Idol makers of Kumartuli

Festive fervour

Idol makers of Kumartuli

The narrow lanes of Kumartuli are where Kolkata’s favourite goddess is born each year. Ranjita Biswas revisits the abode of artists who make Durga Puja, the city’s biggest festival, possible...

The monsoon rain is still in form but Bengalis are already getting ready to celebrate the autumn festival of Durga Puja, their biggest festival dedicated to the worship of the incarnation of Shakti. While frenzied shopping, speculation about which puja pandal theme will be a winner this year and holiday plans add to the excitement, the idol makers at Kumartuli also get into a tizzy as the deadline for delivery looms ahead. Kumartuli in north Kolkata is the hub from where hundreds of Durga idols travel to different corners of the city and suburbs.

At this moment, when you go to the area, chock-a-block with images, half done or just begun, jostling for space on the narrow lanes, it is difficult to imagine that these frames would dazzle with their beauty and decor a few weeks from now. Numerous makeshift karkhanas (workshops) with bamboo scaffolds, heaps of straw, lie cluttered here and there in preparation for shaping the models of the 10-handed Durga, flanked by her sons and daughters, Ganesha, Karthik, Laxmi and Saraswati stand imposingly over the demon Mahishasur whom she destroys.

The artisans usually work in eight-hour shifts, but just before the puja, when the whirl reaches a crescendo, they work all-through the night with overtime pay.
As the last touch, the eye of the goddess is drawn, locally known as drishtidan, traditionally on the day of Mahalaya, a week before the beginning of the actual puja (Saptami). This is the day when the goddess is supposed to descend on earth from her abode in the mountains. Bengalis fondly call it the daughter’s annual visit to her parents’ home.

Changing traditions
Today, however, this is a ritual many do not follow, or cannot wait till Mahalaya, due to the urgency of delivery to some 90-plus places across the globe where Bengalis celebrate the festival with equal fervour. The artists have perfected the technique of making the images in fibreglass, which can be dismantled for easy transportation and then assembled. The plywood boxes are made to order so that the parts can fit into the groove. So Kumartuli too has evolved with time.

Many of Kumartuli’s artisans are hired from villages in West Bengal as early as spring for the season. For the rest of the year after the Kali Puja (Deepavali) they may be working in fields for the harvest or some other part-time jobs. Many of them are Muslims too and are particularly good at making the ornaments for the idols.
The potters learn the skill almost instinctively and by observing the master artisans at work, how they measure the geometric proportion of the hands to the face of the goddess indicated by protruding thin bamboo sticks. Where have the masters learnt such finesse without going to formal sculpting schools?

From belonging to traditional potter families, they say. Kumartuli is almost as old as the 300-plus-year-old Kolkata. Although there is no recorded evidence, it is believed that traditional clay artisans from Krishnanagar in the Nadia district of West Bengal settled here after the introduction of community pujas.

First they had settled in the village of Govindapur in the mid-18th century and then shifted to Sutanuti. Since boats plying along the Hooghly carried clay and straw, it was convenient for them to settle down on the banks of the river. As the three villages Sutanuti, Govindapur and Kolikata merged to form the city of Kolkata, the British named it Calcutta, the artists’ colony came to be known as Kumartuli or ‘the abode of the potters’ (kumar in Bengali means a potter). The potters from East Bengal (later East Pakistan) joined the original settlers. Many of these artisans’ families came over from villages like Bikrampur in erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) during the Partition.

One can even distinguish the origin of the families to the land they come from their surnames. For example, the artisans from Nadia are identified by their surname Pal, while those from erstwhile East Bengal are identified as Rudrapal. Then there are the craftsmen known by the name Malakar. The Malakars used to make ornaments — daker saaj out of shola (white pith from a water plant) and gradually took to making idols too. The clay today basically comes from the banks of the Hooghly. Also, in Kumartuli, there is a strict division of labour. Some only mould the idols, some do the painting while some prepare the adornments. But when all of them assemble, they seem as if made by the same artist.

Legends & lores
There are many legends around Kumartuli. Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was once president of the local Durga Puja committee. Then there is the story of how ekchala style (all the idols in the same platform) changed. Years ago, there was a fire in Kumartuli and with puja only a few days away, the famous sculptor Gopeswar Pal separated the idols and placed them individually. The style soon caught public fancy. However, in the last few years, with emphasis on tradition, there seems to be a visible preference for ekchala.

Durga Puja celebration today is more of a community affair than individual one, at homes of the rich as it used to be, though some old families are carting on the tradition of barir pujo (household puja). The community puja, or baroari puja of the common people is said to have started in 1790 when 12 friends decided to conduct a puja in Guptipara in the Hooghly district, and they raised funds from neighbours too.
The community puja has been a boon to Kumartuli. Almost every para — locality, holds one and that means more idols. Besides, there is a great competition among the community pujas with the trend of corporate houses sponsoring awards in various categories. This has also launched experiments in the design of the idols and adornments. Many second generation artisans of Kumartuli are students of the city’s art colleges and the influence is noticeable in many ‘arty’ experiments, which people go to see and comment on. Some of these experimental idols are so beautiful that they are not immersed on the dashami or Dussehra day, as per custom, but a smaller version made in the traditional style is immersed; sometimes museums or collectors buy them to conserve for posterity.

To sustain themselves in the lean season, the potters have  turned into producing clay toys, decorative items etc which are in demand at local shops and fairs.
There have been plans by the government to convert the traditional Kumartuli para into a dedicated space built in concrete, and offer better facilities, but the artisans rue that they have been hearing it for years and “nothing has been done.” Meanwhile, for Kolkatans, Kumartuli’s image is still that traditional locality in north Kolkata with narrow walkways where potters turn clay into magic idols.

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