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God Idols

Kumartuli’s artisans put a part of themselves into the idols.

The rows of straw-bound wooden frames standing in the dimly-lit workshop look more ghostly than divine. In less than a month from now, these rudimentary frames will take on the forms of goddess Durga riding a lion-her long spear slaying the demon Mahishashur-accompanied by Lakshmi, Ganesha, Saraswati and Kartik.

As far as the eyes can see in the maze of Kumartuli’s alleys and lanes, the workshops are full of images in various stages of completion. Near the doorway of one such workshop, Niru Pal is busy pounding a mound of clay with his feet. Two days later, his brother Jeetu will apply this clay on the straw-bound frames to create a basic shape. Jeetu has already received orders for eight sets of images.

This is the festive season. Jeetu knows that he will have to hire several assistants if he wants to finish his work on time. With September drawing to a close, Jeetu is understandably worried. Except for the occasional banter, nobody has time to talk. Every workshop in that warren of lanes is busy-wooden frames are being hammered into position, bundles of straw are wrapped over the frames, the clay is kneaded into the right consistency and applied on the frames, trinkets are being made from silver foil, paint is being applied on the figures which are then adorned with jewels, finishing touches are being given to the images-and the artisans are having a trying time.

Between the sixth and the tenth day of the bright fortnight of Ashwin (sometime in September-October), Bengalis celebrate their favourite festival, Durga Puja. In Calcutta alone, more than 1,000 community pujas take place.

Kumartuli, tucked way in north Calcutta, is the site where 80 per cent of the idols for these pujas are made. Some of the master craftsmen get orders from other states as well as abroad. Occasionally, they might be flown abroad to make the images, but these instances are few and far between. Spread over an area of nearly 400 m, Kumartuli is flanked by workshops which double up as studios, a few homes, shops selling clothes and embellishments for decorating the images, and a few tea stalls.

Dark, dingy and dilapidated, Kumartuli is bound to shock the uninitiated. To enter this area just after the monsoon requires some determination as you negotiate puddles, piles of garbage and slushy drains. But these are the same lanes where well-known personalities like Raghu Rai and Henri Cartier Bresson have wandered, camera in hand.

Although this settlement of idol-makers and clay-modellers is almost as old as the city itself, business boomed with the introduction of community pujas (see box), sometime during the early 20th century. It was around the mid-18th century that traditional idol-makers from Nadia settled in the village of Govindapur near the Hooghly river. Later they congregated at the village of Sutanati, also near the river. Since the clay and straw were brought down by boats along the Bhagirathi-Hooghly, it was necessary for them to settle down on the banks of the river.

The mode of transporting the raw material has remained unchanged even today. Later as the villages amalgamated to become Calcutta, the neighbourhood earned the name Kumartuli or the abode of the kumor or potters. After the post-Independence partition of Bengal, many artisans from East Bengal settled down in Kumartuli. While those from West Bengal are identified by their family name Pal, the group from East Bengal is known as Rudrapal. Then there are the Malakars who make ornaments as well as images from shola or pith.

Making idols is an arduous process. Work usually begins in mid-April by propitiating Lord Ganesha. After worshipping the frame, the artisans begin to wrap them with specially cut straw. The pounded etel mati or sticky clay is mixed with rice husk and applied over the straw. This is called ek mete. The image is then left to dry. Cracks appearing on the surface are made smooth with strips of cloth, and once again layered with clay. This is followed by a second application in which do mete, that is, fine-grained clay, also known as beley mati, is applied.

It is the expertise in applying this layer that gives a smooth rounded feeling to the body and the plastic finish of the idols. The face of the idol is separately cast and attached to the frame. 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 is 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.

Clothes, embellishments and ornaments are added. Sometimes, the entire idol is made of clay and the attachments are then fashioned out of the clay itself to create the look of hair and ornaments. Each stage has to be completed by hand and painstakingly executed, with neither the time nor the room for rectification.

