The Clay Magicians of Kumartuli

Kumartuli is a traditional potters’ quarter in northern KolkataWest 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.

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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.

Boats bringing in clay via Hooghly river for idol making
(Video source S. C . Basu)

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.

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Still from the movie Devdas – (Source – Internet)

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.

In the beginning there is only a bamboo structure. This becomes the frame for the idol.

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

Then comes the straw. Long before sustainability became a buzzword the potters of Kumartuli were practicing it.
The creator peers through his early creations. He knows idol making is an exact and demanding craft. But more than a craft it is a game of patience, actually infinite patience.

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.

The potter applies clay to the straw figure. He is hyper focused on the task at hand.
This is a critical phase as the tangible form of the idol is crystallized with the 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.

Now comes the head. Fixing this right is critical as the angle of the final look of the Goddess will depend on this . The potter grips tightly the back of the idol’s head with the left hand and adds the ‘lipai’ paste to fix the head.

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.

A job is not done till it is actually done. Delicate touches slowly shape the figure and nurture it to full form.
It takes a lifetime of struggle being on the rough edges of life to appreciate the fragility of craft involved in molding the idol’s delicate hands.

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.

Finishing touches being applied to the clay figurines. After all it all boils down to the expressions and the finer details.

It is not uncommon to find pandal hoppers spending considerable amounts of time on decoding the expressions on the idol’s face.

And as the details get etched out a feeling of reverence starts to build up. But before this protimaa (idol) can bless us all it must first find a buyer. After all this God(dess) is for sale.

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 first coat of paint with spray gun initiatives the transformative process tanks to the dexterous fingers of the potters and painters.

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 colours spread the festive feeling mounts. The anticipation starts to build up.

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.

The feeling of ‘pujo’ resonates throughout the neighborhood. Hands of Gods and Goddesses get readied to dole out blessings.

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.

Intricate ornaments for the God are being made,
An ornate piece of idol decoration

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.

Creator and the creations

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.

We would like to thank everyone for the overwhelming support which all of you provided to the event Rangmatir Panchali. Kumartuli is the fertile soil which has nurtured some of the most exceptional artistic talent from the soil of Bengal.We would also thank Asian Paints Ltd who wholeheartedly supported this initiative.We look forward to more beautiful interactions in the days ahead.আর একবার সবাই কে আমাদের সবার হয়ে জানাই শুভ নববর্ষ. ভালো থাকুন আনন্দে থাকুন…

Posted by Creocraft Ventures Pvt Ltd on Tuesday, April 16, 2019

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.

1 comment on The Clay Magicians of Kumartuli

  1. Visited kumortuli when this was being set up. Excellent to see so much creativity at work

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