Kolkata has many facets. Trapped within the cliche of an iconic bridge, trams, hand-pulled rickshaws and colonial buildings, it is hard to imagine a slumberous city coming back to life on a five day event of grand celebration. North Kolkata, where the city originated, continues to be a living museum of the olden times, but the metropolis, on the whole, is no longer what you have seen featured in black-and-white Bengali movies.
I have written an extensive photo essay on Durga Puja, and how and why it makes such a very distinctive memory for me. But to get an opportunity to visit the locality that makes the exquisite idols was a fortune that cannot be negated; It is a dream come true for a traveler, a photographer, a story-teller, an artist, and just simply any individual who loves to see something new.
Kumartuli is derived from the the word ‘Coomar-toli’ which literally means the locality of the potters. Why is it called so? Well there is a bit of an history as well lore behind it.
The first kumbhar was brought over to the region from Krisnanagar (Nadia district in Bengal) by Raja Nabakrisna Deb to build a Durga idol to commemorate the worship of the deity in honour of the victory of the British at the Battle of Plassey against the Muslim power of Siraj-ud-Daullah in 1757. Eventually, inspired by the example, several other rich families of the region started giving similar orders to the kumbhar to build clay idols for their respective families. As gradually the demand started increasing, the kumbhar found it a daunting task to travel to and from Krisnanagar to build the idols and requested for a place of residence along with other artisans to ease the process of idol making. Thus, as the wishes of the kumbhars were granted, Kumartuli came into existence as a centre for clay art in Kolkata. Behind the patronage of the kumbhars of Kumartuli, stands the financial help of several erstwhile wealthy families of 18th century.
As various oral traditions encapsulate the history of development of the region of Kumartuli, several others also capture the development and significance of the worship of Devi Durga in the region to the political turmoil of the region, along with a focus on the zamindar lifestyle that was prominent in West Bengal.
Despite being a 300 year old settlement founded by the potters for the potters, Kumartuli has evolved in its size and repute. Flanked deceptively with cavernous workshops, these narrow lanes can be described at best as the nerve centre of sheer ingenuity and creativity.
Most of these workshops are actually family owned and have been in part of a family heirloom. With over 450 workshops located around Banamali Sarkar Street, Kumartuli is known to create close to 4,000 sets of Durga idols every year, some of which are shipped abroad. The idols are always pre-ordered and never sold off-the-shelf. Of course, when it comes to making idols, Durga is not all we Bengalis worship.
Meandering through the street packed with large idols of various deities in various stages of completion, I came across artisans squatting on the street, kneading the clay or working on smaller idols or focusing on the details that goes into each model.
A typical Kumartuli idol, as I was informed, has the distinction of being environmental friendly since they are created using bamboo, hay and clay as a raw ingredient – the bamboo serves as the skeleton and hay the flesh. Once the structure is ready, it gets a skin of entel maati, a sticky variety of clay procured from the riverbed of Hooghly, also known as ‘ganga-mati’ or the soil of the river Ganges. Once it dries up, the finishing touches are given with bele maati, a finer variety of clay which also comes from the river. This soil also has another important aspect. It is mixed with a handful of soil from the doorstep of a prostitute with her blessing also known as vaishya-mati. Most people I spoke to abided by the tradition and mentioned it as being a ritual to include all members of the society in the puja or even purging of their (prostitute’s) sins. It is an integral part in the creation of the Durga idols and no idol is created without this soil. Some of the artisans however contradicted this by stating that only the idols belonging to big and renowned pandals are made using the punya matti. To read more about punya or vaishya matti, you have to trace few steps back to my earlier post.
Once the sculpture has been covered in the second layer of clay, it is then left to dry till it develops a slight crack. Then it is covered with a thin cloth and a final round of sculpting take place, before it is painted. The paint is usually mixed with the flour of tamarind seeds, which lends a gummy texture, ensuring a better hold of the sculpture. It is then decorated with various pieces of fine cloth and accessories. There are various styles of decorating a Durga idol, and most of it is based on what a customer wants. Some of the well known decoration types are: Bangla, Art Bangla, and Dhakershaaj – where idols are decorated with fine white Shola or Indian cork made from the Sholapith plants found in marshy areas. A large number of sculptures are adorned with real clothes, while some have clothes sculpted on them and then painted.
The entire composition clearly differentiates it from the idols of Lord Ganesh that are seen during the Ganesh Chaturthi festival in Mumbai, which are predominantly made out of Plaster of Paris.
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