Kumartuli is a traditional potters’ quarter in northern Kolkata, West Bengal. The city is renowned for its sculpting prowess, which not only manufactures clay idols for various festivals but also regularly exports them. The advent of Durga Puja always brings the spotlight back on Kumartuli as it is the main idol making center.
Walking around the potter colonies and watching the men in action is like being drawn into an enigmatic dance between the creator and the created. But it is difficult to say who creates whom? It is like giving birth. Every time a child enters the world a new mom is also born. One cannot help but wonder, does the spirit and power of the Goddess channel itself into the craft of these craftsmen? Or is it is that they create the idols with an intent & craft so pure and pious that the ‘Divine’ feels channeled into their creations.
In positive psychology, a ‘flow’ state, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.
The potters of Kumartuli clearly appear to be in a flow state when they go about their work. This feels even more true considering the limitations of the rudimentary tools and basic setups in which these magnificent idols are created.
Idols for Durga Puja are predominantly made from natural materials like bamboo, straws and clay. The clay is sourced from villages nearby and brought via the river Hooghly in boats.
As per established rituals the soil from the land of sex-workers is used to prepare Durga Idols in Kolkata. The sex workers in this instance represent ‘nishiddho pallis’ (forbidden territories). This age old ritual has multiple interpretations. Some believe that divinity lies in everyone and thus at a sex worker is no different from any of us and by taking soil from her land we are saluting the ‘godliness’ in each of us.
Another belief is that women are systematically marginalized in our society and the female sex worker epitomizes this marginalization. During this festive time by taking soil from her land a symbolic inclusion is activated. The Bollywood film Devdas had a scene that played out this construct.
So how exactly does an idol get created?
Building the Bamboo Frame : Idol making is an exert craft that demands high level of skill and expertise. But it all begins by building a structure from bamboos. This structure forms the skeletal schema of the idol structure. This is specially critical in providing support since Durga idols are mostly big in size and often different idols form a whole unit of display and thus need to be connected together.
Wrapping straw on the bamboo frame : The next step involves creating a basic form of the intended idol with straws. Straw is an agricultural byproduct consisting of the dry stalks of cereal plants after the grain and chaff have been removed. It comes from the yield of cereal crops such as barley, oats, rice, rye and wheat. It is mixed with the clay in giving the final details to the sculptures
Claying the idol : Mud from the banks of the river Ganges called Hooghly in Bengal is mixed with clay and rice husk to prepare a semi solid mixture that is dabbed on to the straw idol. The final form and shape of the idol is molded on this clay.
Fixing the head : The head is often constructed separately and then attached to the idol’s body. Critical attention is paid to the angle of fixing as it influences the direction and manner in which the end output is perceived.
Nuancing the details : It is said that the devil lies in the details. So the potter works on the contouring again and again to get it just right.
Detailing the expressions : Sans expressions humans are just robots. Similarly without expression the Goddess is just a clay idol. Once the core form has been created the potters then work on getting the correct expressions on the idols face.
It is not uncommon to find pandal hoppers spending considerable amounts of time on decoding the expressions on the idol’s face.
Coat of Paint : We have often heard people say colors represent emotions. At Kumartuli one can literally experience a myriad range of emotions watching the idols come alive in color.
The act of putting a coat of paint on the idol almost becomes akin to a collective euphemism for “The future will be brighter and happier than the past and the present.”
As the colors spread, the scent of unbridled joy permeates the air and the dhakis (drummers) begin to play the dhaks (drums) in our collective imagination.
Clothing and decoration : No idol making effort is complete without this final step of designing the clothing, props, accessories that complete the final look of the protimaa (idol). Often the ladies of the house, children, relatives get pulled into these allied activities.
A walk around Kumartuli brings home the message ‘I am in everything and everything is in me’. The potters of Kumartuli cannot be separated from the idols they create and the exquisite idols would not come to being without the hands that shaped them.
It is important to remember that every art or craft needs support and patronage to survive and thrive. Since the days of royal patronage are over and there is only so much that private patronage can achieve, artists and craftsmen increasingly need to find more buyers for their talents to ensure long term survival .
In so much they must go looking for new markets and windows of engagements for their products and services. For the clay magicians of Kumartuli that means thinking beyond the ‘pujo window’.
Recently on World Art Day which also happened to be the Bengali New Year an art carnival branded as ‘Rang Matir Panchali’ was held on April 14-15 in the locality where Durga Puja idols are created.
A creative agency called Creocraft had approached the potter community with the idea of the art based carnival. It envisaged a part of Kumartuli being transformed with colours, art installations, street art etc. The potter community came together under the aegis of Kumartuli Art Forum to prepare for this initiative.
The initiative was sponsored by Asian Paints. It gave the potters a chance to showcase other facets of their talent and craft.
Such initiatives create new forms of engagements with old and new audiences and also open up new economic and creative opportunities for the artists.
Can you think about what more could the clay magicians do to market their offering? Post your suggestions via the comments box.
Editor’s Note : We thank photographer Kunal Banerjee for sharing his photos with Museum Culture Marketing.