Debu left Murshidabad about eight months ago. Today he is in Kumartuli, the hub of Kolkata’s idol-making industry, kneading the clay that goes into making the idols that will form the focus of the festive season. He puts in over 18 hours of work a day and lives along with 15 other migrant labourers in temporary sheds crammed with the highly inflammable stacks of straw, paint, cloth strips etc.
His family has been left behind. When he returns home many months later, he hopes to be able to take back some money with him that will pay for his child’s schooling, repay some loans and see him and his family through the few months till the next puja.
The entire exercise of creating idols starts months in advance. Right after New Year, orders start trickling in. Once the harvest is over, the idle farm hands are hired to assist expert craftsmen. After the sowing period in May-June, there are many more idle hands and hungry mouths. Idol making, with the festive season just a few months away, offers them some hope.
The festive air that accompanies the puja is a far cry in the labyrinthine lanes of Kumartuli, where craftsmen work nearly round the clock. The small community of about 12000 craftsmen swells to over three times in the last minute run-up to the festival.
No delay can be tolerated, since a couple of days later, the idols are not even worth the clay they are made from. Shaping the lump of clay into exquisite works of beauty, are scores of hands that work for pathetic wages in tough conditions.
An experienced hand like Debu, who has moved up to a supervisory position, earns a handsome Rs 150 - Rs 200 a day, while people like 16-year-old Jitu, who is just an apprentice is forced to stay content with just two meals and a corner to fall asleep in sheer exhaustion.
It will be a few years before he sees some real money for his labour. He manages to earn an odd Rs 10 or Rs 15 as the festival draws near by carrying the idols carefully to the tempos. Extra sheds hastily put together with polythene sheets to protect the idols-in-the-making, straw, paint, clay, jute and rags from the vagaries of the weather and petty thieves, also serve as shelters for the labourers.
They all stay here, packed like sardines in highly inflammable surroundings. “By the time we finish work and have our spartan dinner, we are too exhausted to be fussy about our living conditions,” says Debu, who makes it a point to find employment in Kumartuli every year. A careless stub of bidi can start a fire yet there are no fire extinguishers or any kind of insurance.
Constructing the idols is an elaborate, painstaking process, done carefully one step at a time. The perfection required is so great and the orders so vast that each group of artisans does just one part of the idol. The real experts do the final painting and actual shaping of the form.
Debu has to ensure that each stage of idol-making is perfect and complete. There can be no retracing of steps as a bad job will mean an abandoned idol and pay cut.
A lot of raw materials are required to make a statue. Wood, bamboo, straw, different kinds of clay, to name a few.
“The price of all raw materials has gone up but puja committees refuse to pay a decent price,” he complains. Some idols cost as much as Rs 1,50,000 while others sell for as little as Rs 5,000. Some women and children manage to make the smaller idols to go with the Durga image and earn some additional money.
But this is irregular money since most sculptors like to make the whole pageant themselves. It is only when the puja draws near that such hasty makeshift arrangements are made to meet deadlines.
Such small idols are also in demand for the other pujas that follow where not much splurging is in evidence like the Lokkhi, Kali, Kartik and Saraswati puja. The lower rung of artisans manage to freelance during the Biswakarma and Saraswati puja but by and large the clients are few and erratic and all the kneading and modelling yields little money.
Depending on the number of artisans, a single idol could take anything between seven and 20 days. It is a long and tedious process and requires a lot of expertise. First, the bamboo has to be tempered. It is soaked for nights so that it becomes pliable enough to stretch. They are then cut in various shapes and sizes to make the basic frames or the skeletons for the idols.
The more mature bamboos are not soaked. They are used to make firm platforms for holding the colossal idols. The first form of the idols is made from damp straw stiffened with bamboo strips and jute is tied around the bamboo frames.
This basic structure is allowed to dry thoroughly and then the first layer of ‘tissue’ is added to this basic shape. This is done by applying the first layer of clay. The first layer has high water content, since it is used to fill in the crevices and gaps in the straw-bamboo framework. It has to be done in such a manner that the basic structure ‘soaks’ in enough clay to keep out air pockets. This has to be done meticulously since careless work can lead to cracks.
One set of workers just soaks and dries the bamboo strips which is then cut to size and shaped by another. Another ties the straw with jute. An experienced sculptor will then dab the clay to give a fleshy form to the skeleton.
Clay is kneaded to just the right consistency by another set of men. The clay is applied in three layers. It would entail not just a great loss of such hard labour and time but be considered inauspicious, if the idol of the goddess were to be flawed or damaged.
The next layer of clay is firmer and the clay used to make this dough is extremely fine and sieved several times to remove impurities and granules. It has to be patted into shape with expert hands. This is the layer that gives the image the right curves in the right places.
The clay mixing and applications are done by another group and finally the head, palms and feet are done by the highest graded artisans. The palms, face and feet are made separately and attached. The assembling of the various parts of the idol is crucial. This has to be done with care so that the joints do not look awkward and also remain firm.
Finally, fine pieces of muslin dipped in watery clay, brought from the Ganges, sieved and mixed to a smooth consistency are applied like strips of bandage. This is done to strengthen the joints, especially of the palms, the face and feet. It fills the cracks that develop after drying and give the idol a smooth surface. All this has so far has just created the basic idol. There is a long way to go before it takes the form one finds in the pandals.
A great deal of skill goes into making the face and head of the idols of Durga as well as those of the other idols. It is generally done by the highest graded artisans. The face of the idol used to be traditionally made from the clay brought from the house of a prostitute, but nowadays, just any fine clay is used.
Most idol-makers have long ago abandoned this exercise and most buyers are not particular about such practices as long as the idol is good and delivered on time.
The artisans make the head of the goddess with fine clay, creating each feature with great care and skill. This piece of art when completed is dried. Liquid Plaster-of- Paris (POP) is poured over it to create a mould. On drying, the mould is then separated from the clay head. This mould being hollow is then used to create innumerable clay heads for the idols.
Each sculptor tries to give a personal form to his idol. In fact the work of the better known sculptors can be identified from the faces of the goddess. On completing the clay structure the figure is painted with the first layer of white colour.
The eyes are then painted and other details done by the main artist. The idols are then varnished to protect the paint as well as give sheen to the figure. Hair made of jute is glued and then the idol is dressed and ornamented.
Separate teams work similarly on different idols including those of the demon and the lion. The entire set of idols then comes together to create a pageant at the pandal. Right through the process the chief sculptors not only have to supervise each individual idol, but have to ensure that each of them is in perfect proportion to the others and matches them in looks and form.
Sometimes the buyers dress the goddess in clothes and ornaments from their own collection at the pandal.
The goddess is now ready to be formally installed in a stirring ceremony along with the other mandatory idols.
But for all the ethereal joy the artisans may derive from this art, they do not want their children to join the profession. Long hours, trying working conditions and poor wages do not make for a great legacy.
But that is not all. Many artisans do not get paid even after Bijoya, the last day of Durga puja. Once the idols are taken for immersion, the organisers are often nowhere to be seen and wrenching out pending payments from them is near impossible.
“In some cases they offer us the jobs of making Kali puja and Saraswati puja idols to keep us from pestering them, after making a small token payment. This really puts us in a dilemma . We can neither refuse the order nor pester them for payment. Very often even after the new orders are delivered, we are still chasing organisers for payments,’’ laments Bishwanath Pal, who is yet to receive payments for four sets of idols delivered last year and two this year for Biswakarma puja.
“Many organisers, in fact, hire a new sculptor every year so they are not chased for payments,” he says. Someday hopefully, the joy of the puja will be shared by those who help create it.