Working with laboratory equipment was a daily routine for Gopendranath Chakrabarty because he was a clerk at the botany department of Ideal College. It was 1972, young Gopendranath was always in search of doing something new besides his day job to support his family.
One day, in the carton of a microscope, he found a cork made of sola – a flowery plant scientifically known as Aeschynomene aspera that grows in wet places. And the idea of making a handicraft item out of it came to his mind.
Even though unsure of the usability of this material because of its thin texture, he made a small bird with it. This was the rebirth of Gopendranath's childhood hobby of making handicrafts with soil and bamboo sticks.
After that, Gopendranath continued making handcrafted items from sola collected from discarded cartons in his spare time. Soon enough, the handicrafts became a source of income for the father of three.
In 1984, he attended a Boishakhi fair organised by the Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC) where he sold an entire box of products within two hours only. He made Tk90. But more than that, he received ample appreciation from BSCIC officials who later helped him continue his artisanship.
Since then, Gopendranath has been crafting different items with sola for 45 years now. His birds, small houses, wind chimes and many other home décor items are very popular with his regular customers.
The popularity of his handcrafted items was evident at his stall in the recent Zainul Festival on the premises of the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka. Gopendranath came from Jhenaidah to attend this three-day-long fair, with two cartons full of sola-made décor items which were sold within the first half of the first day.
Gopendranath moved to Dhaka in 1972 from his home in Kharikhali village in Jhenaidah. Leaving Ideal College, he joined the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute in 1984 as a security guard. The senior officers at the new workplace also inspired him to continue his work. Thus he kept at his passion, displayed them at different fairs in Dhaka, earned money and received praise aplenty.
"I realised at a very young age that my religiously significant surname may bring honour to my life, but it would not help me in terms of earning money," said the 77-year-old Brahmin.
"I did not want to end up like my two elder brothers earning Tk50 a day by performing worship in village households. I went for something different, searching for jobs in Dhaka. And when I started making handicraft items, it worked in my favour," added this elderly artisan.
"I may not work as a priest, but my worship is in these handmade things. I dedicate my soul entirely in their making, like a priest does while worshipping," a hint of a smile brightened his wrinkled face.
Sola, locally known as Phool sola, grows in marshes and paddy fields. In the dry season, he collects them from the fields, sun-dries them before turning them in small birds, cow carriages, houses, mosques etc.
The artist cuts out small pieces from the white body of the sola plant. The subtly cut pieces are then glued together to give a particular form of a home décor item. The use of colour is minimal in his work – mostly to bring alive the beaks and eyes of birds.
In his words, "At first, I used to colour the full body of the object, but gradually I felt that the colour steals the raw essence of the work. So I keep it white which is the original colour of the sola plant."
This self-taught artist attempted to open a school in his village for some youths who earlier showed interest in his work. But the initiative failed as the work is not very profitable.
Despite that, Gopendranath's passion is indomitable. Now in his 70s, nothing can stop him from turning a piece of sola into a beautifully crafted décor item. Retiring in 2011, he now lives in his village home. He spends most of his time carving a piece of sola with his sharp knife, gluing it all together to create a shape, or providing a touch of colour to it.
Gopendranath received the BSCIC award for his 20-inch Tajmahal in 1984. He also got the opportunity to visit Japan, China and the USA for his work, funded by the Bangladesh government.
Sola-artistry is one of the oldest art works based and nurtured in rural Bangladesh. This plant with its soft texture has been used in making garlands, ornaments, dresses for the idols of Gods and Goddesses, and crowns for the bride and groom at Hindu weddings.
Mankganj, Keraniganj, Munshiganj, Kumilla, Brahmanbaria, Kishoreganj, Netrokona, Moulavibazar, Habiganj, Jamalpur and many other places are famous for this craft. Once Malitola in old Dhaka was also a famous hub of sola-artisans.
But this fine art form is dying out with the passage of time, because people are losing interest in this occupation. "People will definitely admire the products, but never admire the work itself," said Gopendranath with regret.