Balagarh, 115 km north of Kolkata, by the Hooghly, is the heart of Bengal’s indigenous boat manufacture. The locus is Sripur market where the boat makers and workshops still uphold a centuries-old tradition. The craft is at least 500 years old, with the boat makers of Sripur getting a mention in the writings of Abul Fazal (1551-1602), one of the Nine Gems of Akbar’s royal court.
That was a time when rivers carried the majority of goods traffic and Kolkata and Mumbai did not exist. The major port was at Saptagram on the Saraswati, a distributary of the Hooghly connecting directly with the Bay of Bengal. It was about 20 km south of Balagarh and Bengal’s merchants used it for trade with Sri Lanka, Burma, the Indonesian archipelago and other places.
The demand for boats was immense and Balagarh’s craft plied every part of the Mughal Empire’s richest province, which included today’s Bihar and Odisha along with the old undivided Bengal.
These days the primary markets for boats from Balagarh are Bihar, Jharkhand and neighbouring Bangladesh apart, of course, from Bengal itself. In 1952, Balagarh rolled out its first motor boat and, next year, the first motor vessel. Today it is an industry in decline but there are some 25 small workshops providing a living for about 150 families. Just 30 years ago there were 75 workshops. These are highly skilled workers, but they make a meagre Rs 200 to Rs 300 a day, the going rate for unskilled work. So a large number of people have migrated to other states, even the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Many work as boat repairers along the Hooghly and in the Sunderbans.
The workers may be skilled but they don’t use modern technology. The tools are the same as those used 500 years ago. Measurements are still made with string and stick, the result checked by experienced eyes. The end product, however, is precisely engineered and even the most fastidious can find no flaw. But the quality of the wood used has certainly gone down. Previously, it was teak and sal, which lasted decades without trouble. Nowadays cheaper wood like babla (acacia), sirish (raintree), jilapi (Ganges tamarind) are used.
The main spine that grows slowly into a boat is called the ‘daNra’. The planks are shaped by heating and pressing, then placed side by side and fixed by small iron nails. Measurements are taken at each step. When the work is done its accuracy is crosschecked and any extra parts are axed or sawed.
A boat is measured by “hands”. One hand = 45 cm. Boats may be from 10 hands (15 feet) to 28 hands (42 feet) or more. They are used mainly to transport sand, coal, etc., or for fishing and ferrying people. But the trade is no longer viable as the margins are so small. A 10-foot boat takes three to four days with two craftsmen and requires an investment of Rs 7,000. The sale price is just Rs 8000. This is driving down earnings and causing flight of labour and capital. But the workers continue to hope that their skill will not die out.