The Earth goddesses

PAYEL THAKUR
Tuesday, 2 October 2018

A glimpse into the studios of the women idol makers of Kumartuli, the iconic potters’ colony in North Kolkata, reveals how they managed to break the glass ceiling and created their own identity in this sphere of art.

It wasn’t the first time that we were walking into those familiar, narrow lanes and humble studios of Kumartuli — the iconic potters’ colony in North Kolkata. The neighbourhood is widely known for the skilled sculptors who carve magnificent Goddess Durga idols. Only this time, the intention was to meet the women idol makers of Kumartuli, who have managed to break the glass ceiling with their creativity, hard work and determination. 

In one of the studios, Mala Pal is seen busy making idols to meet her Durga idols delivery targets. While staying engrossed in her work, she supervises her labourers and even obliges the scores of photographers, journalists and tourists visiting the place. Kumartuli attracts a lot of artists, photographers and foreigners, especially around this time of the year. Between work, she attends to her ailing mother who lives in a dilapidated room behind her studio. As a miniature idol specialist, Mala has travelled to Chicago, Dubai and Germany for her signature style and has also won several state-level  awards for her marvellous craftsmanship.
 
Moving to the next studio, China Pal reminds us that she just wants to be known for her work and not her gender. She has single-handedly managed to break down the gender disparity and has created an audience for her art in Kumartuli. China was just a teenager when her father, Hemanta Pal, a renowned idol maker, passed away. After his death, China took full responsibility of managing her father’s studio. Her father never really wanted his daughter to work in Kumartuli, but in the last few years before his death, an ailing Hemanta, started training her. Who would have thought that she would be the first one to create India’s androgynous idol of Goddess Durga? 

Unlike Mala and China, Kakoli Pal doesn’t own a perfect studio. She sculpts the idols in a narrow lane, which is  dotted with shanties, public toilets and studios belonging to dedicated male craftsmen. “Despite repeated appeals to the authorities, neither have I been offered a rental studio nor have I been given any kind of financial help,” she says. Kakoli went through financial hell when her husband, a Kumartuli artisan himself, died of a brain stroke years ago, but that didn’t stop her from carving idols.  

While Mala has customers across the globe including countries like Chicago, Dubai, Germany, to name a few, China has a large number of customers in bonedi bari (zamindar families) in Bengal as well as clients across the country. Kakoli mostly has her loyal customers based out of Kolkata.  

YOUNGSTERS MUST join
Although Mala began to work with clay at the age of 14, she is clear that her daughter will not carry on her legacy. A doting mother, Mala pays great attention to her daughter’s education. “She is more interested in making clay jewellery for women than making idols,” says Mala adding that she teaches several other young boys and girls idol-making techniques. “That said, they do not hold any desire to pursue it as a full-time profession,” she quips. 

Without a successor (China doesn’t have any kids), China’s studio will not be bustling with activity a few decades from now. “The enthusiasm and passion with which I have created my style of craftsmanship will perhaps be lost,” she laments.  

Kakoli’s elder daughter is married and the younger one doesn’t show any interest in either working with clay or sculpting idols. “With no support from the authorities and a weak business infrastructure, my craftsmanship itself struggles for survival. Without proper channel or support, I might have to look for an alternate source of income in the future,” says Kakoli. For them to carry forward their art, they need more youngsters to join them. 
 
THE current TRENDS
Initially, the women idol makers of Kumartuli had a tough time shattering gender stereotypes and challenging the patriarchal mindset. However, over a period of time people started accepting them. Also, a change in Durga idol design trends, along with more people celebrating Durga Puja outside India, led to a greater demand for idols and gave these women a chance to export their idols abroad.  

“Earlier, people were fascinated with idols made in ek chala (in one frame). Daker saaj (dak means post), wherein the rangta or silver foil was imported by post, were also popular. Now, they have ceased to excite customers. These days, decorations and jewellery are mostly made with clay and then hand painted,” says Mala talking about current trends of Durga idols.  

A lot of Durga Puja celebrations are now being managed by event management groups and interestingly, measures have been taken by the State Government  to preserve the best idols along with pandal decorations. “Every year, Kumartuli witnesses a lot of change with fresh ideas and new themes taking centrestage,” says China. The women have a come a long way and with more support they can travel the road ahead. 

NOT ENOUGH FUNDS
During off-season, Mala concentrates on making clay jewellery. Along with her husband Bhanu, who is a specialist in making ornaments for the idols and fibre-glass models, Mala works hard to keep the art alive. 
 “I have good business during the peak season and the remuneration generated through this is good enough for sustaining me throughout the year,” says China. 

Unfortunately, Kakoli who faces a fierce competition from other idol makers, also has to overcome other business challenges such as poaching of workers and unavailability of bigger projects. “Getting remuneration and survival is just getting tougher year after year,” she says.   

This kind of business needs quite a lot of initial investment. The major part of the capital is obtained from banks and the majority of their income is spent on repaying their loans. “Labourers and suppliers of raw materials also demand instant cash payment, which leaves us with very little cash in hand,” quips China.  

The studios are excessively cramped, making it impossible for two individuals to walk side by side between the rows of idols on both sides of the room. The studios are damp and dark even at daytime. Many of the studios have a small upper floor where junior artists work on smaller idols. 

“We need more space for our studios, and fund support from the government and society to improve the existing infrastructure,” concludes Kakoli.  

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