork, is a white, soft, lightweight, and porous core extracted from the stem of the spongy aquatic shola plant.
Sholapith, also referred to as Indian cork, is a white, soft, lightweight, and porous core extracted from the stem of the spongy aquatic shola plant. Wikimedia Commons

In the heartland of Bengal, amidst a tapestry of rich cultural heritage and artistic traditions, lies an art tradition that has stood the test of time. Sholapith art, an age-old practice, has captivated the imagination of artisans and art enthusiasts alike. Sholapith, also referred to as Indian cork, is a white, soft, lightweight, and porous core extracted from the stem of the spongy aquatic shola plant. This plant thrives in the marshy, waterlogged areas of Bengal, adding to its mystique. The craft holds a divine and mythical origin, and the pure white color of Sholapith is considered auspicious, making it a preferred material for various religious and social customs.

A piece of the Shola plant stem
A piece of the Shola plant stemOutlook India

One cannot help but notice the allure of Sholapith art during Bengali weddings. The bride dons a crown-shaped headgear called mukut, while the groom wears a conical headgear known as topor. These elegant accessories not only signify good luck but also embody the essence of this traditional art form. Despite the evolving wedding trends, couples still embrace the allure of these traditional adornments, keeping the flame of tradition alive.

A traditional 'topor' made from shola
A traditional 'topor' made from sholaOutlook India

This traditional craft extends beyond weddings and finds its place in the grandeur of Durga Puja, one of the most significant religious festivals in Bengali culture. Traditional pandals, temporary structures built to house the idol of Goddess Durga, often feature elaborate decorations known as daaker saaj or sholar saaj. In the past, these adornments were crafted from beaten silver foils imported from Germany. However, with the disruption caused by World War II, Sholapith emerged as a worthy alternative, captivating the eyes and hearts of devotees and visitors.

A Goddess Durga idol made out of shola
A Goddess Durga idol made out of sholaOutlook India

At the heart of Sholapith art lies a dedicated community of artisans known as Malakars, meaning 'makers of garlands'. According to Hindu folklore, when Lord Shiva was on his way to marry Goddess Parvati, he sought a white crown for his wedding. Lord Vishwakarma, the god of creative powers, was unable to deliver the crown. To fulfill the divine request, Lord Shiva created a man named Malakar, who crafted the headgear, garlands, and other accessories from the soft core of the Shola plant. The Malakars consider their existence a blessing from Lord Shiva and continue to worship him.

Members of present-day Malakar community
Members of present-day Malakar communitySahapedia

The art of Sholapith extends its reach to a variety of decorative items, showcasing the immense talent and craftsmanship of the artisans. Delicate flower vases, intricate wall hangings, three-dimensional chariots, and idols of gods and goddesses come to life in the skilled hands of the craftsmen. The repertoire also includes replicas of Indian classical dance forms, miniature art, and souvenirs that entice tourists and art collectors alike.

A hat made out of shola
A hat made out of

The creation of Sholapith items involves meticulous techniques. The Shola stems are uprooted, dried until they turn brown, and the outer skin is peeled off to reveal the soft white core. This core is then sliced into thin pieces, which serve as the foundation for the intricate carvings and decorative designs. The craftsmen employ both engraving and painting methods to bring their visions to life, showcasing their exceptional talents. Be it for the decoration of our very old traditional temples or for a trendy Instagram-worthy drawing room shola art always raises the bar for aesthetics.

Despite the international acclaim and global export of their works, a comprehensive survey conducted by the Ministry of Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), the government of India, the Bengal Women Welfare Association, and the National Institute of Design revealed a harsh reality: some sholapith craftsmen and artisans are barely earning as low as INR 30 per day. This disheartening situation has pushed many younger artisans to seek better employment opportunities in other sectors, leaving the future of this traditional art form hanging in the balance. Additionally, the vanishing marshy wetlands, where the shola plant thrives, present yet another pressing challenge for the survival of this exquisite craft.

Urgent measures must be implemented to safeguard this endangered art form before it slips away into obscurity. These measures include the conservation of wetlands to preserve the natural habitat of the shola plant, the establishment of support systems that uplift and empower the craftsmen, widespread education about the eco-friendly nature of sholapith art, and inspiring individuals to embrace it for decorative purposes. By taking immediate action, we can ensure that this cherished tradition remains alive and vibrant, and continue to celebrate the rich artisanal heritage of Bengal for generations to come.