Kumartuli, the nerve centre of the clay idol-makers of West
Bengal, is home and workshop to more than one hundred and fifty
families of clay model-makers. Criss-crossed by a maze of narrow
gullies men, women, children and images of gods and goddesses, alike,
have to find their way out through these dingy lanes.
Kumartuli the clay model-makers haven, is older than Calcutta, which
grew out of three little villages, viz., Gobindapore, Kalikutta and
Sutanooti way back in 1690. The history of the Kumartuli potter can
be traced back to Krishnanagar in South Bengal. To begin with, near
about the middle of the seventeenth century, potters in search of
better livelihood came from Krishnanagar to Gobindapore, a prosperous
village on the banks of the river Bhagirathi (now the River Hooghly),
to eke out a living by making earthen ware pots, clay toys and
cooking utensils for household use. When the land at Gobindapore was
required by the British East India company for building Fort William,
the inhabitants migrated further up the river to Sutanooti. The
potters moved in to their new destination, colonized a vast area and
named it Kumartuli, the term "Kumar" meaning a potter and
"tuli" a locality. The Bengal Consultations, a
journal of 1707 AD, gives an account of the presence of Kumars who
occupied 75 acres of land in Sutanooti, which is a constituent part
of present day north Calcutta.
Durga Puja festival in autumn was an annual event in the homes of
wealthy aristocrats. Potters came all the way from Krishnanagar,
braving the perils of a river voyage, to mould the images of the gods
and goddesses for the Durga Puja festival. By about the end of the
eighteenth century, as the ways of the rich inspired the commoner,
the annual worship of goddess Durga gained popularity. In 1790, as
recorded in the Friend of India (now The Statesman), a
dozen Brahmins formed the first ever committee to celebrate Durga
Puja in Calcutta. They collected money in the form of a punitive tax
(subscription), had the image of the deity made at Kumartuli and
organized the first ever community Durga Puja festival. As the trend
caught on, making images of gods and goddesses became a lucrative
livelihood for the potter-turned-artisan.
where history ends and legend begins no one is quite sure.
Kumartuli's clay model-makers claim their descent from people who
made images of Durga for Maharaja Krishna Chandra of Krishnanagar.
However, many historians are of the opinion that the ancestors of the
artisans were potters who had drifted in during the days of the Raj
but the power of legend still overwhelms the ordinary visitor.
densely populated, is a hive of activity from June to the end of
January as artisans get busy making scores of images for the annual
autumnal festival. A potters colony ever since its inception and a
model-makers haven now, it is the home of the finest clay-artisans in
Calcutta, during the four days of puja festivity there is a craze to
see Ma Durga or Mother Goddess made by Sri Ramesh Chandra Pal.
Perhaps, he is the most reputed clay model-makers and sculptor at
Kumartuli today. Sri Pal moulds clay to flawless images at his Raja
Nabakrishna Street studio which inspire a sense of devotion. He
sticks to tradition while shaping them where every part of the face
is perfect with a touch of the super-human. And, Bengal's best known
model-maker says, "Durga or the mother goddess is another form
of Shakti (power) who fights evil forces, and we try to depict this
facet in the icons through contemporary events."
eighty per cent of the community puja images in Calcutta are made at
Kumartuli by lesser known artisans, who strive to make something new
and innovative in their sphere of endeavour. However, aloof from the
bandwagon of the traditional clay model-maker are Sri Amarnath Ghosh,
Anshu Malakar and Kamakasha Bala Pal, pith artisans, who carve pith
(shola) images of the goddess for non-resident Indians
celebrating Durga Puja festival in different parts of the world. To
preserve the cultural identity of these Bengalis, light-weight pith
images are packed carefully in wooden crates and flown out from
Kumartuli to Sao Paolo, New Orleans, New York, Montreal Toronto,
London, Nigeria, Lagos, Singapore, Tokyo and even to Australia.
