Kumartuli: Where Mortal Hands Shape Divine Features

While Kolkata prepares for grand celebrations after the city's Durga Puja is inscribed on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, take a peek at the old artisan's colony in the northern neighbourhood to see how the idols are made

At the artisans' colony called Kumartuli in Kolkata

It took a while to get used to the world that I had stepped into that morning. I picked my way past slushy drains and garbage heaps,  avoiding collision with a man carrying a tray of upturned clay faces, jumping aside when a woman tipped her bucket of dirty laundry water onto the road. Steeling my nerves with the thought that people such as Raghu Rai and Raghubir Singh have roamed these lanes camera in hand, I marched through Kumortuli.

Tucked inside north Kolkata, Kumortuli or Kumartuli (or the potter’s abode) is a maze of lanes and by-lanes where deft hands mould clay to give shape to divine forms. Rows of idols in various stages of completion stood inside the dark workshops. In about three months, these rudimentary frames will emerge as the ten-handed Goddess Durga standing over a lion in her demon-slaying pose, her long spear piercing the evil Mahishasura. Her four children stand on either side – Ganesha and Lakshmi to her right and Kartikeya and Saraswati to her left, each on their own mount.

It is amazing to see how the craftsmen painstakingly create the marvellous idols out of mere clay.

People in the workshops have little time for small talk. Somewhere, frames are being hammered into position. Some people are busy kneading the clay. In some workshops, craftsmen stood on scaffolding, shaping the various body parts or applying paints. In between the workshops were small shops were trinkets, ornaments and weapons were being shaped out of foil and tin.

A couple of elderly craftsmen shooed us out of their work space. Explained one friendly guy, Kumortuli has always been a great attraction to photographers, both from home and abroad. But earlier, they were serious enough not to disturb the workers or move extremely cautiously in the narrow space. Now, the increasing band of photographers, especially those who go click happy on their cell phones, barge into the workshops, often breaking off pieces of the painstakingly built idols in their rush. So the artisans are often forced to stop them from entering.

Making the idols is a tedious job. Work usually begins in mid-April after propitiating Lord Ganesha. The wooden frames on which the idols will be cast are worshipped too. Then the frames are wrapped with specially cut straw.

Then clay is kneaded to the right consistency. The pounded ‘etel maati’ or sticky clay is mixed with rice husk and applied over the straw. This process is called ‘ek mete’. The idol is then left to dry. Cracks appearing on the surface are smoothed with strips of cloth and once again layered with clay. This is followed by a second application of fine-grained clay called ‘bele maati’ and the process is known as ‘do mete’.  This is a tricky job. Because it is the application of the second layer that gives the smooth rounded feeling and the plastic finish of the idols. 

The faces of the idols are separately cast and attached to the frames. The image is once again left to dry.

Next comes the colouring. Usually, a sticky layer of tamarind seed paste and water soluble white paint are applied as the base coat. Then comes the body colouring, which can be flesh, golden yellow or pearl. Followed by the varnishing. The hair, usually of nylon, is then attached. Finally, clothes, embellishments and ornaments are added.

In one of the workshops, I was surprised to see a frail old sitting atop a ladder and drawing the eyes of the goddess while the younger folk stared in awe. Belying his age, the hand that drew the stroke was firm and sure. Drawing the eyes of the Goddess is a delicate task, which is often left to the master craftsmen, a young artist explained.

Sometimes, the entire idol is fashioned out of clay, including the hair, the clothes and the ornaments.  Each stage has to be completed by hand and painstakingly executed with neither the time nor the room for rectification.

Most of the artists in Kumortuli agreed that drying the idols is the biggest challenge. As Durga Puja is held just after the monsoon, the idol-making has to be completed during the monsoon. The weather is damp. The rickety workshops spring leaks. Drying and protecting the idols becomes difficult. “Sometimes we have to use blowers and lamps to hasten the process,” said Niru Pal, an artisan.

Although the settlement of idol-makers and clay modellers is almost as old as the city, it turned into an industry with the introduction of community pujas, sometimes during the early 20th century. The community, usually consisting of families who hailed from Nadia (a district in West Bengal famous for its clay art) in the mid-18th century and from pre-partition East Bengal (now Bangladesh), chose to settle down here, near the bank of the Hooghly river, as the main raw material – straw and clay – used to be transported by the river, a tradition that continues even today.

Sadly, even though the idol makers of Kumortuli play a key role in the Durga Puja, they are a beleaguered lot. Most community organisers spend a lot on the marquees (locally known as pandals) and illumination but cut cost when it comes to paying the idol makers. Sometimes, the craftsmen set a high price. But as the festival approaches and the idols remain unsold, the craftsmen have to lower the price.

The style of the idols has also changed over the years. Traditionally, the image used to be cast on a single platform with one semi-circular ‘chalchitra’ as the background. According to records, in 1932, master craftsman Gopeshwar Pal, broke away from tradition and placed the idols on separate platforms with their individual ‘chalchitra’. Besides clay, the idols may also be crafted out of shola pith.

Remembered octogenarian Nani Pal, “There used to be a time when we would be asked to make the face of the goddess resemble some famous movie heroine.” In the 70s and 80s, there was craze to make idols from shells, coins, matchsticks, fish scales or whatever took the fancy of the organisers. Today, it is the ‘theme’ pujas that have added to the competition, said Pal. Community puja organisers now employ artists from the art colleges to craft idols in keeping with the ‘theme’.

Since making idols of gods and goddesses is a highly seasonal job, for the rest of the year, the artisans make statues of famous personalities, decorative pieces, etc. Earlier, the tradition of image-building used to be handed over from one generation to the next. Prices of idols are not in keeping with escalating costs with the result that traditional crafts-person are opting out of trade, only to be replaced by ‘roaming’ craftsmen. Now most workshops have to hire temporary help to complete the job. “We used to put a part of ourselves into the idols as we painstakingly shaped our Ma,” lamented Pal. “Today, this is looked upon as just another job. So you won’t find the mark of the liveliness in the images.”

Note: Before embarking on a photography tour of Kumartuli's workshops, check at the artisan society's office, if you need to take special permission by paying a fee.

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