Chhau mask artisans at Chorida and gala artisans at Balarampur in Purulia are advocating change both politically and for a better life.
After supporting the Left Front in its uninterrupted 35-year rule, the artisans, who are on the verge of extinction now, are turning away from the party and want change after years of false promises from the CPI(M)-led government.
"We had been promised a mask museum and an artisan centre in Chorida. A team of MLAs had also visited our village two years back, but nothing came out of it," said Dwijen Sutradhar, chief of the mask artisans.
Around 250 artisans in the area are struggling to make ends meet and are being forced to take up idol-making, letting go of their original chhau mask-making art. "The number of chhau dance groups has come down to only seven or eight from 30-40 in about five years. So we are going to places like Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Maharastra, UP, MP, Bihar and Orissa to make idols of Durga, Kali and other gods and goddesses," said Sudhangshu Sutradhar, a state award winner in 2000.
A group of artisans sat in front of wall graffiti of Congress candidate Nepal Mahato and shouted slogans: "Marxbad, Leninbad, after vote Silpira bad (Marxism, Leninism, after polls artists are left out)."
The only demand of these mask artisans had been tourism promotion in Ayodhya hills, which would have given a boost to the chhau industry. "Apart from tourism, even ayurveda could get a boost in Ayodhya. We have plenty of shrubs untapped in the hilltop. The government could set up an ayurvedic centre and a college here," said Pinaki Ganguly, who runs an NGO in Chorida.
Artisans alleged that the state government is not doing much for promotion of the industry. "Only one handicraft fair in Kolkata is not enough for the survival of this industry," said Falguni Sutradhar, another mask artisan. Sutradhar added that the government had not funded or even arranged for financial loans for our artisans, despite years of promise.
"We are arranging and surviving on private loans," said Dwijen Sutradhar's son Kishore, who is gearing up for a 28-day trip to London in June.
"We are voting for change this time. Nepal Mahato, who is contesting as a Congress candidate from Bagmundi, has been extending assistance to us despite being an MLA last time from Jhalda assembly. Even Union tourism minister Subodh Kant Sahay had promised to develop tourism opportunities that would also encourage our industry in Ayodhya hills," said Sudhangshu.
For gala artisans, the climate change and the newly set-up sponge iron factory are becoming a major threats. "In the last three months the price of lakkha (gala) has doubled and stands at R600 per kg now. Supply of lakkha has drastically reduced with deforestation and scanty rainfall," said Md Shafiq Ansari, an artisan.
Frustrated with their lot, the lakkha artisans from Balarampur are planning to shift to Jaipur. "We did not get any government assistance despite repeated promises from the three-decade old Left Front regime. The market too is on the verge of shutting down here, whereas the demand is very high in Jaipur. So we are planning to shift," said Mubarak Ali, an artisan who exports gala products.
Around 90% of the Balarampur's population, which is around 15,000 people, are directly or indirectly linked to the country's once only lakkha industry. "The government is taking no initiative to restore forests in Ayodhya hills, which provides us with the raw material. Apart from the changing climate, deforestation by tribals for their livelihood is actually affecting the price," said an artisan.
Lakkha is a product that is derived from insects that grow in trees such as Kusum, Palash, Kul and Babla.