The mango season was in full swing. Bela, my husband’s mother, sat in the courtyard with a basketful of mangoes and squeezed the juice out of the fruits one by one, and spread it over oiled clay moulds. Layer after layer the juice was applied, till the coating on the moulds was sufficiently thick. Then the moulds were placed on a plate, covered with a muslin cloth, and left to dry under the sun. She was engaged in preparing ‘aam-shotto’ – translucent, golden, sweet and sour wafers, a little sticky to the touch. Two four-inch diameter black clay moulds were carved with narrow concentric circles, crisscrossing each other to form flower shapes, edges neatly framed by a garland of dots. Another in a trefoil shape, formed by three joined roundels, resembling clubs in a deck of cards, each circle carved with a flower. An ochre clay mould was in the shape of a leaf or a boat. Bela was preparing a parcel of aam-shotto, mango wafers stamped with beautiful designs from moulds, for her grandson in the US, pining for home food at his college. He would have them as snacks or soaked in milky cereals to evoke the flavour of mangoes from home.
Our beautiful Bengali dessert moulds or chaanch
Those afternoons, 30 years ago, were the last time that the mango moulds were used in this house. On one of the black round moulds, traces can be seen of mango juice, which had fused into the clay. I have inherited forty of those moulds, made of wood, clay and stone; Bela having passed in 1997. The few craftsmen who still practice this art of carving moulds, catering to the sweet making trade, all from one Calcutta market, now use only wood. In Bengali these moulds are called ‘chaanch’.
Aam-sotto or mango wafers were made on moulds at least a handspan size. More variety and ingenuity are lavished on smaller chaanches, used to create designs on ‘sondesh’, dessert made with cottage cheese in Bengal and everywhere that Bengalis have settled. Mixed with jaggery or sugar, fragranced with cardamom, slowly cooked over a low fire. When thickened, snowy white and soft, they would be pressed into the pre-oiled chaanch. Cooled and carefully prised away from the moulds, they would come out in conch shell shapes or flowers or butterflies. The melt-in-the-mouth sondesh continues to be a popular dessert for Bengalis. Innovation in taste has even introduced chocolate and orange flavours. The recipe allows for much variety. Grated coconut not being as soft as cottage cheese, but grainy, is pressed into wooden moulds. In winter, when jaggery made from dates becomes available, a soft pink shade of sondesh is produced.
Commercially, for weddings or family celebrations, large sondesh volumes are made to order. Commonly, these are shaped as fish, a fertility symbol, or butterfly, a symbol of matrimony. The forty moulds I have are however meant for home kitchens, with geometric shapes dominating.
My husband’s grandmother and his great grandmother had carved parts of this set of chaanches by hand. Grandmother Kadambini, Bela’s mother, was born probably around 1860 and died in 1942. Retreating further into the nineteenth century, to imagine the great grandmother’s time seems a mindboggling task. They lived in the district of Mymensingh, now in Bangladesh, then East Bengal of Undivided India, in the early years of the twentieth century. Their innate aesthetic sense and an impulse for artistic expression led to the creation of these moulds. They were matriarchs presiding over large households. Ceaselessly busy, keeping every aspect of the household machine running smoothly, only their afternoons were freed for such artistic creations. In a way, today I hold the heirlooms of a family nearly a century old, an enduring symbol of feminine creation.
Within the prosperous household of a jute merchant, Jagadish Guha, the women practiced, all those years ago, the best principles of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle.’. To repurpose worn-out, broken materials, to fashion objects of beauty and utility out of available materials – the ingenuity of these faraway ancestresses fills me with admiration and deep satisfaction. The famous ‘kaantha’ quilts of Bengal reflect the same tradition. Fashioned by nimble fingers, out of layers of worn-out saris, distinctive close stitches, embroidered with threads drawn out of borders, to stave off the mild winters of Bengal. Like the chaanches, these were once part of the everyday life of Bengal, and are now in decline, as are many traditional crafts.
This restorative tradition in the case of the chaanch relates particularly to the ones made with stone. Offerings of fruit or sweets to gods were made on stone or brass plates and bowls. In time the stone plates would break. The pieces were not thrown away, but shaped and smoothed into different pieces, carved with flowers, geometric designs. It must have taken dexterity and strength to carve those stone pieces. I was told that the sharp knives used by barbers, called noroon, were used.
In my inherited set, the stone shapes are light coloured. There are 18 of them. Two are carved with geometric designs. I regret not asking Bela, why these are bowl-shaped, and whether they were used to make rather large-sized sondesh or something else. Two small triangular clay chaanches, with designs on a side and with small stems sticking out of them, like official document stamps, may have been used to imprint decorate motifs on large balls of cottage cheese.
There are also four wooden chaanches, in two pairs of simple design. When the cottage cheese was pressed between the paired wood chaanches, the sondesh would emerge with a pattern on both sides, unlike the other chaanches, which made sweets printed on only one side. The wooden chanches were used especially for grated coconut sondesh.
There are 24 clay moulds. These are mostly black, with a few in brown. There are more variety of shapes and designs here: ovals, crescents, circles, leaf-shaped, conch shells. The smooth riverine clay of Bengal was pliable. The clay would be kneaded, then formed into the desired shapes. With the noroon, flowers, leaves, abstract designs, and names would be carved. All this to be done gently, as the clay was malleable. The damp moulds were dried in the sun. The final stage was to bake them in fire. According to the degree of firing, the colour varied from black to brown.