However, no other image-maker has earned as much fame as Ghosh has
and many of his creations are on display in museums abroad.
an image of a deity is a routine affair for an artisan at Kumartuli
and they seldom use tools. To begin with, a skeleton of the figure is
made first with small wooden planks and strips of bamboo. It stands
on a wooden pedestal. The deity is roughly shaped with straw and tied
with jute strands. It is one of the most significant steps in the art
of clay model-making, as the final shape of the image depends on how
well the straw dummy is conceived. A thick coating of blackish clay,
mixed with rice husk is applied over the dummy. It is left to dry for
a couple of days in the sun. A compound of sand-clay and jute fibre
is smeared over the first coating and the surface is smoothed with a
piece of wet cloth.
delicate modelling procedure is taken up as soon as the figures have
dried up completely. The head and fingers, both made with cement
dices, originally developed in terra-cotta moulds, are fixed to the
neck and hands respectively with clay paste. The joints of limbs are
wrapped in pieces of cloth previously soaked in clay solution. The
figure is white-washed two or three times over with chalk solution.
When they have dried the traditional base colour -- red, white,
yellow, pink, blue and black, according to preference -- is painted
all over the body. The eyes, brows and the lip give the expression on
the face. The dress is gorgeous. So is the jewellery. Images of Durga
are embellished more often with shimmering gold foil and silver
of them shape the icons in the traditional mould, clinging
desperately to time-honoured traditions in an age of modernity. By
and large the gods and goddess have features ingrained in the popular
imagination through myth, legend and literature. Thus, they are made
in two distinct styles, either in the Bangla or Do-Bhashi mould.
contours of the Bangla mould or visage is triangular, with a square
chin, the hooked nose of a parrot and bamboo-leaf eyes and brows that
extend impossibly from the bridge of the nose to the hairline. The
Do-Bhasi mould, on the other hand is much softer. The complexion,
too, is idealized like molten gold, more often yellow as the sun at
crack of dawn. The model-makers have a common theme. They depict the
battle between Durga and Mahisasura as dictated in the Puranas
best known legend behind Durga Puja festival comes from an ancient
story called he Markendya Purana and is about an asura (demon) called
Rambha who prayed to have a son from Shiva. His prayers were
fulfilled and a son (the buffalo) was born, who had the power to
conquer all three worlds: heaven, earth and hell. He came to be known
as Mahisasura who played havoc among the gods.
the blessings of Brahma, Mahisasura let loose a reign of terror. The
Gods fled to Brahma for help. Having invested all his powers to the
demon, Brahma was unable to help them, so he took them to Vishnu who,
on hearing their plight, told them to pray together with their wives.
The energy, he said, that would emanate from their prayers would
create a supreme goddess who shall be able to wage a war against the
entire demon army.
Gods prayed in unison and from their energy was born Devi Durga. They
dressed her up in battle regalia; equipped her hands with ten
different weapons; and sent her to fight astride a lion. Goddess
Durga fought a valiant battle against the entire demon army and
slayed Mahisasura. Her undaunted courage, martial skill and immense
powers ensured her final victory.
episode is given in detail in the Devi Mahatmya section of the
Markendya Purana and the clay model-makers portray the scene of this
conflict in their Mahisasuramardini sculptures. Thus, what we see in
a puja pandal, the temporary abode of the gods and goddess, is an
icon with three eyes and ten arms, subduing the demon who emerges out
of the trunk of a decapitated buffalo, her right foot on the back of
a lion and left pressing the demons shoulder. She is shown along with
her family members, Ganesha, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Kartekeya and at
times also Siva, her consort. Also to be seen is a trunk of a fresh
banana tree with leaves invariable placed by the side of the group of
icons at the time of worship, the whole theme signifying "victory
and prosperity of the devotee and fertility and rejuvenation of the
is a frenzy, of last minute activity, at Kumartuli just about twenty
days before the drums (dhaks) rend the air and the festival
begins. For four days in succession viz., Maha Saptami, Maha Stami,
Maha Navami and Vijaya Dasami the city of Calcutta has dazzling
displays of coloured lights, ostentatiously decorated pandals,
extravagant shows of icons and milling crowds.
is there in the Bengali ethos that brings such an economic bonanza,
enlightenment and faith in the City of Calcutta every autumn? To
understand this you have to be here much before the pujas begin;
witness the artisan at work in Kumartuli and then experience the
spirit of the puja about a fortnight before the drums fade away and
the images immersed in the muddy waters of the river Hooghly, melt
into oblivion. And, what will the Kumartuli model-maker say at the
end of all this. We work round the clock to create exquisite
works of art. But it sometimes hurts when we see our own creations
being destroyed. Our year-long efforts are sunk without a trace.