Kumortuli, Kolkata: Legacy in Clay
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Kumortuli, Kolkata: Legacy in Clay

Words: Marco Ferrarese | Photography: Kit Yeng Chan

I am standing in a cramped, humid, dimly lit workshop. A pungent smell of fresh clay and stale cigarette smoke fills the air. All around me, giant women, with 10 arms, wait in a row, making not a sound. The bare walls are so narrow that the limbs of the statues lock, shining in the gleam of the solitary light bulb that swings overhead like a slow pendulum.

A man in a sarong (a traditional wraparound garment tucked at the waist commonly worn by men and women around Asia) stands before these giant figures. Using a flat wooden tool, he smears clay over their bodies, carefully levelling the raw material into the curves of their hips and stomach, stopping frequently to ponder the best spots where he can continue chasing perfection. It’s the beginning of September, and the man’s face shows visible signs of fatigue, as a result of days spent working around the clock. “The festival is coming up soon, and the orders never stop,” he says. “This is our busiest time of the year”.

Ushnish, a student at Kolkata’s Government College of Art & Craft and apprentice to artist Naba Kumar Pal, hard at work on a modern take of Durga, Kolkata’s favourite deity.

Half a dozen similar grey idols bask in the sun outside the shop next door. Inside, one of the workers has succumbed to fatigue; he’s curled on the floor, surrounded by another group of half-finished statues. They tower above him, tall and immovable, like powerful guardians protecting him as he sleeps.

This is the world of the kumhars, the famed potters of Kumortuli (meaning ‘place of the potters’), Kolkata’s most industrious and intriguing colony of artisans. Kolkata, the capital of India’s northeastern state of West Bengal, is located on the eastern shore of Hooghly River (an approximately 260km distributary of the sacred Ganges river), and Kumortuli is a mere five-minute drive from the Bagbazar neighbourhood in north Kolkata.

The kumhars spend days in their workshops, moulding wet clay into the sacred idols that will adorn the pandal (large temporary supporting structure for deity worship) of the Durga Puja, West Bengal’s most important religious festival.

A broken water pipe offers a refreshing shower as the kumhars get ready for Durga Puja.

ANCIENT TRADITION

Typically celebrated in the last week of September, the five-day Durga Puja (worshipping of Durga, the goddess of supreme power) commemorates the goddess’ victory over the buffalo-demon Mahishasura. During the five days, Bengalis put up a great show of devotion, parading thousands of colourful hand-made clay goddesses through the streets of Kolkata.

Seven days before Durga Puja, on Mahalaya – an auspicious day to welcome Durga from the heavens – thousands throng to the Hooghly river to pray to their ancestors in a ritual called tarpan. The Durga statues are then consecrated in the respective pandals, and prayers continue for five days during the festival. After the celebrations, the clay statues of Durga, her children and the demon Mahishasura are set afloat on the Hooghly, and for days, thousands of idols adorn the water surface, slowly dissolving and falling apart as they drift towards the Bay of Bengal.

EARLY POTTERS

To keep up with the huge demand for Durga figurines, the kumhars ply their ancient trade from the narrow alleys of Kumortuli. The first potters arrived in Kolkata around 300 years ago from the nearby city of Krishnanagar, in West Bengal’s Nadia district. They found their haven in Kumortuli, its riverside location a never-ending source of mud, the raw material the potters use to produce clay. Based on records in the archives of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, it is estimated that the first formal Durga Puja was held around AD1606 in the current Bagbazar area, patronised by zamindar (a caste of Bengali aristocrats) Pran Krishna Halder. In the past, the early kumhars worked from the homes of the zamindars, sculpting the idols in the thakurdalan – an area demarcated for religious festivals.

In 1905, during the partition of Bengal (which resulted in a separate West Bengal state, with East Bengal merging into Assam state), Kumortuli received waves of skilled migrant workers from Dhaka (present day capital city of Bangladesh), Birkampur (situated 20km south of Dhaka) and Faridpur district. And as the zamindar lineage gradually disappeared, the kumhars moved out of their traditional enclaves in Bagbazar, to make a permanent home for their clay statues along the streets of Kumortuli.

