Election time always meant that Ramesh Dutta Street in north Kolkata—home to artisans that traditionally make paper cut-outs of political leaders and party symbols—would be out of bounds for motor traffic. Not this time.
Residents of this neighbourhood, also known as Rambagan, no longer have to park their vehicles on Jatindra Mohan Avenue, the main thoroughfare, and pick their way through a maze of bamboo and paper.
Even though general election is barely a week away, traffic continues to flow smoothly. "That’s it, no more orders," says Ashok Ghanti, putting finishing touches to the last of his 20 cut-outs of the Trinamool Congress’ election symbol. "We have received very few orders this year." He will get Rs90 for each of the cut-outs.
With political parties opting for mass-produced vinyl posters and cut-outs, the demand for paper-and-bamboo cut-outs made by the 50-odd artisans of Rambagan has all but vanished.
"This year, only a few of us are on election duty," says Jayanta Ghorui, another artisan who has opted to make little garish ornamental boats for a wedding.
"It’s more economical for the parties to make vinyl cut-outs because, once made, the design is saved on a computer and prints can be taken as and when required," he explains. Moreover, the computer-generated pictures of political leaders are more lifelike. "Cut-outs of leaders hardly happen these days—it’s mostly symbols," Ghorui says.
According to Aloke Datta, a member of the local Karmibrinda Club which earlier used to secure orders for the artisans, the products of Rambagan were once in demand in Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa as well. "But now, they (too) have gone the flex (vinyl) way or have homegrown artisans," says Datta.
In cities and towns, there is almost no demand for the Rambagan’s products. "Whatever demand is from the districts," says Ghanti, who is making three gigantic Trinamool symbols for despatch to Berhampore in north Bengal. "Those cost Rs500 each," he says, pointing towards 9ft-tall luridly painted flowers and blades of grass, the election symbol of West Bengal’s main opposition party. "In the districts, the voters aren’t impressed by the flex stuff," he says.
The artisans say that the Left Front, which comprises four parties, has placed more orders than opposition parties such as the Congress and the Trinamool Congress, which have joined forces this time to contest the polls. "For every 10 Congress or Trinamool symbols, we get orders to make 30 hammer and sickles," says Ghanti. Because Left parties such as Revolutionary Socialist Party and Communist Party of India have a strong rural base, they continue to place more orders at Rambagan, says Dutta.
Not only has volume dwindled, even margins have shrunk. "Paper, bamboo, glue, paint and wires have all become more expensive, but the parties bargain hard and worse still, at times, don’t pay," says Ghorui.
These artisans make a lot more money ahead of assembly elections, and during the Durga Puja and Kali Puja festivals in autumn every year. That’s when they do brisk business. "That keeps us going for the rest of the year," Ghorui says.
The artisans of Rambagan insist that they be considered at a par with the idol makers of Kumartuli, also in north Kolkata, for whom the state government has initiated a rehabilitation programme under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission—a city modernization scheme funded by the Union government.