14 May, 2021

The Dingi’s Despair

Bengal’s boat-making hub waits for the tide to change, a tailwind to sail through tro ubled waters

A mistry hard at work in Balagarh
Photograph by Sandipan Chatterjee
The Dingi’s Despair

The staccato thump of the hammer breaks the springtime silence of a bamboo grove by a languid, humid Hooghly—in Balagarh, about 75 klicks from Calcutta. Streaks of sun pierce through the foliage and light up a row of boats. Some on stilts await the varnish; some are just wooden ribcages like the one 65-year-old craftsman Sheikh Ashraf Ali is hunched over. Ali’s craft is afloat and awash with history, but the centuries-old tradition of making wooden boats could soon die out as the demand for such vessels is disappearing rapidly. Balagarh’s Shreepur Bazaar, the boat-making hub of Bengal, is a timeless ­island amidst strong currents of change. “We are struck in a trade possibly at its last leg,” laments Ali, the mistry or the master boatwright.

Ali and his crew are making a ‘dingi nouko’, a fishing dinghy, the likes of which founded the trade in Balagarh in the early 16th century. “Adi Saptagram, a few km downstream, used to be busy river port in medieval times,” says Supriyo Barik, co-owner of NBC Boat Manufacturing...

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