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Kumartuli-A Clay Model-Maker's Haven

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.

The 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.

Just 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.

Kumartuli, 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 India.

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."

Nearly 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.

Making 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.

The 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 filigree ornaments.

Most 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.

The 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 (ancient texts).

The 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.

With 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.

The 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.

This 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 earth".

There 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.

What 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”.

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