By Sujata Raghavan New Delhi [India], Nov. 2 : Fish is synonymous with Bengal, its cuisine, its culture. The fish markets in cities, towns and mohallas across the state reverberate with a kind of energy, a joie de vivre that reflects the pride of place it has in Bengali homes and establishments.
But what of the enormous waste material that fish markets produce, the piles and pieces that are inedible and thrown away, such as volumes of fish scales? To the gourmet, of course it is only the fish that matters, but to Pushpa Bhakat, a diminutive figure, about 34 years old, gracefully flitting in and out of fish markets in Nutanganj, Burdwan district, it is fish scales that are a draw.
Coming from an impoverished family, this talented young woman secured a degree in Visual Art and Craft from the University of Burdwan in 2007.
She looked forward to her life and career, full of hope and confidence. Her father having passed away at an early stage, she knew she had to take care of the family, including her mother and younger siblings -three sisters and two brothers.
However, she soon discovered that life was not a bed of roses. Opportunities to pursue her talent and earn a living looked bleak. It was at that time that she became conscious of the immense potential of an unwanted, by-product of the Bengali's favorite food- fish scales.
The variety corresponds to the variety in fish itself- Rui Maach, Katla. The shopkeepers in her mohalla know her well and though some of them charge her a nominal amount for the stuff, most are happy to let her have it.
And from this emerged her unique art form - fish scale art! There has been no looking back for Pushpa.
Jumping into the fray with a passion, she has allowed her imagination to soar, experimenting with products and styles to convert the diverse material to an array of products including jewellery, lamps, wall hangings and decorative items.
Combining an artistic eye with nimble fingers, she tenderly examines the particular characteristics of scales from a wide variety of fish.
The process is an excruciating one involving a thorough washing using acid to soften the scales, rubbing sandpaper to make them pliable and moulding, shaping them by hand -giving rise to myriad designs she first draws on paper.
One of the exhibits is the chariot of Arjuna with Krishna as the Charioteer. It is detailed, delicate in ivory white and resplendent. Then there are long stalks of roses made from fish scales, elegant, each petal taut. Each stalk she says takes four days to make but rues that the market price just about covers costs. Despite the seeming delicacy of the products, she smiles, "You can bathe with it, sleep with it on and go about your day's routine without a problem" and adds "And what is best is that it is made of natural material, not the plastic that you see around." Pushpa is a State Award Winner in 2012 and 2014 given by the Government of West Bengal.
Her work has caught the notice of Development Commissioner (DC) Handicrafts, Burdwan, opening avenues to exhibit her work in the state and outside such as Goa, Bihar and metros including Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata.
Yet it has been a lonely climb. Despite all her efforts to provide for her family, settle her siblings, while opting to remain single, Pushpa feels a lack of understanding and empathy.
The family faced a tragedy recently when their mother diagnosed with cancer passed away. Pushpa who has spared no effort in getting her treated and caring for her mother in every way-- feels bereft today.
She recalls, her voice quivering, "Even when I was travelling to participate in the prestigious Surajkund International Craft Mela in Delhi in February this year, no one from the family came to drop me at the railway station." It was a particularly nightmarish experience because several of her products were damaged in transit.
Although a setback, she quickly rallied round and on reaching Surajkund, piece by piece, scale by scale, she carefully recreated the works of art.
What was heartening was that she did a fairly brisk business at the Mela! Along with a creative mind, Pushpa has honed a sound business sense.
Conscious of moving with technology, she first invested in a laptop and went on to develop her website (http:fishscaleproducts.tradeindia.com/).
She is now keen to get a Barcode for her products, saying "With a Barcode, a product that is now sells for Rs.250 can easily fetch Rs.700".
Pushpa is conscious that packaging is central to display, visibility and ultimately to better sales. In addition, packaging can act as a protective cover to her hand-crafted products. She is keen to enroll for a course by the Indian Institute of Packaging, an autonomous body under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry.
Further, she is keen to get insurance for her products -- small, steady steps to ensure that she is able to pursue her creative work while securing her products.
As she gently and yet persuasively caters to a customer, a young college lecturer choosing from a stunning array of long earrings, Pushpa's eyes light up and she talks with an unmistakable passion for her work.
This is the life that she has chosen and this is her journey towards creative fulfilment, personal commitment and professional achievement.