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Kumortuli – renowned for its sculpting prowess on clay idols in Kolkata

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At a time when monsoon got over winter is yet to set-in, the rivers get into dry with blooming of Kasatandi (Saccharum Spontaneum) flower marks the arrival of Autumn Season, gets ready to welcome Goddess Durga. Across the country, everyone gets into a festive mood, celebrating Navratri with Garba, Dandiya, and Durga Puja. The popular festival of Durga puja in Kolkata celebrates the spirit of love, laughter, and life. Lakhs of people throng the streets both from within as well as outside Kolkata to visit different pandals and view idols of Durga.

The festival of Durga Puja is not just about celebrating the goddess but also about the different forms of art, craft, and traditions associated with it. Among one such community without whom the Durga Puja celebrations are incomplete are the potters of Kumortuli; these potters work day and night to create the clay idols to be worshipped during the Durga Puja. Kumortuli (kumor meaning potter and tuli refers to easily walkable localities within a quarter or half a mile) is a traditional potters’ colony in northern Kolkata. Potters treat these colonies as their place of living as well as a workspace. Yet how did this neighborhood come to exist?

A casual walk around the potter colonies and watching the men in action is like being drawn into an enigmatic dance between the creator and the created. However, it is difficult to say who creates whom? It is like giving birth. Every time a child enters the world a new mom is also born. Everyone cannot help but wonder, does the spirit and power of the Goddess channel itself into the craft of these craftsmen? Otherwise, is it that they create the idols with intent & craft so pure and pious that the ‘Divine’ feels channeled into their creations.

To know the answer, one has to go back some 300 years to Krishnanagar, a small city in Nadia district of West Bengal, renowned for its clay-modeling industry. Indeed, Clay-modelers of Krishnanagar are said to be descendants of immigrants from Dhaka, Bangladesh. In the times’ Maharaja Krishnachandra’s rule in Nadia, the practice of idol worship grew, which in turn called for potters and craftsmen from Dhaka. And the same clay modelers came to Krishnanagar and started living around a place called Ghurni, which is near to the river Jalangi (also called Khoray), so potters could easily procure the clay they needed. Gradually, Ghurni grew up as potters’ colony in due course of time.

In the year 1606, Durga Puja seems to have been celebrated in Krishnanagar by its royal family. Raja Nabakrishna Deb of Shobhabazar Rajbari (king’s palace) in north Kolkata, inspired by Raja Krishnachandra, started the tradition of Durga Pujo at his family home in 1757. Kirsnanagar is the place, from where the skilled kumors were brought to create idols of the goddess—this was the genesis of Kumortuli. Skilled kumors slowly started settling in Kumortuli by the Hoogly riverside.

Durga Puja in Bengal was celebrated only by the zamindars initially, so the work of the craftsmen was mostly seasonal and they would make other clay items to sustain themselves. The fame of Durga Puja rose during the British rule when Hindu reformists identified the mother goddess with the nation and the number of Durga Puja celebrations increased from the early twentieth century onward. In this day and age, Puja was also celebrated at a community level and reflected through the baroyari (12 friends) tradition, which derives its name from puja performed by 12 people of Guptipara in Hooghly district. In later years, the term sarbojanin (community) replaced the word baroyari.

The community puja which was held for the first time in Kolkata dates back to the sarbojanin puja at Balaram Basu Ghat Road in 1910. Over a period of time, the number of Durga Pujas grew steadily and the number of kumors in Kumortuli grew to keep pace with the demand for clay idols. For eking of livelihood, many migrant workers from Krishnanagar and other parts of Nadia moved to Kumortuli and living permanently there. Even today, Today, idols made here are also imported by Bengali communities in countries such as France, England, the USA, and Germany.

The community puja which was held for the first time in Kolkata dates back to the sarbojanin puja at Balaram Basu Ghat Road in 1910. Over a period of time, the number of Durga Pujas grew steadily and the number of kumors in Kumortuli grew to keep pace with the demand for clay idols. Most of the migrant workers from Krishnanagar and other parts of Nadia moved to Kumortuli to live permanently there. Even today, idols made here are also imported by Bengali communities in countries such as France, England, the USA, and Germany.

