The art of carving miniature statues of deities was introduced among Bhakats (disciples) within Sattras during the time of Shri Shankaradeva himself. Hence, the tradition of carving miniatures of gods, goddesses and their incarnation has been carried on through several generations by the Bhakats of Sattras. Some exquisitely carved figurines can be still seen in some Sattras of Majuli. Wood-carving was one of the fields which in direct response to the movement and the cult of bhakti began to flourish as a major form of art of the people. Guided by an impulse to decorate the places of worship, the local artisans created stylistic variation in the medium of wood. Availability and easy accessibility of wood in the local environment provided support to the development of the art form. It was started and praised by Madhavadeva at the first community prayer hall at Barpeta and flourished side by side the Sattra beside other art forms.
The wooden objects in the Vaishnavite shrines were closely linked with parallel developments in literary tradition. The objects were visual accompaniment to the general literary tradition. The persistent belief around the objects was that they were representations of eighty out of eighty one categories of bhakti that the human beings could visualize on earth5. This was the reason for the display of the objects in the shrines. Wooden idols of Dvarpalas (gate keepers), Jaya, Vijaya, Hanuman and Garuda are seen in almost all the Namghars in different Sattras. Figures of gods and their incarnations seated on their vahanas are usually carved on the door panels and beams of different structures inside a Sattra. Apart from wooden figures, decorative items like Gocha (decorative lamp stand), Chal pira (decorative box bed) and utility products like Khundana (small mortar for pounding betel nut mixture), Tamuli Pira, Dukhari Pira etc are also made by Bhakats in a Sattra as a part of their daily activities from locally available variety of timber in the Sattras.
Like timber, bamboo has a versatile use and plays significant role in rural economy of the people of Majuli. The people of Majuli inherit the knowledge of utilizing diverse bamboo species for different purposes. Different parts of bamboo i.e. roots, stem, leaf etc. are utilized for different purposes. The most versatile use of bamboo is construction of houses in villages, boundary fencing, some local musical instruments (such as flute, takda, Gaganna) and paper making. Bamboo cottage industries are found in the rural area as they produce household items including utensils such as bamboo baskets of different sizes and shapes, bamboo fens, table, chair, bed, bamboo mate, fishing instrument such as polo, Juluki, Jokai, Khaloi, Karahi, Pasi, Dola, kula, saloni, etc. Agricultural appliances such as Moi, Nagal (plough), kathia tum, tomal, mer, duli etc. are also made. Bamboo craft and cane works are the main handicraft trade in Majuli. Bamboo is used to make a variety of objects of daily use and decoration. This craft is practiced by both the Bhakats and the other communities also to make items of daily use.
SOCIAL SIGNIFICANCE OF WOOD CARVING
For the understanding of the social significance of the display it would be necessary to look at the areas to which the embellished objects belonged and which greeted the eyes of the beholders. We can break up the areas as below:
The entry apse serve as a decorative adjunct to the hall and therefore it drew the attention of the artisans of the past for further decoration with carvings in wood. As a matter of fact the principal door along with the vertical jambs, the lintel and the threshold became the immediate choice of the artisans to embark on decoration. The biographers of the Vaishnava saints relate that the first community building built at Barpeta were embellished with creeper designs at the entrance door. It is also reported that the artisans carved the figures of Jaya and Vijayatwo semi-divine deities and installed both at the door as dvarapalas. The principal door is also called simha-duwar for it contains the motif of a lion at the centre of the door lintel. The symbolism of lion corresponds to God in His omnipotent Name (nama) and the Vaisnavas of Assam conceived the form of Narasimha to illustrate this.
The huts belonging to the Bhakats in spite of their preference for humble living generally possess a single-shutter door containing carvings - floral, vegetal and geometric devices of the local idiom. It has been a practice in some Sattras to decorate the crest of the doors in the prayer-hall with a kapali (like an ornament for the forehead) depicting one of the seven Vaikunthas in molded silver.