In Kumortuli, women artisans are picking up the idol-making trade, a profession traditionally reserved for men.

MOULDING THE CLAY

Crafting Durga Puja idols is labour-intensive. It all starts by mixing soil-like gangamati (the mud that the kumhars collect from the banks of the Hooghly River) with path mati, a mix of jute and gangamati.

Next, the kumhars create the kathamo – a light bamboo structure that serves to support the idol – and bind bundles of straw together to shape the statue’s limbs and torso. Straw makes the idols lighter for easier transportation, and serves as a base to apply the first layers of clay that will become the statue’s skin. The expert artisans mould the wet material with their bare hands, brushes and the chiyari (a sculpting tool made of bamboo). The figurine’s fingers, feet and head are sculpted last, as these parts are made entirely of soft clay, and pressed with models into the desired shape.

Besides the mud that is collected from the banks of the Hooghly, most of the raw materials for idol-making such as straw and wire come from the lively Bagbazar market.

The streets of Kumortuli are alive with myriad trades, and roadside barbers are a common sight.

When the clay sculpture is ready, the kumhars place their freshly-made figurines in the sun to dry for several days. Direct sunlight bakes the clay, softening its colour so that the potters can apply the basic skin tone with ease.

Finally, the details of the facial features are painted on with great care. In particular, Durga’s lotus-shaped eyes are drawn during a ritual known as Chokhhu Daan (meaning ‘gifting of eyes’), which is performed only by the oldest kumhar in the family.

DEVOTED TO DURGA

The weeks preceding the Durga Puja are a great time to visit Kumortuli, when the quarter is filled with giant statues at different stages of completion. The idols stand in front of the workshops, sunbathing in silence. From the higher beams of the buildings that house the workshops, rows of colourful limbs swing in the breeze, waiting to be assembled.

Durga Puja is in full swing as a temple priest conducts prayers accompanied by the chanting of holy verses by a devotee. The pandal is a riot of colours featuring the sacred pantheon of Hindu deities, and Durga astride her vahana (vehicle), the lion, taking centre stage. Image: Getty Images

Once dry, the idols are taken back into the workshops and dressed in beautiful sarees (garment draped around the body, customarily worn by women in South Asia). Durga’s 10 arms are decorated with ornaments and faux jewellery – an ancillary industry carried out by other Kumortuli residents, who specialise in making clothes and accessories for Kolkata’s most beloved goddess. After the final embellishments, the idols are ready to leave Kumortuli’s workshops to be worshipped on Kolkata’s pandals, soaking up the city’s love and devotion.

TRADITION MEETS MODERNITY

Kumortuli has developed into one of Kolkata’s most iconic districts, an authentic celebration of simple street life. I walk through narrow alleys flanked by decadent Gothic-style buildings, where men sit on the pavement playing cards and chatting. On every street corner, rickshawallahs (riders of the rickshaw – a two-wheeled hooded vehicle) rest on top of their wooden mounts, taking a break. Sidewalks turn into impromptu barber shops, and older residents peek out of their windows, observing Kumortuli’s rustic ebb and flow.

For centuries, Kumortuli’s potters have been a male-dominated community of artisans, their craft passed down through the generations. But in recent years, winds of modernity have begun transforming the kumhar colony. I stumble upon a hidden corner where two young men are working on several brightly coloured idols that break away from the traditional images of the Durga idols normally seen in the quarter. Their goddesses look postmodern, standing tall and powerful in their bright orange attire, while the horned demon Mahishasura prostrates at their feet. On the wall next to them, smaller blue-tinged statues of Durga differ in both size and colour from the traditional idols I observe in other workshops.

Kumortuli, like the rest of Kolkata, is one of the few places in the world where pull rickshaws are still in use. This rikshawala takes a break as he waits for his next customer.

