This year, I happened to be in Kolkata during Dussehra holidays. The city was bedecking itself for the ten-day long festival with puja pandals being set up everywhere. I was eager to see idols of the Durga puja being handcrafted, so I ended up at a place named Kumartuli.
It is a Kolkata neighborhood located on the banks of the river Hooghly and lies to the north of central Kolkata. Kumartuli or Kumor Tuli, literally means “potters’ quarter”, ‘kumar’ being a potter or artisan. Over time, it has morphed itself into a leading place for sculpting of idols for most major Indian festivals. This place today, is famous for its sculptures of the Goddess Durga (or Shakti) and even exports to a number of countries.
I had to peer close in order to not miss the narrow lanes of Kumartuli, where reside the sculptors and their masterpieces. Most number of artisans reside on the winding lane of Banamali Sarkar Street. Its location is key to the fact that all idols of deities are cast in the clay found on the banks of the river Hooghly also known as ‘ganga-mati’ or the soil of the river Ganges.
The soil also has another important aspect. The soil from the river is mixed with a handful of soil from the doorstep of a prostitute with her blessing also known as ‘vaishya-mati’. Most people I spoke to abided by the tradition and mentioned it as being a ritual to include all members of the society in the puja or even purging of their (prostitute’s) sins. It is an integral part in the creation of the Durga idols and no idol is created without this soil.
The sculpture is first cast on a framework of straw and supporting beams depending on the final size of the sculpture. A 12-foot structure is made of 1,500-2,000kgs of clay, which includes the – Durga, her escort – a lion, the demon Mahisasura, a cobra in his hand and a buffalo, which is his escort. The sculpture is then left to dry till it develops slight cracks. After this, it is covered with a thin cloth and a final round of sculpting take place before it is painted. The paint is usually mixed with the flour of tamarind seeds, which lends it a gummy texture, thus helping to hold the sculpture better. It is then decorated with various pieces of fine cloth and accessories.
There are various styles of decoration of Durga idols. Some of the well known ones are: Bangla, Art Bangla, and Dhakershaaj – where idols are decorated with fine white Shola or Indian cork made from the Sholapith plants found in marshy areas. A large number of sculptures are adorned with real clothes, while some have clothes sculpted on them and then painted. The variety of sculptures and the diversity in features is astounding!
As I sit by a sculptor deep in a meditative trance etching fine details into a mane of the Lion, a fine drizzle starts. The entire neighborhood is startled into action and scurry about to cover the sculptures with tarpaulin. The rains have been relentless this year. Being a cyclone-prone area, Kolkata has been facing a heavy rainfall in the weeks leading up to the Durga pujas, owing to a cyclonic storm on the Bay of Bengal. The idols, which would have been dried on its own, now need to be either flame dried or blow dried, both of which come at a heavy price for the sculptors. The artisans have been working round the clock to ensure that deliveries are made on time before Navratri.
Most artisans are old, some in their third generation of sculpting. I meet Pradip Pal, who is having his lunch and invites me in. In his dark workspace, under the light of a single bulb, stands his grandson framed by the idols. His grandson does not foresee a future in sculpting and is studying for an alternate career. There is sadness in Pal’s voice when I ask him if he desires to see his family tradition continued. Pal recounts his ancestral legacy, a time when kumars (artisans) were invited into the house of the wealthy to cast a Durga Pratima (idol). Being a houseguest, kumars would create the idol in front of the household awe everyone with their skills. Today, these spaces are gradually losing their legacy as children of sculptors choose other careers, top among which is the software profession.
The narrow lanes of Kumartuli turn muddy with the rains as the ganga-mati mixes with the dust on the streets, the squalor of the place and its small habitats spills onto the street. And in their midst, rises mighty sculptures of the goddess Shakti, with her numerous arms lording over a slain Mahisasura. She looks calm and ferocious, beautiful yet frightful all at once and inspires awe. As the muddy hands sculpts each feature and paints each line with the care and respect of the maker one cannot help but fall in love with all that transcends the pure beauty of creation.