Process of Idol Making

The Craftsmen

The idol making process is much tedious, demanding a multitude of skilled and unskilled activities. Skilled workers are assigned specific jobs. Like some workers only draw the eyes on the face of the deity, in a process called chokkhudaan (offering eyes). Others create hands from moulds or are assigned the task of coloring the idols. On the other side, some craftsmen only assist the main worker.

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The worker’s wages range from Rs 500 to Rs 10,000 depending on the work and the working hours of the laborer. As the work is mostly seasonal, wages also depend to an extent on the work schedule. For the workers, the active period for workers is July to January or February, and the busiest is August to October, the main festive season of Kolkata.

In the course of peak months, laborers engage in extra hours of work, and their wages are increased slightly. So, also increase in wage, ranges from Rs 50 to Rs 200 per day, depending on the work. The skilled workers also provide informal lessons to budding artists and sculptors. Students from various colleges, visit the studios and watch the skilled workers sculpt.

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Normally, only men engaged in the craft of idol making. Most of the craftsmen strongly believe that women should stay at home and only indirectly assist their male counterparts by cooking for them during their work hours. This thinking is also guided by the belief that meyere Mayer jaat (women are akin to goddesses) and should not engage in any form of business that requires them to step out and toil to earn money. Nevertheless, the situation is changing and, today, many women are carrying forward their father’s or husband’s business.

In the year 1990, women craftsmen such as Mala Pal and China Pal entered the business. From the age of 15, Mala Pal got into idol making, because of the financial hardships following her father’s death. Initially, she assisted her brother Gobinda Pal but gained recognition after she was called to exhibit at the National Handicrafts and Handloom Museum, New Delhi. Mala Pal recollects this event as a turning point in her life. Mala Pal today works with a team of seven to eight people and specializes in miniature Durga idols that are shipped to destinations such as Germany, France, Canada, and the USA.

Similar is the journey of China Pal. After her father’s demise in 1994 just before the pujas, she has been in the profession for more than two decades without any formal training in the art, so there were hiccups in the beginning. Yet, China says, she always had a knack for it. Working with her father’s team, helped her to learn the art of sculpting. China Pal’s father specialised in ek chala (idols with a single background) idols and she carries forward the legacy. Now, she has her own group of artisans and also trains new idol makers. China Pal’s idols are shipped abroad and she is invited to exhibit her work as well.

Types of Idols

Various types of Durga idols are created in Kumortuli, but the two main categories are ek chala and do chala (with more than one background) which developed much later and out of necessity. As stated by local legend, in the year 1937 or 1938 a huge fire in the puja organised by Kumortuli Sarbojanin Puja Committee destroyed the Durga idols. Help poured towards committee members, a kumor named Gopeshwar Pal created new idols overnight, breaking away from the traditional style of ek chala and adopting the new do chala design.

Other than the backgrounds, there are other distinct differences among the idols. The art is a combination of features from traditional and modern Durga idols, is five to 14 feet tall, and decorated with zari or solapith (thermocol). Modern Durga idols are the least expensive. Contemporary Durga idols are the least expensive. There is also the ‘Dobasi Bangla’ type (decorated with zari or sola), the ‘Khas Bangla’ type (five to eight feet tall and decorated entirely with sola), and ‘Ajanta Ellora Durga’ (made entirely of clay).

The Stages of Idol Making

The process of making an idol can be categorised broadly into three stages. The initial stage is making the kathamo (bamboo and wooden frame) for the idol, the second is preparing the mud and applying the clay, and the third is colouring and decorating the idol.

In the first stage, making the kathamo, involves buying wood and bamboo from the market, cutting and joining them with pins, or tying them together with ropes to build the skeleton structure. The sculpting begins only after kathamo is worshiped and a few rituals are performed by those who take the idols back to their pandals. After completion of kathamo, it is tied with straw to give it a rough shape of the idol.

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After that, the process of applying mud by the Kumors to the straw framework of the idol begins. Here the mud used is a mixture of clay (brought from the riverside in Uluberia village because the sand content is lower than in the banks of Hooghly) and water. The workers craftsmen stomp on the mud with their feet to remove impurities.

