The fragrance of wet clay from the Ganges, shreds of dry straw beneath one’s feet, the criss-cross patterns of bamboo spread out within the narrow confines of ramshackle workshops — the dimly lit spaces full of idols in various stages of completion blend seamlessly with the labyrinth of alleys and lanes to make up the homes of the artisans who mould the goddess, Durga, from clay.
Welcome to Kumartuli, best described as the cradle of Indian idols. “The Bengal Consultations”, a journal published in 1707, gives an account of the lives of Kumartuli’s traditional artisans who occupied 30 hectares of land in Sutanuti, today part of north Kolkata, West Bengal. The place derives its name from the Bengali words “kumor” or “kumbhakaar”, which means “clay artisan”, and “tuli”, which means a small space where potters stay.
There are many claims to Kumartuli’s treasured history, but for an average Bengali, settled anywhere in the world, it is a comforting continuum equally associated with animated adolescence, and the whole span of adulthood, claims historian Runa Sen.
“Durga Puja is not just a religious festival in Bengal, it is a religion in itself, celebrated by all sections of society. The five-day festival can mean various things at various stages of people’s lives — each comes with its own colours and flavours. I remember holding my parents’ hand as a child and visiting the pandals during the festival, and later, when I was older, hanging out with friends during the Pujas. Now, as a mother, I take my son pandal-hopping. And all this starts and ends with Kumartuli,” Sen says nostalgically.
Ramesh Chandra Pal, one of the most talented artisans in Kumartuli, known for his life-like creations of the deity, could not agree more. “Kumartuli symbolises life. The frame on which we build the deity comes back to us after the idol has been immersed in the Ganges at the end the pujas, thus symbolising a new beginning, when we start preparing for the next year’s pujas.”
Today, more than anything, Durga Puja celebrates the cultural and religious harmony that defines Bengal. “Though it is a Hindu festival, there are pujas that are organised by Muslims and Christians as well. There is hardly any religious or social divide when it comes to the pujas — the entire state shares in the joys of the festival,” says Tarun Goswami, a sociologist.
Every Bengali has a puja tale to tell. Even for those Bengalis born outside India, Durga Puja is a familiar term, kept alive in household memories and conversations — and most of them have visited Kolkata during the festival at least once in their lifetime to connect with their roots. “I was born and brought up in the United States. Though I had never visited West Bengal, or India, I had always heard stories about the pujas from my parents. Now they are no more — but I felt it was important for me to come and see for myself why it meant so much to them. Now, at 53, I understand how much of my country of origin I had missed. All my life I considered myself to be a proud American, but today I am a proud Bengali, and I wish I had visited Kolkata earlier,” said Shalina Bose, a diasporic Bengali.
Beneath the romanticism, however, Kumartuli is a place that provides employment to thousands of people, whose sole source of livelihood is moulding images of the deities. For the hundreds of shopkeepers, painters, labourers, raw material suppliers and, of course, artisans, it’s a place of sustenance. “Today there are about 400 workshops in Kumartuli, which provide direct employment to at least 4,000 people and indirect employment to another 10,000,” said Mintu Pal, general-secretary of the Kumartuli Potters’ Association.
Though over the years the city has undergone incredible metamorphosis, nothing much has changed for the artisans of this fabled place. Faced with financial hardship, these artisans barely manage to make ends meet. Rising prices, declining supply of raw materials, frequent power cuts, labour problems, and lack of space and working capital plague their lives. The average workshop in Kumartuli is merely a space with an earthen floor, whose walls are no more than a fencing of two wooden boards held together with rope, and a roof made of tin and matting. Electric lighting is minimal and the artisans squat on the floor to work.
The West Bengal government has promised a “modern” Kumartuli through the Kumartuli Rehabilitation Plan. Spread over 2 hectares, the complex is expected to house a sophisticated auditorium that will serve as a studio for the artisans and their assistants. There have also been promises of accommodation for the workers and an art gallery where their work will be preserved and showcased.
A miniature model of the Rs2,600-million (Dh173-million) plan has also been created, and the project is expected to be completed in one and a half years’ time.
“If realised, this project will be a dream come true for everyone associated with Kumartuli,” Pal said. He, however, seemed sceptical, as work on the project is yet to begin. “The project got delayed because of administrative issues,” said an official of The Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority, the nodal body in charge of implementing the project. “We had earlier identified a piece of land further north of the city to rehabilitate the artisans, but there were some litigations pending for that ground.”
The artisans are aggrieved at the delay in implementation of the rehabilitation project. “There are Durga Puja organisers who spend millions of rupees in organising the festivities, but when it comes to paying for the idols, they are tight-fisted,” complains Shibani Pal, one of the few practising women in this male-dominated trade. “It’s normal to look for financial security, especially in old age. But for artists such as us, there is none, and every year we find we are left with less money to sustain ourselves.”
Gouranga Pal, another well-known sculptor, has three sons in the profession, but is unwilling to let his grandsons join the trade. “The future of this trade looks bleak, as with every passing year it is getting more and more difficult to manage in the money we make. There is little help from either the government or the society at large,” the octogenarian said. However, his grandson Gaurav is optimistic and believes he can carry on the tradition. “For us making idols is not only a way of life, but a way through which we contribute to the wellbeing of the society we live in. It’s important that the tradition lives on.”
Archisman Dinda is a journalist based in Kolkata.