Next comes the process of drying. The artisans depend on the weather for drying the clay and paint. This can be very difficult if the rains persist. “Sometimes we have to use blowers and lamps to hasten the process,” says Niru Pal, an artisan. Drawing the eyes of the images, especially for goddess Durga, is a task that requires years of expertise. It is usually done by the master craftsmen. Traditionally women do not take part in the idol-making process. However, they may lend a hand in cutting and making the tinsel decorations.

The tradition of making idols was earlier handed down from one generation to another. The trend is fading because the artisans do not find it paying. “I am the only one in my family still engaged in idol-making,” says Deben Pal. “My brothers have taken up jobs elsewhere. They live in style while I am rotting here.” Deben is determined he will not allow his sons to follow in his footsteps. Deben’s sentiments are echoed by Mintu Pal of Kumartuli Mrtishilp Samity, a fledgling artisans’ guild. “A big budget puja may not necessarily mean that the idol-makers are highly paid. Organisers spend huge sums on the pandal and illumination, but cut costs when it comes to paying the idol-makers,” he explains.

In some cases, an idol-maker may charge Rs 10,000 for an image. But as the festive days draw near and several idols remain unsold, he is forced to sell the images at ridiculously low prices. Prices of idols are not in keeping with escalating costs with the result that traditional craftspersons are opting out of the trade, only to be replaced by ‘roaming’ craftsmen. These people live in the adjoining districts of Kolkata and congregate at Kumartuli between July and October. “We used to put a part of ourselves into the idols as we painstakingly shaped our Ma,” laments octogenarian Nani Pal. “Today, this is looked upon as just another job. So you won’t find the mark of liveliness in the images.”

Indeed that is true. Nani Pal is asked to give a particular look to the goddess; once he had to give Durga the face of a film actress. Usually the artisans try to resist such demands, but when competition is fierce and there are chances of the contract going to a rival, few can afford to stick to tradition. In the ’70s and early ’80s, there was a sudden craze to make idols from shells, coins, matchsticks, fish scales, lentils and whatever else that took the fancy of the organisers. Fortunately, it was only a passing phase. So it’s back to making clay idols once again.

In the beginning, goddess Durga was cast on a single platform along with her family. In the background was a chalchitra, a semicircular board beautifully decorated with mythological tales. Later, the idols were created on separate platforms, but had a common chalchitra. In 1932, master craftsman, Gopeshwar Pal, broke away from tradition. He created the idols not only on separate platforms but also with their own chalcitras. This is how we see the images today.

Although archaeological findings support the concept of the goddess as the Mahishasurmardini (destroyer of Mahishashur), it is not exactly known how she came to be worshipped together with her children. Unlike the rest of India where Navaratri or Dusshera is celebrated as the triumph of good over evil, Bengal observes the festival as the time when goddess Durga (despite her image as the demon-slayer) comes to her father’s home for a vacation.

This concept of worshipping goddess Shakti with her family is unique to Bengal. For the rest of the year, the artisans of Kumartuli earn their livelihood by making lesser deities, along with statues of well-known personalities. There isn’t enough money to go by. All they can do is wait for next year.

Community feeling

After Lord Clive won the Battle of Plassey in 1757, his language teacher, Baboo Nabakrishna Dev, invited him to his house for Durga Puja festivities. Lavish arrangements were made to receive Clive and his men. This set off the trend of inviting Europeans to the puja by prominent families in Kolkata. A far cry from the days when it was a family affair. Towards the end of the 19th century, a group of people got together in the Hooghly district of Bengal and held a community puja. This was called a baro-yari puja or the puja of 12 friends.

Community pujas became popular in Kolkata at the beginning of the 20th century. It was probably freedom fighter Atindra Nath Basu who organised the first community puja in Calcutta in 1926 for the Simla Byayam Samity, a cultural club in north Calcutta. Many dispute this claim.

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