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After that, the process of applying mud by the Kumors to the straw framework of the idol begins. Here the mud used is a mixture of clay (brought from the riverside in Uluberia village because the sand content is lower than in the banks of Hooghly) and water. The craftsmen stomp on the mud with their feet to remove impurities.

Once the body of the idol is ready, the face, palms, and fingers, which are separately made, are put together. Due to the huge demand for idols, these parts are made from moulds as they reduce the time spent in making shapes over and over again. The idols’ face is made with crisp clay and rubbed with paper to give it a polished finish. Then the idols are then colored and decorated.

Kumortuli – renowned for its sculpting prowess on clay idols in Kolkata5

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Problems

Over the years, Kumortuli has absorbed changes in the art of idol making and in the lives of the people associated with it. The three centuries old neighborhood in Kolkata has experienced political, social, and cultural changes that have significantly impacted its urban landscape. In spite of being one of the most significant creative clusters in the city, it faces various obstacles that stand in the way of its expansion and growth—a major challenge being housing. The places of workshops, commonly known as studios, are arranged linearly along the lanes, adjacent to each other. The studios are open on to the lane behind the residencies physically interlinked so that they cannot be separated from each other; their usage is also very much interconnected.

Throughout the festive season when work goes on day and night, many craftsmen from nearby areas migrate to Kumortuli for work, and the nature of their work demands temporary residency. Two types of housing patterns are there in Kumortuli- one is single-storeyed, with the workspace and inner residential quarter separated by a courtyard, and the other type is a double-storeyed building, where the basement is used as a workspace.

Occasionally several potter families share houses and workspaces, at times with common washrooms. And these residential rooms are also used as storage spaces to keep the idols or products used in the idol-making process.

Many of the craftsmen live in rented houses, with the threat of eviction a constant at any given time. As they are temporary residents they cannot make changes to existing structures, even though most of the workspaces in Kumortuli are in a state of disrepair. Few Some studios also have erratic electricity supply; the craftsmen work in low light and as idol-making requires minute detailing and precision, it takes a toll on their eyesight. During the festival time, the problems of the kumors increase, when they struggle to keep the idols they make in one place, given the size of their quarters.

The shortage of space also goes against their need to work together and they often have no choice but to spill on to the streets. And the difficulty problem is compounded when it rains—the idols then have to be dried out. Considering the space crunch in the workspaces, many of the idols inside are kept outside and covered with tarpaulin. And when they get damaged, the craftsmen incur huge losses.

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As the number of puja pandals that celebrate Durga Puja is increasing every year, so does the demand for idols is also increasing, but problems of housing and workspace do not allow for this. Towards this end, the government of West Bengal, initiated a housing project under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) aimed to provide better infrastructural facilities to the workers by improving housing and workspace conditions.

The master plan to build houses for artisans, with the ground floor as working space and the upper storey as residential space. And these houses were to have proper concrete walls, with a solid roof and proper sanitation facilities. Due to this purpose, the existing workspaces were to be demolished and the kumors temporarily relocated. With this master plan, some studios were brought down and the workers shifted to Golabari, a building belonging to the Food Corporation of India.

Right after the first phase of implementation, the project came to halt for political reasons. Besides that, many craftsmen were reluctant to move base because they feared losing out on the spatial benefits that their peers in the old place would still enjoy. Now the craftsmen also feared being alienated from the other workers as well as losing customers. But craftsmen could also see the long-term benefits of such a programme’s successful implementation because they understood that the future of idol-making as art perhaps depends on steps taken now. Or else, with the seasonal nature of their art and the deplorable conditions of living and working, the day is not far when idol-making would become a dead art.

Above all, it is an art that is handed down generations and usually learnt in the family; in a world of fast-changing technologies and low profits for traditional idol-making, how would the kumors convince their younger apprentices to follow the art? For the moment, idol-making is running on the undying spirits that kumors have for their art. In the end, it is the best delicacies that can treat craftsmen’s taste buds, the art of creation, the perfection that is carved, fills up his soul and gives him the utmost happiness.

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