The old man’s face lit up as he talked about his boyhood when he learnt the craft of making boats from his father. “Chhot” boats ruled the rivers of West Bengal then, before they gradually made way for motorised boats. (The word “chhot” means “to run”; chhots were designed to cut through deep waters with speed.) Panchanan Mandal is one of the last traditional makers of the river chhot boat. It has been more than 30 years since he was commissioned to make one and over 10 years since he and his sons were asked to make any new kind of boat at all. The boat-making business is in the doldrums.
The traditional river chhots with oars and sails, in their heyday in the 1960s, had enough power and balance to “drag much bigger boats into the depths”, said Mandal. “It is only repair and redesigning work that we have been doing for the last decade.” He has taught his four sons to make the boats but is certain that no one in the family will enter the trade after them.
In his home in Dihimandal Ghat village on the eastern bank of the Rupnarayan in Shyampur block of Howrah district, Mandal spoke of a time nearly 60 years ago when the river had depth and the chhot was in demand: “Those chhots ruled the rivers during those times. They would never waver no matter how choppy the waters or how rough the winds.” The riverbed has silted up over the years, and the V-shaped structure of the chhot can no longer negotiate its shallow waters.
Mandal’s powerful physique and graceful movements belie his 74 years. He said he was 16 when he started working with his father. “He taught me everything I know about building boats. Since then, all I have been doing is making and repairing boats, though no longer the chhots of my youth,” he said. He remembers a time when the boat makers of his village and the surrounding areas never needed to go out of the region for work.
“From Dihimandal Ghat to Anantapur [in Tamluk in Purbo Medinipur district, roughly 10 km away], there was so much demand that we found it hard to complete our assignments and had to give them away to other workmen. People from Digha [a coastal town in Purbo Medinipur] would come and have boats built here and sail them away. But now it is a struggle to get work,” he said.
Mandal’s eldest son, Amal, said he and his brothers travel to Digha or Tamluk, on the other bank of the Rupnarayan, to find work.
There is no historical reference indicating how long chhot boats have plied the rivers of Bengal. Yet, the making of chhot boats is a traditional skill in families and has been passed down over the generations.
It used to take around 40 days for five people to build a chhot, from identifying and getting the wood to finishing the boat. Old-timers remember that chhots were once made of sal and teak but in later years they had to make do with wood from the khirish, arjun, and babla trees. Mandal explained that different kinds of wood are used for different parts of the boat. “We use neem wood for the mast, and if that is not available then we get babla. We pray to the wood and then cut it in size.... We heat the wood on a fire and then start joining the pieces. First the mast and the base have to be fixed,” he said.
Boat makers were usually in demand between April and September. Mandal remembers that in his youth, he and his father’s team would make at least six boats in a year and as many as 12 in good years. “The cost of manufacturing a chhot was around Rs.5,000 to Rs.6,000, and we would be left with a net earning of around Rs.500 [over Rs.40,000 in today’s valuation],” he said. The last traditional chhot that Mandal built 30 years ago took Rs.60,000 to build, and his wage was Rs.450 a day. It was the only chhot he made that year.
Other boat makers and boat owners of Shyampur block confirm that most of the work done these days is maintenance and repair on existing boats. Madhusudan Mandal, 55, has never used a traditional chhot for his fishing business but he remembers riding on one as a child, He bought a used chhot, which had to be redesigned before it could be used. “It is no longer anywhere near a chhot now,” he said.
- Panchanan Mandal is one of the last of the chhot boat makers of Bengal.
- Boat-making is becoming an endangered skill and it has been 10 years since any boat has been built in Shyampur, once a boat-making hub in south Bengal.
- The families of the boat makers know there is no future in the trade and the younger members are staying away from it.
- The last of the traditional chhots built under the international project Material Knowledge Programme lies rotting from neglect.
The anthropologist Swarup Bhattacharyya, who has been researching the boats of Bengal for the last 25 years, told Frontline that Dihimandal Ghat and its surrounding area was a boat-making hub for very long.
“Around 100 years ago, at least a few hundred boat makers lived in this area. The Rup-narayan was a deep, strong river, and there was a huge demand for chhot boats. Boats are constructed on the basis of the character of particular rivers, and rivers like Rupna-rayan have changed their character for both geographical and anthropogenic reasons. They have lost their depth, and fish populations have been declining. As a result, boat making is becoming an endangered activity,” Bhattacharyya said.
Gopal Barui, a boat maker from Amberia village, does not remember any boat being built in the region for more than a decade. Barui admits that life is harder now and work scarce. “Like the other boat makers from this part, I learnt my trade from my father, and in turn, I imparted that knowledge to my son. But I don’t think that after him there will be any more boat makers in my family,” he said, as he repaired a boat he had built more than 10 years ago. The next generation is already seeking jobs in other fields.
The very last traditional chhot lies rotting at Amberia, a few kilometres from where Panchanan Mandal lives. It was constructed last year by Mandal, his four sons, and oth-er boat makers of the region as part of the British Museums’ Endangered Material Knowledge Programme (EMKP), under a project undertaken by the University of Exe-ter, UK, and the Central University of Haryana.
The programme gives grants to support the documentation of material knowledge systems that are under threat and in danger of disappearing.
The beautiful reddish-brown hue of the newly built boat has turned white now as it lies exposed to the elements. Swarup Bhattacharyya, who was involved with the project as a collaborator, explained that the boat was supposed to have been displayed at the upcoming National Maritime Heritage Complex at Lothal in Gujarat.
“They were supposed to take the boat as soon as it was finished on November 10 last year. We have contacted them time and again, but they have not yet collected the boat,” said Bhattacharyya.
The entire region was excited when the project was under way and they saw the video cameras recording the construction. Now, it has become a standing joke among the residents of the surrounding villages as they ask Mandal when the boat will be taken away, but there is also disappointment lurking behind the joke.
Sk Supiyan Rahaman, a local doctor, said: “It is really sad to see this beautiful thing going to waste like this. We all know how much love and hard work Panchanan da put into it.”
The internationally renowned archaeologist Vasant Shinde, who is adviser to the Mari-time Museum and was a co-investigator in the EMKP project, explained that it was ver-bally agreed that once the chhot was built, it would be put on display at the Maritime Museum. The proposal was also accepted by the Ministry of Shipping, he said. “The museum is still being built at Lothal. But in the meantime we have requested the Indian Port Association, which is helping us develop the Maritime Museum and which has an outfit in Kolkata, to acquire the boat; and once the museum is ready, it will be trans-ferred from Kolkata,” Shinde told Frontline.
For Panchanan Mandal, this was the last boat he would ever make. Constructing it brought the old man enormous joy, but now he is saddened every time he looks at it. “I am not making any more boats. My eyesight has become weak and I am not as sure of the balance in my hands. I have a reputation in the boat-making community and I do not want to jeopardise that by making any mistake,” he said.