Pottery, as every archaeologist would agree, is a building block of civilisation. Along with arrowheads and numismatic evidence, shards of clay are signs of ancient endeavour. In a culture where religion is embodied in idolatry, there is an unbroken line of tradition in the fine art of modelling clay figures of gods. If goddess Durga, who emerges from her mountain abode with her children in early autumn for a few days amongst earthly devotees, represents the grand panoply of the divine family, Calcutta is the city where she gets the most fulsome homage through numerous offerings. To shape, then animate with near-life, idols for 4,000 Durga Pujas in the city, the expert artisans of Kumartuli toil for months. There, along the Hooghly in north Calcutta, in narrow, mud-splattered lanes and tarpaulin-walled workshops are fashioned the enraged agony of Mahishasura, the snarling lion, the fierce-eyed majesticity of Durga and the beatific Lakshmi, Saraswati and Kartik.
Here are snatches from the last stages of their finished craft: as a turbaned karigar ministers to a crowned Devi, a cat, ignoring her kindred lion, picks Ganesha for a curious probe; artisans elsewhere chew the cud, eyes alert for distraction; smoke coils upwards from a charcoal burner—necessary for cooking as well as drying the wet clay; a latter-day, calendar art Durga, accompanied by slokas, isn’t far from obtaining her ten-handed beneficence. And that much-celebrated final moment of enlivenment: in ‘chakkhudan’, where an artisan delivers the final touches to the goddess’s eyes.
The twin blows of Covid and cyclone Amphan have dealt bitter blows—smaller, cheaper idols are in demand, amid a short supply of labour. But, undeterred by corporeal impediments, work continues apace in this, the grandest clay-modelling enterprise in the world.
Photographs and Text by Sandipan Chatterjee