Sholapith, Reviving a Fine Craft Tradition in India

Shola flowersⓒBanglanatak dot com

Shola, or sholapith, is a milky-white, spongy plant matter that is shaped into objects of art and utility by the indigenous communities of West Bengal in eastern India. It is lightweight and versatile, enabling it to serve a diverse range of functional and esthetic purposes. For instance, traditional craftspeople now use shola for their intricate work since the ban on ivory use.

Shola became hugely popular during the period of the British Empire. The ubiquitous shola topi (pith helmet) was worn in the colonies in Asia and Africa and became symbolic of the colonizers. Shola has always been essential in the Bengali Hindu cultural tradition. Shola objects like topor (bridegroom’s headgear) are a must at every wedding.

Indigenous communities use shola in their rituals throughout the different districts of Bengal. The Manasar Chali is a depiction of the goddess of snakes, fertility, and wealth and is customary for the worship of Manasa all over North Bengal. A wall hanging known as Saitol is considered auspicious in wedding and childbirth rituals. String puppets are made from a shola base and a clay exterior, as shola is both light and easy to shape. Flowers are made with shola for both ritual and ornamental purposes. In modern times, various accessories and decorative items made of shola have become increasingly popular. There are now only around a score of master craftspeople who have the skills to make intricate items, though 7,000 craftspeople are associated with this craft.

The project for the revival of shola www.sholacraft.com) by Contact Base (banglanatak.com, a social enterprise in India) is supported by the German Consulate General of Kolkata under the German government’s Cultural Preservation Program. An exhibition, Green Ivory, was held in Kolkata between 17 and 19 July 2019, showcasing exquisite shola craft products. Young visitors were especially thrilled, as for many of them, the material was a new discovery, and they had lots of fun learning some simple crafts at the workshop conducted by the artists.