In a rickety hut by the Hooghly River, a row of female deities stands oblivious to the searing heat. Missing their hands and feet, and coloured only by a beige coating of clay, these life-size models seem quite ordinary at first glance. Yet, they’re on their way to becoming magnificent Hindu idols, the ornate centrepieces of Kolkata’s many colourful religious ceremonies.
Each year, thousands of these pujas (devotional Hindu rituals) take place across Kolkata and the larger state of West Bengal. Many of them are dedicated to the Hindu goddess Durga, with her idols taking pride of place at temples, homes and on pandals (temporary public structures set up for the duration of a public puja) throughout the city.
Kolkata is still a bastion of India’s artistic and cultural heritage
Most of these statues are created in the same small pottery village in Kolkata, a practice that has been taking place since the town became the capital of British India in 1772. Kolkata once had many such villages, each dedicated to a particular trade. Today, however, the potters’ quarter of Kumortuli is the only one of note that remains; the others have long been demolished as the city swelled in size. This ramshackle neighbourhood, which is home to more than 200 potters, vibrates with artistic endeavour during the day – except in the early afternoon, when its artisans take a much-needed siesta to escape the oppressive Kolkata heat.
It is during this lull that I wander into one of Kumortuli’s sweltering narrow alleys. Walking past studio after studio, I spot men of all ages napping on the ground, appositely at the feet of the idols they’re crafting. Not until I walk past at least 20 dormant studios do I find my first kumor (Bengali for potter).
“I couldn’t sleep,” Tarun Pal tells me via an interpreter. “I have too many ideas in my head and I want to start working on them.” The stocky 54-year-old strokes his moustache with his fingers as he attempts to explain his creative process. He first had such an inspirational daydream at the tender age of 12, when complex concepts and designs for Hindu idols manifested in his mind. He told his parents about these visions, and they encouraged him to turn them into a career. Kumortuli was the logical destination.
Forty two years later, Tarun’s passion hasn’t waned. With obvious pride, he recounts how his idols have not only graced hundreds of ceremonies in West Bengal, but also found homes in far-flung countries like Australia and the United States. The export of idols is a crucial yet unreliable stream of income for the potters of Kumortuli. If they’re fortunate, they might land an overseas order once a year.
But their main source of income involves supplying idols for Kolkata’s three biggest puja festivals, dedicated to three major Hindu goddesses: Saraswati Puja in January or February, Kali Puja in October, and Durga Puja held in September or October. The potters usually plan their work schedules around the massive surges in business that occur in the lead-up to these important ceremonies.
Saraswati is the goddess of learning and arts, while Kali is a destroyer of evil and a figure of divine motherhood. It is the warrior goddess Durga, however, who is most frequently recreated in Kumortuli. The multi-day Durga Puja is the biggest and most important festival in West Bengal, involving citywide decorations, public incantations and long processions. Tarun tells me that many of the potters are already planning for the festival, despite it being more than five months away at the time of my visit.
For many generations, this reliance on the three biggest rituals created hardships for Kumortuli’s artisans. From February to the middle of the year, work slowed down to a trickle. This resulted in many potters turning their backs on this traditional career.
In the past few years, however, fortunes have turned. Today, due to societal changes, the devotional focus in Kolkata has now widened to include deities such as Rama and Ganesha. Puja festivals that had once been relatively minor in Kolkata, such as Ram Navami and Ganesh Chaturthi, are growing in scale.
Indeed, at the next workshop, I find 24-year-old Kishore Pal crafting an idol of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of beginnings. In fact, he already has about a dozen Ganesha statues almost ready for painting. Dressed in raggedy track pants and a torn T-shirt, his arms dusted with clay, the wiry young man leans down from his loft workspace to tell me he has been working here for five years. He now creates idols of deities other than Durga, a diversification that provides a steadier stream of income throughout the year.
The idols, which range in height from two to three metres, can fetch between INR16,000 (USD$250) and INR30,000 (USD$465). These price tags are well-warranted, as considerable work goes into the construction of an idol.
Each deity is usually crafted by a team of between three and five artisans. As a younger craftsman, Kishore’s main role is to prepare the structure of each statue. Using a hammer and nails, he fashions a frame from bamboo before wrapping it with straw. Next, he applies a malleable clay on the contours of the frame. Depending on the complexity of the idol, he may or may not also create its feet, hands and head with clay; sometimes, that task is left to the more experienced artisans. When the whole frame has been layered, it is wiped with a cloth soaked with wet clay to prevent any cracks from occurring once the statue dries out.
Once dried, the painting can begin, a prestigious task that is typically reserved for senior artisans. After an initial coat of white paint, the idol is decorated with an array of vibrant colours. The entire process reaches its artistic apex when it comes to the idol’s eyes. So revered is the act of painting the eyes of a deity that the artisan will often ritually cleanse himself with water – and sometimes meditate – before doing so. The final step sees rope-like hair glued onto the idol, which is then clothed with various shimmering textiles.
This labour-intensive process has barely changed since 80-year-old Nitai Pal began his career in Kumortuli 60 years ago. “These young boys working here are learning most of the same things I did when I was their age,” he says. Sitting shirtless in his workshop, his weathered skin reflects his years, but his enthusiasm is that of a far younger man. “The materials are better now, the workmanship more accurate. But the skills are the same. Tradition is important, and we have kept that going here.”
In this way, Kumortuli could not have had a better home than Kolkata, arguably the most traditional major metropolis in India. In recent decades, cities like Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad have helped India become a significant global player in the information technology industry. While Kolkata may lack their economic dynamism, it is still a bastion of India’s artistic and cultural heritage – as the traditional potters of this small village demonstrate.
This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine.