Kolkata’s Kumartuli is a very special place, for it is here where Gods are made By Archisman Dinda
The fragrance of wet clay from the Ganges, the shifting sound of dry straw beneath one’s feet, the criss-cross patterns of bamboo spread out within the narrow confines of ramshackle studios…Step gently, for godbuilding is in the process. The dimly-lit workshops full of idols at various stages of completion set in the labyrinthine alleys and lanes have been home to generations of artisans. Like their forefathers, it is here they bring Gods and Goddesses to life. Welcome to ‘Kumartuli’ in Kolkata.
Kumartuli is more than 300 years old and was featured in The Bengal Consultations, a journal published in 1707 AD. The journal gives an account of the presence of Kumartuli’s artisans who occupied 75 acres of land at the village of Sutanuti, which is a part of present-day north Kolkata. ‘Kumortuli’ derived its name from the Bengali word ‘kumore’, derived from the purer word ‘kumbhakaar’, meaning artisans who work with clay to make pots and vessels. With the passage of time, it has come to be known as ‘Kumartuli’. ‘Tuli’ in Bengali means ‘a small space’. Thus, the name ‘Kumartuli’ actually means the locality of the artisans.
There are many claimants to the treasured history of Kumartuli, but for the average Calcuttan, settled anywhere in the world, Kumartuli is a comforting continuum equally associated with animated adolescence and the whole span of adulthood, claims historian Runa Sen.
“Durga Puja is not just a religious festival of Bengal, but in itself a religion that is celebrated by all sections of the society. The five-day festival means many things at various stages of your life; each comes with its own colour and flavour. I distinctly remember holding my parents’ hand and visiting the various pandals. Later, I used to hang around with friends and admirers, and now as a mother, I take my son pandal hopping. And all this starts and ends with ‘Kumartuli’, thus completing the cycle,” adds a nostalgic Sen.
Ramesh Chandra Pal, one of the most talented artisans of Kumartuli known for his lifelike creations of the goddesses, can’t agree more. “Kumartuli symbolises life, where the frame on which we build the goddess comes back to us after the idol is immersed at the end of the puja, thus symbolising a new beginning where we start to prepare for the next year.”
Today, more than anything, Durga Puja celebrates the cultural and religious harmony that symbolises Bengal. “Though it is a Hindu religious festival, there are Pujas which are organised by Muslims and Christians along with Hindus. There is hardly any religious or social divide. When it comes to the Pujas, the entire state comes together to foster the feeling of festivity,” says sociologist Tarun Goswami.
The Pujas hold a very special place for every Bengali no matter where they live, where they were born. Once in his life, even the most stubbornly westernised Bong will return to relive his roots and experience the Pujas. And there can be no celebrations without the idol.
Cut the romanticism out, Kumartuli is the place that provides employment to thousands of people and is the sole source of their livelihood. For the hundreds of shopkeepers, painters, labourers, suppliers of various raw materials and, of course, artisans, it’s a place for sustenance. “Today, there are around 400 workshops in Kumartuli which provide direct employment to at least 4000 people and indirect employment to another 10,000,” says Mintu Pal, general secretary of the Kumartuli Potters Association.
Though over the years the city has undergone tremendous metamorphosis, nothing much has changed for the artisans of this fabled place. Faced with financial hardship, these artisans barely manage to make both ends meet. The rising price and declining supply of raw materials, frequent power cuts, lack of space, working capital and labour problems are just a few bottlenecks they have to confront. An average studio in Kumartuli is merely a space whose earthen floor is not even paved. The walls are in reality a fencing of two wooden boards held together by a rope or something else. Tin and straw mats are some of the materials used in constructing the roof. Electric lighting is minimal and the artisans squat on the floor to work.
The West Bengal government has promised a ‘modern’ Kumartuli through ‘The Kumartuli Rehabilitation Plan’. Spread across an area of five acres, the complex will house a sophisticated auditorium that will serve as a studio for the artisans and their assistants. Promises have been made about offering housing to the workers and an art gallery where their works can be preserved and showcased. A miniature model of the projected INR 2600 million plan was also constructed. The entire work is expected to take one and a half years to be completed once started. “If fulfilled, it will be a dream come true for the artisans of Kumartuli,” said the general secretary who, however, does not seem too optimistic as work is yet to begin.
“The project got delayed because of some administrative procedures. Earlier, we identified a piece of land further north of the city to rehabilitate the artisans but there were some litigations pending for that ground,” said an official of the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority, the nodal body in charge of implementing the project.
However, the artisans are not only aggrieved with the government for delayed implementation of the rehabilitation project. “There are Durga Puja organisers who spend millions in organising the festival but when it comes to paying for the idols, they behave so miserly,” complains Shibani Pal, one of the few practising women in this male-dominated trade.
“It’s human to look for financial security, especially when you are old. But for artists like us, there is none and every year we are left with lesser money to sustain with,” she adds.
Gouranga Pal, another wellknown sculptor, is unwilling to let his grandsons join him in this trade unlike his three sons. “The future of this trade looks bleak as with every passing year, it is getting more and more difficult to sustain. There is little help either from the government or from the society in general,” said the octogenarian artist.
However, his grandson Gaurav is optimistic and wants to carry on with this trade. “For us, making idols is not only a way of life but the way through which we contribute to the well-being of the society. It’s important that the tradition lives on,” he says, before disappearing into one of the locale’s dark bylanes.