Some more chaanch – carved on clay
In traditional Bengali households, every meal ended with dessert. Sondesh – soft, light, non-oily – was served at all the four important meals of the day. Elderly relatives, especially widows, were invariably a part of such joint-family households, where the sons lived with their parents, with their families, under the same roof. These small milky sweets were ideal for them, with their variable dentition, as they were for children. Served with a brass tumbler of water or lime drink, they could be served to visitors. No wonder there were basketfuls of these chaanches in all shapes and sizes in the Guha kitchen.
During the long pandemic days, I read Bela’s diary. Here she has written, in the context of praising her very talented mother, ‘My father had a craze for inviting people for food at home. He would get mother to cook delicacies, especially dessert. Very proudly, he would declare, all this has been cooked at home.’
Every day, large quantities of sondesh were prepared, requiring boiling cauldrons of milk from the family’s cows, turned into the raw ingredient, cottage cheese. First to be served was the head of the household, or ‘korta’, accompanied by other male family members according to seniority. The main meal with numerous dishes being over, a plateful of sondesh would be served. This is where the rationale for the aesthetics in the design of the chaanch becomes evident. The variety of flavours, designs, sizes presented before the korta, the elder sons, sons-in-law created a display of affection, prestige, appreciation. The diner might help himself to a single piece, but each person was served with a plateful. Women vied for attention and admiration for their craft from their menfolk. These were a home-bound, somewhat literate womenfolk. Their lives centred around their children, relatives and the men in their lives.
There are nine chaanch in my collection which have names or words carved on them. Except one made of wood, the rest are of clay. These chaanch with letters, I view with specific admiration. The women carved the letters or the words in mirror image. So that when chana was pressed into them, the words and names when unpeeled on the sondesh would come out correctly in bas relief.
Six of them are names. My husband’s maternal grandfather, Jagadish Guha awarded the honorary title of Raibahadur by the British, was an important exporter of jute in East Bengal in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Both his mother and his wife Kadambini lovingly inscribed his name on three oval chaanches. There may have been more, but these few fell to Bela’s share. The pride of the women in the success of their man shines in the inscription ‘Shrijukto Babu Raibahadur.’ Shrijukto is equivalent to Master or Esquire in English. Another says ‘Shrijukto Babu Jagadish Chandra.’ The third one is heart-warming: ‘Jai Jagadish.’ Jagadish, or Lord of the World, the Almighty. Also, the first two words of a popular prayer in Hindu worship. One discerns a faint humour, in conflating the name of the head of the family, the ‘korta’ with God’s name. Kadambini also made a chaanch in the name of her eldest son, a barrister trained in London: ‘Shrijukto Babu Hemanta’. Sons-in-law were accorded deference too in those days. Bela’s eldest sister was married to, as the oval chaanch reads, ‘Shrijukto Babu Jatindra Guha.’
A little clay tablet says simply, “jolopan”, a common enough inscription for sweets, as it means refreshment. The inscription carved on the single wooden mould is, however, intriguing. It says ’obak’, or ‘surprise’. Was the sondesh shaped out of that chaanch, cooked with some unexpected flavour or material, intended to surprise the person served? Perhaps the maker of the chaanch and the dessert was confident that the perfection and skill of her creation would astonish the diners. Delightful to imagine: such communication, humour arising out of mundane routines of food-making and serving.
The last mould with a carved word is one that says ‘mataram’ – mother. This is significant. Bengal in the early twentieth century was in tumult with the ideas of anti-colonialism and independence. In that early period, nationalistic emotions concentrated on imagining the nation in the figure of the mother. A famous song in Sanskrit, ‘Vande Mataram’ (‘Hail to thee, Mother’), now venerated as the Indian ‘national song,’ became a rallying cry for the independence movement, and was banned by the colonial government. It is possible then, that love for the nation and reverence for Bengal’s ritual deity the goddess Durga, had coalesced into such a powerful wave, that it flowed into the interiors of conservative homes. The women, responding to the prevalent mood, stamping their feeling into their creation of the moulds, pressing their reverence deep into their daily preparation of mishti, sweetmeats. In a way, they show their awareness of the appeal to save Bharat Mata, defying the colonial prohibition, and signalling to their men their duty.
Shonali Charlton, 2022
Writing in her diary in the 1990s, Bela says her mother would have been 125 years old if she were still alive. Nearly a century and a half now in 2021. At a distance of so many years, and in terms of physical distance, travelling from Mymensingh, in a far corner of East Bengal, to Allahabad in the North Indian plains, where my husband’s family once lived, and then onwards to Delhi where Bela’s husband would find a job at the university, these moulds have survived. It is wonderful that they were used at every one of these stops on their journey. Bela kept her inherited skills intact and we were fortunate to have tasted the sweetness of sondesh from her hand. As I contemplate their shapes, one or two already chipped, I wonder where the journey of these chaanch will end. A few perhaps onwards to my daughter in U.K., to be preserved as kind of heirloom or to a museum for posterity? Wherever they go, let the lore they carry leave their imprint on other hearts.