Durga Puja: Hands Of Clay - The Idol Makers of Kumartuli

By Arnab Chakraborty / IBNS

Kumartuli, the idolmakers’ quarter in old Kolkata, remains a  symbol of continuity of Bengal’s 250 year old craftsmanship and culture revolving  round the annual Durga Pujo. TWF correspondent Arnab Chakraborty  walks through the clayey lanes back in times.

Kumartuli, Kolkata, Sep 26, 2011 (Washington Bangla Radio / IBNS) One day this September I embarked upon a journey through the age old lanes and the clay muddled pathways of Kumartuli that houses hundreds of artisans who design the idols in our homes and in the puja pandals around the country, making Durga Pujo a pride of the Bengalis.

At 8:30 in the morning I reached Sobhabazar with an anticipation of learning more about the traditional ways of the craftsmen who create the clay masterpieces with an awe inspiring diligence each year.

As I walked, stories of my forefathers’ lifetimes echoed in my ears.

The year was 1757 and the defeat of Bengal was followed by the birth of the ancient metropolis of “Calcutta” in whose lap Kumartuli was established when the British East India Company set up separate districts for its workmen.

In the late nineteenth century however, with the invasion of Burrabazar, most of the artisans were flushed out and it was then that they started fashioning idols for the mansions of the rich; thus giving birth to the place with which we are so familiar today.

I was filled with a sense of reverence at Kismet’s magic as I stumbled upon the fact that what had once begun as a bane was transformed a hundred years later into the boon of a thriving artistry.

It was about 9 am and as I stepped foot into the human birthplace of our familiar gods a grip of unfamiliar nostalgia hit me. I realised that I was retracing the footsteps of my ancestors who had once gazed with wonder at the chapped hands that shaped the clay models for centuries.

I was walking through streets that were laid hundreds of years ago. Sure the lanes are covered with tar now but that musky scent of the river clay took me to a time when this city had not seen metro trains or shopping malls; history was beneath my own two feet.

Perhaps I was fortunate, but despite the hectic schedules of those adroit limners with Durga Pujo so near, some found it delightful to have a little chat.

One of them was 69 year old Ram Chandra Pal whose family has been creating idols for eight generations.

“First we tie the hay, then we apply coats of ‘enetel mati’(a type of river clay which is adhesive in nature) to form the basic shapes and after that we plaster using ‘bele mati’ (another type of river clay), that is followed by painting with colours. The process takes a few days depending upon the size of the idol being produced,” explains Pal.

It was amazing to learn that the birth of such majestic shapes is made possible through the use of the humblest of raw materials from the paraphernalia of the artisans of Kumartuli - clay and hay.

Babui Pal, the 21 year old  nephew of Ram Chandra Pal has a mind boggling experience of 10 years which proves the fact that learning this craft takes time and patience and hence an early start is preferred.

However with decreasing profits and increasing prices this ancient trade is now under threat and many prospective talents are alienated by the aggressive challenges that return inadequate remuneration.

It is not all dark and gloomy though; big bucks are still available for those with ability and there is a continued influx of new enthusiastic people who do this because it is what they love.

A good example of the latter would be Prabir Das who entered the profession after his father’s death but claimed that he did so only because he loves making clay sculptures.

“I am the first person in my family ever to have started making idols and I do this only because it is something I love to do,” says Das who hails from Nawadeep.

Das however echoed the laments of several other artisans who have to make do with prevalent poor working conditions every year despite continued promises of improvement.

“The electricity goes out for several minutes at a time causing so many problems and then there are other difficulties too. I don't know what this new government will do for us but I hope they do something fast,” Das remarks.

After hearing Das’s complaints reiterated by many others the initial excitement and wonder was marred by a sense of pathos for those that bring smiles to our faces during the festivals and for whom we do so little in return.

Nevertheless the journey had to go on but I needed a lift of my spirits and when I stepped inside a particular shop (Mohan Banshi Rudra Pal) I got exactly what the doctor ordered.

Just one glance at the old school images of goddess Durga with her captivating eyes and with the demon lord bowing before her prowess, a slew of childhood memories were invoked that still connects me to a Kolkata of bygone years.

It was a trip to the past which can only be compared to an adventure to Alice’s wonderland or Robinson Crusoe’s island; something we visit so often in our fantasies and yet can never tread upon in reality.

Soon the clock struck 10 and I came across an exquisite display of dexterous workmanship. The idol was different from traditional ones in capturing the magnificent image of Durga by portraying her with a background of the sun and its protruding flames.

I was then greeted by Bibhas Banerjee, the creator, who explained to me that it was being made for a theme puja, the new genre of idol making that is becoming increasing popular in the city.

“This profession is not only my source of bread and butter but it is something which I find spiritually rewarding and artistically enriching,” Banerjee says.

Post a few more theme figurine viewings including a stunning white one made of fibre glass, it was 11:30 and though the age old lanes beckoned my vagabond soul, it was time to say my goodbyes.

The journey of the last two and a half hours through the boulevards and streets of the potter quarters of Kolkata had been a journey through the 250 years of its past and with the sights and smells grafted onto my memories I left Kumartuli promising to revisit the place where men make gods come to life.

(Images by Avishek Mitra)
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