The walls of the kirtan-ghar constitute the major areas for the display of wood-carvings. Earlier the walls were made of reeds neatly plaited in innumerable compartments inside flat pieces of wall battens. Each wall was divided again into two horizontal segments - the upper and the lower and was placed in such a manner that adequate vacant space could be provided for display of carved panels in wood. The setting of the panels in the vacant space would make a bend-like girdle in the walls. Sometimes isolated panels of vertical dimensions interspersing the girdle would create a break, pleasing to the eyes, in the linear rhythm of continuous friezes. Sometimes holes were made in the negative spaces in the panels to facilitate air and light inside enabling the visitors to have a look inside the hall.
The carvers derived their subjects mainly from the Bhagavata-Purana and the Ramayana and occasionally from everyday life of the people. They were mostly devoted to illustrating the ten avataras of Vishnu and the Lila scenes belonging to the childhood frolics of Krishna. However, they were not as much concerned with the iconographic details of the child God as with the depiction of the drama of his frolics. In this context, a figure of diminutive size and the titbits of costume here and there would subscribe to present the image of Krishna.
The sattriya artisans were meticulous in their treatment of the avataras of God. They had a distinct programme of carving the avatara figures as visual accompaniment to the literary tradition and embellished the walls and the doors of the shrines whenever they found scope for their treatment. These figures were carved sometimes in high relief and sometimes in the round. The method followed by the sattriya artists in carving sculptures was one of deep incision inside the wooden panel. It is known as charaikhuliya in which charai and khuliya stand for bird and carving respectively: it is similar to the woodpecker's method of digging holes in the tree. In this method, the uncut portions of wood remain raised to give the pattern of the objects. All objects require to be executed in two distinct phases. The first phase is called kondhowa meaning slicing off the surface in flakes. In the final stage further work is done upon the patterns to give finish to the objects. Thereafter the sculptures whether relief or in the round are painted with color.
The intensive practice of carving sculptures in wood was primarily a phenomenon of the sattras which conceived the technique, a style and the subjects of carving. Nevertheless, the art gradually spread to the village level, although it did not develop equally in the grand scale of the Sattras in the embellishment of the village namghars. Each of the Sattras in the past maintained an atelier of artists, which the village namghars lacked. These artisans were professional scribes, master painters, designers and make-up men in the traditional theatre and sculptors, besides being the carpenters responsible for building constructions. Moreover they were psychologically more closely associated with the intellectual development of the sattras, which supported them in creating something grand in whatever medium they took to work.
In Majuli, both these crafts are practiced by the Sattras and local communities. Some Bhakats who have proficiency in this art are referred to as khanikars. Wood and bamboo variety that is locally available like bambusa balocooa, bambusa tulda, bombax ceiba and mimosops elangi is used for making figurines and utilitarian articles. Majority of the rural economy depends on the usage of bamboo and wood, hence it can be assumed that a large section of population knows how to use these materials in a traditional manner.
The change in use of architectural materials for construction of the Namghar in the past few decades from traditional materials to brick and cement has had a telling effect in the context of wood carving. The result is the total disappearance of carving activities from the society barring the instances of Barpeta Sattra and one or two other sattras in and around Barpeta, where the walls in the prayer-halls have been amply decorated in the past century with objects of wood in continuation of the tradition of the past.
MATERIAL RESOURCE BASE
Cane and other plant species are found to grow well naturally in the peripheral area of the beels. Cane (Calamus spp) species are found to grow as climbers of the other plant species. Plant species such as Lagerstroemia purviflora, Bombax ceiba, Dillenia indica may also be used to make bamboo and cane products. Clinogyne dichotoma, Typha angustifolia, Fimbristylis dichotoma of the wetlands is widely used for making different categories of mat of commercial importance. The availability is in plenty, both inside the Sattras and on the island as the growth of the material resources required for this craft is supported by soil and climate of Majuli.