“Kumortuli today thrives with artists like us,” says Ushnish, a 22-year-old Kolkata Government Art College student who’s working on the idols. “We are helping Naba Kumar Pal prepare effigies for the annual Durga Puja contest,” he explains. The Kolkata-based artist has learned the basics from the kumhars, and has taught young arts students how to use a good mix of traditional techniques and modern styles to create innovative statues of Durga. “We strive to create the most stunning idols, using different colours, methods and shapes. Our statues parade with many others, and the most striking and beautiful win a contest organised by the Rupchand Mukherjee Lane commitee,” explains Ushnish, before returning to draw a silver arabesque pattern over Durga’s left thigh.

Besides the involvement of a new generation of artists with their modern designs, even Kumortuli’s rigid gender roles are shifting. Women have carved themselves a small yet significant niche in the hitherto male-dominated world of the Pals (the caste to which the kumhars belong). Interestingly, though dedicated to sculpting the image of the Goddess, they had never welcomed females into their profession. But today, four Kumortuli women – China, Mala, Lakshmi and her daughter Soma, all Pals – have taken up the potter trade and made a name for themselves.

China’s father Hemanta and Lakshmi’s husband Haru were never in favour of the women joining the trade. Mala, however, was more fortunate, as her father did not mind his 14-year-old daughter following him to his workshop and learning to mould small clay goddesses. That was how Mala came to take over her father’s business, which specialised in producing miniature Durga statuettes, after his passing in 1985.

As for China, today, she is a successful entrepreneur who supervises her labourers and exports Durga figurines to Europe, Australia, Canada and other places where the Bengali diaspora have spread out. “Ours is a hard business. We have to respect tight delivery deadlines, given that pujas have certain fixed days each year,” explains China Pal, who learned the art from her father only a few weeks before he passed away. Since China’s male siblings had refused to carry on the family’s hereditary craft, it fell to China to keep her father’s legacy alive. Today, business in Kumortuli is thriving, and China and the kumhars supply idols to almost 100 countries worldwide, with new nations joining the list every year, including countries from former East Europe and the Soviet Union. People of Indian origin, including exponents of the Bengali Association of Southern California, Chicago and New Jersey, often travel to Kolkata’s potters’ colony to place orders for idols for their celebration of Durga Puja, and arrange for the statues to be shipped to their overseas location.

Kolkata-based agencies service the Bengali diaspora by acting as intermediaries between foreign buyers and the kumhars. According to the Department of Tourism in West Bengal, approximately one million foreigners visit Kumortuli each year to explore the potters’ quarter. “It’s a great reward for our efforts,” says one potter, while taking a break. He talks quietly,inhaling smoke from his traditional Bengali cigar, looking with pride at the image of Durga that he has just finished covering with fresh clay. “But remember, our job is also very sad. Even as we toil, we are fully aware that once the festival is over and the idols are immersed in the river, all our hard work is destined to return to mud,” he says, with a melancholy look upon his face. Such is the poignant and mesmerising beauty of the kumhars trade – idol-making is after all, the life-blood of the potters’ quarter, contributing year after year to the livelihood of its residents and the prosperity of Kumortuli.

LOCALE SPECIFIC

Kumortuli is flanked by the Hooghly River on one side and Rabindra Sarani road on the other, and wedged between the localities of Ahiritola and Shobhabazar. The nearest train line is at Sovabazar Metro Station. The route to the potters’ quarter from Shobhabazar along the Hooghly River, offers the best views of Kumortuli’s Gothic-style architecture. And visitors can opt to return to Kolkata city centre by boat.

KOLKATA CALENDAR

Besides Durga Puja at the end of September, West Bengal’s capital is the venue for two other colourful, not-to-be-missed festivals.
KALI PUJA In the first week of November, Kolkata worships Kali, the goddess of death, time and doomsday. Her skull-adorned statue appears in thousands of pandals, homes and temples. Kali Puja coincides with Diwali (the Hindu festivals of lights), as it signifies the souls of departed ancestors.
SARASWATI PUJA Widely celebrated in schools, this puja venerates Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, arts and music. Families celebrate this auspicious day with gatherings and feasts that reflect their dietary practices – for instance, the Ghotis of West Bengal are strict vegetarians, and celebrate Saraswati Puja with vegetarian fare.

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