It was the first time that I ever experienced the very unique and artistic Netsuke exhibited in the Indian Museum. The Consulate General of Japan in Kolkata in collaboration with Indian Museum, Kolkata (Ministry of Culture, Government of India) and The Japan Foundation organized an exhibition to focus on contemporary wood-carved netsuke.

Netsuke is a non-slip toggle that has been used since the Edo period (1603-1868) to secure the small personal items such as money pouches, inrō (medicine containers), or tobacco containers worn suspended on cords from the kimono’s obi showcasing subtle and highly artistic skills.

The exhibition that was open to all was inaugurated by Consul-General of Japan in Kolkata, Mr. Masayuki Taga and Director, Indian Museum, Kolkata, Mr. Arijit Dutta Chowdhury.

The small size of the Netsuke says very little till you go close and see them very carefully. Amazing artistic carving on wood speaks volumes of carvers who have also named each one of them in accordance with the culture and beliefs of the place. I went through each one of the displays often going back for a second look. The one that caught my eye was MokuchuYatsugi (Ebisu) 32x1.9x4.1 cm made from boxwood. Ebisu beams with joy. Originally a sea god in charge of fishing, he later became the object of devotion as god of business prosperity.

Another netsuke that caught my eye was the very beautifully curved Bokusen Takagi (skull) made from boxwood 5.7x3.0x4.3cm. The contrast between the oddly humorous dinosaur skull and the small human skull is intriguing. The natural wood and the beauty lodged in netsuke with the passage of time was worth the time I stood there admiring each piece of work.

I learnt that the materials most often used for netsuke from the eighteenth century to the 1930’s were boxwood, ebony, Japanese yew and other hardwoods. Other than wood ceramics, metals, bone, bamboo, crystals, tortoiseshell, coral, glass and a variety of other materials are also used. The themes were mostly legends and folklore, imaginary creatures and deities, plants with wood as the material, animals, the human figure, special twists on classic motifs like frog, octopus and other subjects.

Some of the exhibits were daring new approaches with sensibility that made each display unique and stood out for what it was. There was KomaHitomi (Forever with you), 3.9x3.4x4.7 made from Prumussalicina,stag antler and ebony. It was a lovely naughty puppy which was sculpted in this netsuke made of the wood of the sumomo tree (Prumussalicina), an unusual material. Then there was this fascinating MabuNakakaji (Horned owl) made from castello boxwood and crystal 3.6x3.4x4.2 cm size. The inlaid crystal eyes of this netsuke of a horned owl make a penetrating impression. It was carved of castello boxwood from South America.

The fascination of wood netsuke lies in their warmth and gives the appeal. There was a netsuke Masahiro Saito (Western dog) 4.7x2.7x4.1 made from boxwood. It was a charming long haired dog which was the subject of the netsuke. What fascinated me was that the artist had captured its energetic movement.

Only when you looked closely could you see the beauty of each netsuke and it was clear that the carver was an artist with eye for detail and knew the material very well. The warmth of the topics and themes was naturally displayed in each of the netsuke that was on display in the museum. As a viewer of the exhibition it was an experience to remember.

Photo courtesy: Japanese Cosulate, Kolkata