Sunday, June 22, 2014

Kumartuli – The Story of a Celestial Studio


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
In Kolkata, Pujas have traversed more than two centuries…. evolved from being a private family function to a Sarbojanin (community affair)… moved from personal courtyards and patios to crossroads and parks… progressed from miniscule budgets to mammoth outlays… but many of the traditions, practices and most importantly, the underlying sensibilities have remained unaltered. About 85% of the Durga images are still sourced from the clay artisan locality better known to us as Kumartuli, which literally translates to Potter’s Ghetto. This one by one square km area belonging to Ward No.9 of Kolkata Municipal Corporation has remained the cynosure of all pre-Puja preparations for time immemorial, having been the home to almost 300-odd workshops run by idol-artiste families who deliver close to about 4000 Durga idols across the globe. No mean feat in terms of sheer statistics. The neighbourhood, in spite of its perceptively congested fa├žade, has managed to endure through times and has given Kolkata some of its best idol artistes. Jiten Pal, Ramesh Pal, Kamini Ranjan Pal, Aloke Sen, Gopeshwar Pal are some of the most celebrated names of Kumartuli who have mesmerised generations with their superlative idol modelling.

Models in the Making.... Potter Studio, Kumartuli
The earliest band of potters came from upcountry Krishnanagar in Nadia district, who would arrive at the respective Zamindar’s mansion in Kolkata and camp there for couple of months before Pujas and create the clay idol at the Thakur Dalan (courtyard) itself. With the passage of time, the ever increasing popularity of Durga Pujas amongst the wealthy aristocratic community compelled these potters to gradually settle down near the banks of Hooghly on the central and northern fringes of the erstwhile Kolikata town. The Bengal Consultations, a 1707 AD journal, gives an account of the presence of ‘kumores’ or kumbhakaars. These artisans occupied 75 acres in Sutanuti. One of the initial mentions of Kumartuli can be traced to HEA Cotton’s “Calcutta: Old & New”. Here it has been documented that the renovated Fort William was positioned near the Hooghly river, almost at the heart of the prosperous Govindapur and the East India Company expended a part of the “restitution money” in rehabilitating the dwellers to settle in other parts of the town. It is also mentioned that John Holwell, a senior Company bureaucrat, under the supervision of the directors designated separate boroughs to the Company’s workmen namely, Aheeritollah (cowherds quarters), Colootollah (oil-sellers), Molunga (place of salt works), Suriparah (place of wine-sellers), and of course, Kumartuli (potters quarters). From here on, the potters got a place for themselves… a place where they could create masterpieces year on year … a place which was to attain cult status in the echelons of Kolkata’s contemporary cultural history.
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
The artisans carve Devi’s fingers with their deft hands while the toes are sculpted on dice and merged with the main body. The framework of the Protima (Idol) is a combination of wicker and wood trussed with hay on which the potters apply a smothering of clay. The final rendition of idol’s look and expression is finalised on the day of Mahalaya when the artiste paints the eye of the Devi. Gone are the days where the only sort of variation for the Durga image was “Ek Chala” pattern where Ma Durga, Goddess Laxmi and Saraswati, Lord Ganesh and Kartick share the same Chalchitro (backdrop). Late nineties onwards, the city experienced the dawn of a new era in image making and Puja presentation… the Theme Pujas. Pujas were staged as thematic displays through structural and conceptual exhibits in terms of not only Mandaps (pavilions) but also the Durga image. The image had to be in sync with the overall subject demonstrated through the theme. Hence, there was a demand for artisans who would not only take responsibility of image making but also for the entire pavilion and concept. Mohan Bnashi Rudra Pal, Pradip Rudra Pal and Sanatan Rudra Pal were some of the early crop of artistes who got into this mode and provided a completely new ideology for the younger artistes to emulate. Not only were the artisans getting a better value for their creativity but also it gave birth to a fresh set of what we know today as “Theme Makers”. “Some time ago, when the trend for theme Pujas gained popularity in Calcutta, I thought we could explore the overseas market better. To make our presence felt especially to the audience beyond Kolkata & West Bengal, we need to use modern technology and market ourselves better. In 2005, we created our own website,” says Prodyut Pal, one of the Kumartuli youths. Prodyut looks after marketing while his uncle and cousins make the idols. “We have eliminated middlemen. Now, the customers contact us directly and we negotiate online. I also keep mailing them pictures of the idols at various stages which they prefer,” he added. From a single online order in 2004, Prodyut’s family has now almost 25 orders from overseas and other states, which clearly indicates that Kumartuli is slowly but surely putting its label imprinted on cyber space.

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.