Where man creates god

Abhisek Sinha
Monday, 11 September 2017

With Durga Puja around the corner, we catch up with idol makers of Kumartuli in North Kolkata, who talk about their passion for the art, change in demand for idols and the challenges involved in the profession

In a few days from now, Bengalis will immerse themselves in Durga Puja festivities. The ‘City of Joy’ will turn into a great carnival with huge pandals, immensely beautiful Durga idols and mesmerising decoration. The grandeur of the festival is unparalleled and the most quintessential part of this occasion is the Durga idol itself. The beauty, magnificence, and aura of the goddess and her children — Ganesha, Kartikeya, Lakshmi and Saraswati — are a constant source of amazement.
As the entire Bengali community and others who will be celebrating the festival gear up to welcome Ma Durga, potters of Kumartuli are busy carving the most alluring and grand idols of the goddess. Nestled in the narrow lanes of North Kolkata, this hamlet has gifted idol makers, who have been painstakingly sculpting idols for about two centuries now and living in anonymity. Many generations have devoted their time to making not just idols of deities but also popular historical figures. The beauty and grandeur of these idols are such that they have garnered attention worldwide.

When we visited the traditional potters’ quarter which has its own fading legacy, we were completely bewitched by the artistic marvel of these humble souls. Seeing their skill you begin to wonder how a mortal human who has access to limited resources create the mighty gods and goddesses? Humongous unfinished idols of Ma Durga, riding a lion, in her full avatar stabbing Mahisasura will give you goosebumps!

You can spot many a lungi or gamcha-clad idol maker, mostly in the senior age group, diligently working to finish their orders — idols in different stages of completion. Assisting them is the younger lot (fewer in number) mostly dressed in shorts and t-shirts.

The idols leave a lasting impression on your mind, they’re nothing less than a visual treat and an object of inspiration for art connoisseurs, but the artists who make them do not receive the appreciation and honour they truly deserve for bringing alive intense emotions through their art. Making idols, defining their features, beautifying and dressing them is a backbreaking job which requires concentration, precision, experience and a lot of patience. However, the remuneration is meagre and insufficient to fulfill all their needs. But that doesn’t stop some of the most dedicated idol makers to continue and keep the art alive.

Fifty-two-year-old Samar Pal has spent four decades of his life in the lanes of Kumartuli making clay idols. Reminiscing about his initial days, he says, “Everyday after school, I made it a point to come here and see how artisans make clay idols. I was fascinated by the art and realised that I too wanted to make idols. After completing education, I decided to get into this profession. Although it paid me less, I found happiness in doing this,” says Samar who started learning making clay idols at the age of 10.

Divulging about changing demands and tastes of people, Samar says that they’re flooded with orders during this time of the year, hence can make good money.  “Clients from distant lands want their idols to be completed well in advance so that they can transport them to their respective places. Things have slightly changed over the years as more and more festivals like Kali, Jagadhatri, Karthikeya, Saraswati, Ganesha festivals are being celebrated. More puja communities are also getting into the scene and we are getting work throughout the year. That said, the remuneration is still less” quips Samar  while giving the finishing touches to one of the clay idols adding that affluent Bengali families prefer ek chala (all five idols on a single structure) whereas puja communities want idols to made based on different themes every year. “However, the demand for traditional idols has increased this year,” he says.

Despite the growing demand, the younger generation is not motivated enough to carry on the idol-making legacy for lack of both recognition and financial support. Samar reveals that both his sons were unwilling to take up idol making because it doesn’t pay much. “My sons have taken up jobs. The new generation is skeptical of getting into this profession. I am afraid if things do not change, this tradition will die,” he cautions.

A 30 something artist Hriday Pal, who hails from Katwa in Burdwan, West Bengal, is among the small tribe of young idol makers in Kumartuli. “My father worked as an idol maker all his life and when he was old I decided to carry forward the tradition. However, to support my family, I do cultivation through the year and only come here during Durga Puja to make idols,” he says adding, “The joy which others feel by seeing my idols motivates me to come here every year!”

Hriday, who echoes the words of Samar about the depleting number of idol makers, points out, “Most of my friends do farming because idol making pays very less and comes with a lot of financial insecurity and uncertainty. I want my children to study and get jobs because as a clay artisan myself I know that the income you get doesn’t equal to the amount of hard work you put in.”

The lanes of Kumartuli is filled with such stories of people who work diligently day in and day out to carve out the best pieces of art.  We can only hope and pray that these artisans see the brighter side of the day and are able to carry forward this art that has captivated our minds with their beauty over centuries.

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