Carving flowers on wood, and praying for a better future Lockdown has robbed Birbhum’s furniture industry of its sheen, the artists are slowly turning into migrant labourers

25, Oct 2021 | Mohammed Ripon Sheikh

The highly skilled carpenters of Paikar and Murarrai areas of Birbhum were once much sought out for the durable, and beautiful wood furniture they made. Now, along with thousands of daily-wage labourers, they find themselves in a precarious situation. They still make beautiful wooden furniture, but there are no buyers. Most of the adults of the area were employed in the furniture making industry, and very few moved out as migrant workers. Things were good, the income was good, however, that is all a distant memory now. “Before lockdown” is how they recall the good old days. In the past year, the sudden loss of work forced many to move to other states, risking their health in the process.

Safiq Sheikh, a resident of Kathia village, was one of them. He began working the day he turned 18. At first he painted flowers and different designs on the finished wooden furniture. Over time he honed his carpentry skills and today is regarded as “a perfect craftsman”.

“I was very naughty as a child and didn’t study beyond class eight. However, even though I did not study, I was able to learn the work because I was focused,” says Sheikh, who is so popular that many came to learn from him. Most of his former trainees have their own shops.

CJP’s Grassroots Fellowship Program is a unique initiative aiming to give voice and agency to the young, from among the communities with whom we work closely. These presently include migrant workers, Dalits, Adivasis and forest workers. CJP Fellows report on issues closest to their hearts and home, and are making impactful change every day. We hope to expand this to include far reaching ethnicities, diverse genders, Muslim artisans, sanitation workers and manual scavengers. Our raison d’etre is to dot India’s vast landscape with the committed human rights workers who carry in their hearts Constitutional values, to transform India into what our nation’s founders dreamt it to be. Please Donate Now to increase the band of CJP Grassroot Fellows.

However, he says that though the demand for “design work” has increased across the country, it is very difficult to get wood for making furniture at the moment. It is interesting that even though furniture is now being made and sold by various corporate houses, the demand for wooden furniture has not decreased at all. According to the locals, even though the furniture of other sophisticated companies is beautiful to look at, it is not durable. Most buyers trust the durability of wooden furniture, though the demand for new designs is also increasing. However, the number of artisans has not increased. It takes around six years to learn design work, almost always as ‘unpaid interns’. As a result, many youngsters want to find work in other states as migrant workers.

A skilled craftsman masters ‘design work’ after many years of practice, and once employed as a “full-fledged design mechanic,” can earn around Rs 18,000 to Rs 20,000 per month. Assistant mechanics get a salary of Rs 8,000 to Rs 9,000 per month. However, it is the owner of the design shop who takes work orders, decides the price and then gets the work done by his artisans. Therefore, the end price is determined by the owner based on the designs made. The more flowers and details on the furniture, the higher the price. A bed with designs can cost between 10 to 20 thousand rupees, a sofa set can sell from eight to 10 thousand rupees. The money of course goes to the shop owner first.

The artisans do not have any direct dealings with the customer, but they know that the profit is pocketed by the furniture shop owners. However, the artistans cannot complain, especially now, as the market is slow and owners are not able to pay their salaries on time. Sometimes even the artists are not available as many have migrated to work as labourers. Those who stay back, say they need sophisticated woodworking machines but they are too expensive to buy.

The artists know the problems they are facing. It is the solutions that seem to evade them at the moment. For now, they continue to create the designs they have inherited  from generations before them, and hope that things get better before it’s too late.

This report is part of CJP’s Grassroots Fellowship Program, and has been written by researcher Ripon Sheikh, who is travelling around rural Bengal, tracking and documenting social and cultural movements of indigenous people.


Meet CJP Grassroot Fellow Mohammed Ripon Sheikh

Ripon Sheikh

This young man, who has graduated with a B.Sc degree from Burdwan University, loves trivia. Sheikh’s passion to research and seek “unknown information about World History” has earned him many medals and trophies at various University and state-level Quiz championships, and youth festivals. Sheikh is a born orator and a natural community leader. He has the potential to represent his community, state and country at a global level one day. His immediate goal, however, is to find a job so he can support his parents.


Jute farmers, and their fields of gold

CJP Impact: Churki Hansda goes from being called “Dayan” to “Di”

What happens when a ‘school’ drives to the students?

How Sunderban’s Honey Collectors fight all odds to earn their living

Will the 125-year old Bolpur Poush Mela be held this year?

Fighting to keep the pottery industry alive


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Go to Top
Nafrat Ka Naqsha 2023