Durga Puja in Kolkata, over the past few decades, has rightfully claimed its eminence as the single largest socio-cultural extravaganza in this part of the globe, where a festival merely does not impact a city’s entire populace but its impressions transcend way beyond city limits, both ethnically and economically. But at the end of the day, for any bystander or a non-Kolkatan, Durga Puja is still perceived as a four day ritual which celebrates the victory of a mythological Goddess over a demon king. That’s pretty much the summary. Yet, what makes it such a magnum opus is primarily a concoction of lengthy preparation, large scale budgets, top-notch art installations and an overwhelming public frenzy cutting across various social & economic strata…. something which makes this a truly community festival.
|A Celestial Green Room... Kumartuli Potuapara|
|Models in the Making.... Potter Studio, Kumartuli|
|Unfinished..... Potter Studio, Kumartuli|
Even though it might seem to be a run-of-the-mill kind of a practice, making of a Durga idol itself entails a lengthy rigmarole of rituals, which the artisans have adhered to over the past couple of centuries. Durga Puja has been proclaimed to be the festival of royals, hence obviously the rituals involved are also grandiose and ornate. The entire process of the Puja is intricately detailed in Devipurana, Matsyapurana, Brihannadikeshwarpurana and Kalikapurana. Idol making is also governed by specific rituals. The fundamental one and also the most commonly followed, is that the constituents that are used to make the idol of goddess come from the holy river Ganga. There is also a bucket list for the types of earth to be procured, the most significant of which includes soil from a prostitute’s door. The reasoning for this is that men leave their good deeds at the doorstep of a sex-worker’s house thereby making the soil outside a store of virtues. This also symbolises the fact that Durga Puja is a carnival for one and all.
|Draped.... Artisan Den, Kumartuli|
|Waiting in Anticipation.... A Peripherals Shop in the Kumartuli Locality|
By the end of Mahalaya, the work of the potters of Kumartuli is almost over for the year. Devi is ready to move to the thousands of mandaps across the city which would be her provisional abode for the subsequent week before she again leaves for immersion, only to be back the following year. The by-lanes of Kumartuli bear a melancholy guise with vacant studios, some unsold idols and eager faces awaiting the advent of the next autumn when they would again get the opportunity of showcasing this masterful artwork. Most members of the Potters’ families have diversified skills in various other mediums such as, fibre glass, wood, metal, plaster of paris, concrete items, etc. They have to toil round the year on all types of handicraft materials as both the domestic and international markets for all these items are consistently flourishing. Sadly though, 80% of these potters do not have any commitments for remainder of the year except from August to November, which is the Durga Puja season. Rest of the year most of them are involved in very low skilled pursuits like rickshaw pullers, agrarian workhands, and other unskilled labour-oriented activities. Today, there is a drop in the worth of pottery for utility purposes. Instead of earthen jugs or containers people have started using metal or plastic due to their durability. However, demand of pottery for decorative purposes is still on the rise, as the intricate designs of Kumartuli artisans continue to be a subject of admiration thereby helping them to sustain economically beyond the Puja season.
|Lingering Confinement.... Kumartuli|
This year the potters have been really hurt hard by the price demon. A sharp rise in prices of raw materials has pegged them back and a mass migration of workers to other, more employee-friendly sectors has left them in shambles. The price of hay, used to stuff the idols, has shot also up from Rs.100 to Rs.180 per bundle. Paint prices have gone up by 20% on an average. Labourers have been leaving Kumartuli in multitudes for the past few years to work in the construction sector, making help extortionately pricey for the artisans. "A spike in Durga Pujas by Bengalis settled in other Indian states and overseas has led to a steep growth in demand for idol-makers," says Babu Pal, General Secretary of Kumartuli Mitishilpi Sanskrito Samity. The increased demand for idols has resulted in higher wages from Rs.250-350 to Rs.500-700 for the labourers. With raw material cost up by 30%, artistes are finding it impossible to control costs. Currently, idol prices vary from Rs.10,000 - Rs.100,000 depending on size and decoration.
|Tagged and Ready to Roll...|
Artisan Workshop, Kumartuli
Kumartuli is situated in Northern part of Kolkata very near to Bagbazar area. For first timers, you can reach Kumartuli by hiring a cab or any public transport and it takes 25 to 30 minutes from Sealdah railway station. Several buses depart from Sealdah and Howrah and also from other places from Kolkata. But my prescription is to take a tour on the heritage tramways which starts from Esplanade terminus and wiggles its way past BBD Bag (Dalhousie Square), Writer's Building, the General Post Office, the Tank Square and the St. Andrews Church. Further it moves northwards and enters the Chitpur Road where it passes through Jorasanko and finally the Kumartuli area. Here you could easily hop off, and explore the numerous artiste studios lined up along the serpentine Banamali Sarkar Street.
|The Long Awaited Journey from Kumartuli to the Temporary Abode at some Kolkata Neighbourhood|
This colony of idol makers has endured a couple of hundred years and has survived numerous hurdles, both social and economic to carve a niche for itself. The artistes have managed to become an integral part of the popular public art exhibitions which Durga Pujas have now developed into. Durga Pujas have metamorphosed and so have the idol making art form. From “Ek Chala” to the currently more extravagant showpieces, Kumartuli has been a witness to everything and yet there is a sense of neglect for these talented craftsmen. But they are determined not to succumb to the diverse set of impediments they have to face each year and that is probably the ultimate advertisement for such a unique community. Kumartuli will continue to entertain in its own arty ways, and carry on the legacy in years to come.