The conch and shell crafts of Bangladesh are famed throughout South Asia. During the last five centuries, Dhaka, situated on the banks of the river Buriganga, has been renowned as the centre of highly skilled shell carvers, commonly known as Shankharis or Shankhabaniks. A distinct community, their products are in demand not only within Bangladesh but abroad as well. The master craftsmen of Shankari Patti produce high quality products known as Sankha. These ornaments are richly decorated with carvings, coloured with lacquer or inlaid with bands of gold.
The products crafted from the conch-shell include exquisite hair bands, bracelets, rings, lockets, pendants and amulets, ear rings and necklaces. Delicate bangles are also crafted from conch-shell and are essential part of a Hindu woman’s trousseau. These are embellished with notched edges or diamond shapes along the centre.
TECHNIQUE AND PROCESS
The shells which are considered ready for cutting are usually fully formed and quite large in size. For the best quality product, ideally only one bracelet should be cut from each shell, but generally the artisan crafts two to three bracelets and rings from the same shell.
The tools of the trade have remained unchanged over the centuries with a very large, heavy, curved saw being used for the carving of the shell. Despite its unwieldy size the saw is handled with ease by the artisan who use its weight, balance and shape to deftly carve the conch. Holding the conch between his feet, as though in a vice, the artisan proceeds to cut the shell into the required shape and size. Some of the bracelets are quite broad and thick while others are slim and delicately formed.
To pattern and decorate the sankha products files and drills of different sizes are employed. Popular designs include multiple replications of strings of fish, doves, conches, geometric motifs, notched edges, diamond shapes and often a makara (mythological animal) at each end. The designs are often highlighted with red or green lac dots. For wealthy clients the bracelets are also decorated with thin gold bands which are set into previously cut grooves, usually in a diagonal pattern.